Admitting Imperfections Can Be So… Perfect

It happened again.

We spent two weeks putting everything we had into preparing a pitch for organizational consulting work to a potentially huge client, and—once again—were shot down. This wasn’t unheard of. Any career in consulting is going to be rife with rejection. But it always stings a little bit when you see 150 hours of your work poured down the drain. This time, however, we didn’t pour it down the drain. This time was different.

I’d never worked with this Partner before—we’ll call him John. He spent most of his time on growth strategy. This was his first foray into pitching organizational strategy work. Based on how he handled it, you’d think he’d have been working in the org space his entire career.

The first thing he did after the rejection was call a team meeting. Already this was different. Normally we’d get a voicemail about “how great the meeting went,” but noting that “unfortunately the client just wasn’t ready for our caliber of work, so he went with a lower-cost consultant… a decision they are sure to regret down the road and come back to us.” That was the standard excuse—it’s not us, it’s them. Stupid clients, dishonest competitors, unlucky circumstance. Always an excuse.

This time, John called us in and delivered a slap in the face: “Well, we lost. We didn’t measure up, but we should have.”

“What?” I thought. “Is John some sort of ball buster that’s going to yell and scream at us? Is he looking for someone to blame? What an a$$!” Yet, as I slowly crept backward, thanking God I was short enough to easily blend in, my anxiety and paranoia gave way to shock.

John continued: “I didn’t emphasize Points A & B enough, and I didn’t anticipate he’d want to know about Point C. I should have done X, Y, and Z. I didn’t because of Reason X, but in retrospect I think Reason X didn’t apply here. Next time, I’ll do that differently.”

John delivered his self-assessment publicly and without shame. He was disappointed in the result, and he didn’t pretend it was simply because the potential clients were too stupid to appreciate our value. He acknowledged that he, as the point-man, made some mistakes that led to negative results. Why? Because John genuinely wanted to learn from this bad outcome to make himself, and the team, better. And he wanted to do his part to reinforce an important leadership trait the company aspired to embody—one that Amy Edmonson (see Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy) describes as Psychological Safety: the shared belief that team members are safe to take risks and admit mistakes.

I asked John later that night why he did this. After all, “Aren’t you worried people will see you as incompetent if you’re advertising your mistakes in public like that?” His answer changed the way I think about leadership: “No one actually thinks I’m perfect. If I believed that, I’m only kidding myself, and I’m depriving myself and the team of a valuable learning opportunity.”

John’s priority was to learn and improve, not to brush any learning opportunity under the rug in favor of some false notion that he was perfect in everyone else’s eyes. He also wanted others around him to learn and improve, so he did his assessments publicly, asking for others to follow his lead by discussing what they thought he, or they, could have done differently. Five minutes before John started talking, I would have done everything I could to bury my mistakes under a heaping pile of bullshit. Just five minutes later, I found myself publicly, and voluntarily, acknowledging that I could have done this, that, and the other thing differently. And you know what? The next time around, I did this, that, and the other thing differently.

Every company, and indeed every team, I’ve come across will tell you it values honestly and continuous learning, two byproducts of creating Psychological Safety on your teams. But few of them put it into practice, and reap the immense benefits of honest reflection, discussion, feedback, and improvement. Why? Because this is so easy to talk about and so difficult to do!

Standing in front of a group of people, admitting your mistakes and asking for theirs—that’s hard! It requires a leader with confidence, humility, and authenticity. It requires a leader who is willing to go first, paving the way for others. It requires a leader who can admit to mistakes without shame, so the team doesn’t feel obligated to take care of him. It requires a leader who is willing to then turn to his teams and ask them to acknowledge their own learnings. It requires a leader who can be supportive of his people while still demanding they admit to, and learn from, mistakes. And it requires a team who can follow the lead of its leader.

This experience stuck with me for a decade, not because John’s misuse of Reason X was such a good lesson. I don’t give a $h!t about Reason X. I give a $h!t about how close I felt to John and the team in his moment of vulnerability. I give a$h!t about how safe I felt to admit mistakes and capture learnings in the future. I give a$h!t about how much I’ve learned from this experience. That’s worth far more to me than winning that project.

FOT Background Check

Ben Olds
Ben works in HR/OD at Merrimack Pharmaceuticals, a Cambridge company dedicated to the simple goal of trying to cure cancer… no big deal! Ben’s on his second career, having spent his first in business/strategy consulting, mostly with Bain & Co and Monitor Group, which basically just means he relies on MS Excel to solve virtually any problem he faces. If he’s not coaching or working with colleagues on their approach to leadership, he’s helping teams create effective dynamics or planning a recognition program to motivate employees. And sometimes, he’s chasing his wife around the ice hockey rink in his weekly pick-up game, or playing tennis, squash, skiing, hiking, mountain biking, or anything else to expend his nervous energy!

3 Comments

  1. This is a GREAT post Ben and it resonates with me very much – recently my organization held a meeting to discuss shortcomings from 2014 and the initial vision was that we have a session very similar to what you described here. It morphed into a contrived role play that wasn’t very authentic, and people just didn’t buy into it. I think part of the reason it morphed was because the people who led the session got cold feet that, if they were to offer specific, personal instances of shortcomings, the rest of the attendees in this meeting would think less of them.

    I really appreciate the authenticity described in your post here, and the impact it obviously had on you.

    Out of curiosity, did the lessons learned during this de-brief session with John result in changing/improving the way you were able to go after contracts in the future?

  2. Ben Olds says:

    Sorry for the delay, Brian. Yes, they sure did. I learned more from this experience than most of our successes as a team!

  3. David Constantine says:

    Ben, this is a spectacular post. Without question one of the hardest swifts to inspire in some if my team members, I’ve worked on this with my team for the past year and a half. Some embrace it, but at least one is simply too fearful which means I need to do something better. I need to shock that person with safety maybe. Not sure, but I think our team is at its best when we are honest, vulnerable and therefore evolve well. Thank you for this post Ben!

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