“I always look at the glass as half full. I ask, ‘What can I learn from this?’ So that I either do it better or I avoid it next time.” Sue Swenson, former CEO, Cellular One
Successful people expect mistakes and use them as teachers for future endeavors. You can do this as well. Try looking at your own mistake as if it happened to someone else and you were just an observer. What advice would you give that person? Would you be more tolerant of their mistake than you are of yourself? Removing yourself from the emotions tied up with the mistake gives you the freedom to look at it more objectively and positively.
When you approach mistakes positively it goes a long way toward taking the sting out of them. So how do you do that? Try to look at mistakes objectively after the fact to discover that you can learn from them. Try asking the following questions:
It is useful to put mistakes into perspective. Ask the following for greater understanding:
Asking yourself such questions are very important, however it is even more important to make a list of the things you do well. Keep them in mind so you can keep mistakes in perspective and not lose sight of all you do well. You know you are trying when you make mistakes. And they become valuable when you learn from them. They become useful teachers.
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“If you take complaints this way [as gifts], they are like little gems to make your business better.” Sue Swenson, former president and CEO of Cellular One
As Sue Swenson sees it, mistakes can take many forms and reach different levels and still be valuable to individuals and to the corporation as a whole. She views customer complaints, for example, not as a problem but as quite the opposite. “We get customer complaints, like all companies do. You can have two attitudes toward them. You can say, ‘What an annoyance this is. Don’t these customers know that we’re doing this for them? Don’t they understand our process and procedures?’ Or you can say, ‘This is really a gift.’ If you take complaints this way, they are like little gems to make your business better. It’s almost like free consulting. These so-called mistakes can help you see the frailties in your process and your procedures.”
Sue says the same applies to any work situation that is not going the way you want it to. “The trick is not to get so completely worked up about it that you avoid it. It’s like when you’re a kid learning to dive and you hit your head on the diving board. You’ve got to get up and do it again, but hopefully next time you’ll do it better based on what you learned.”
Sue’s communicative and team-oriented management approach is important in creating an environment where people can move on after a mistake. “To the degree that people are encouraged, not discouraged, from trying to do something again, the environment is crucial. You want people to learn and to integrate that attitude into their thinking. They need to be encouraged by those around them, unless they are just so self-motivated that they’ll try it on their own. Whether by their supervisors or their peers, people need to be encouraged to grow. Otherwise you will have people pulling inward and not trying to do things. That completely squelches creativity.”
Sue believes that her role is to try to help others based on her and her group’s experience so that they avoid having to go through the same problems. When you learn from your mistakes, you’re much better equipped to reach the goals you’ve set for yourself.
We all have learned from mistakes; that’s how we grew. If you had been unwilling to make mistakes, you would never have learned to walk, to ride a bicycle, to cook, to use a computer, to create a sales strategy, to start an initiative, or to hire a new employee. The biggest mistake is not to risk making them and learning from them.
The keys to learning from mistakes are:
Successful people understand that the goal of life is not to avoid mistakes but to use them to their advantage, to let them teach valuable lessons. The biggest mistake, in fact, is to arrange your life so that you try to avoid errors and problems. If you do that, you may never master the skills and experience you need to find the success you want. As successful people know, it’s not the mistakes that create problems, but the way people respond to them. Mistakes can be either teachers or destroyers; it all depends on your attitude.
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“Part of learning from your mistakes is being able to change, being able to analyze your strengths and weaknesses and the lessons from a mistake. That means making the change in yourself or in the situation.” Deborah Stebbins, former CEO Seton Medical Center.
Debi Stebbins says that accepting change is an important part of success—that and learning from your mistakes. She says, “Managers or leaders must not only embrace change but be the standard-bearers for change.”
Sue Swenson, former president and CEO of Cellular One, isn’t afraid to make mistakes, especially if she did them based on her own values and was being true to herself. She believed that in the long run, you make a bigger mistake trying to follow the norm if it runs counter to what you value.
Sue started her career at Pacific Bell’s Telesis organization in the management development program, working in the business, operations, and marketing departments of several California locations. The management style she developed creates and atmosphere where teamwork and communication are important values for everyone.
But Sue didn’t always know what would work best when it came to hiring, motivating, and managing employees. In some ways the toughest situations have taught her the most. Of one of her early jobs in particular she says, “I learned a lot about myself in that job: what I was made of and how much I believed in what I was doing. It was a real test, because my style and my approach were so different from the environment in which I worked. It was a real opportunity for me to stick with it to determine whether what I was doing really had an impact. It was a great time for me, because I learned that what I did made a difference.”
Sue always seemed to connect with the people in the organization a bit more personally than many other managers did. As she put her values into practice, she learned that she could make decisions independently and produce the results the corporation wanted. Being a little bit different was, of course, a risk, but Sue says, “I don’t want to look back and say, ‘I wonder what if.’ I don’t want to think, ‘Something could have been different if I had just stuck to my guns and my beliefs.’ You have to look at yourself in the mirror every morning. You have to be true to yourself and true to the people who work with you.”
Being true to yourself creates success in part because alleviates a lot of stress. Trying to be something you’re not, or trying to play a role that doesn’t suit you, or trying to please others by putting your own values on hold causes a great deal of stress. Yes, it is a risk to stick to you guns, but like Sue Swenson, it is your choice to do so. If you believe in what you’re doing, it’s worth the risk. If it doesn’t work out as you expected, you will have learned something and you will need to make the changes that are necessary.
Remember what Debi Stebbins says, “Part of learning from your mistakes is being able to change, being able to analyze your strengths and weaknesses and the lessons from a mistake. That means making the change in yourself or in the situation.”
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“I learned that it’s very important to your success as a woman and as a manager to surround yourself with the best people you can find.” Deborah Stebbins, former CEO Seton Medical Center
It makes sense to hire the best and surround yourself with bright, energetic people, however some managers don’t. Sometimes it’s not because they are afraid someone else may outshine them, rather it is because they override doubts about the person they choose to hire. That said, keep in mind that good mentoring can make all the difference in the quality and success of your organization.
Successful people have found out the hard way that caution in hiring and attention to gut feelings can make all the difference. Debi Stebbins says, “One mistake I made was hiring a senior management person I had some doubts about. In this case I picked up on a lot of strengths, which this person did demonstrate, but also some liabilities. I made the trade-off because I hoped that I could turn the liabilities around. In fact, I couldn’t, and ultimately had to terminate the person. Sometimes we wait too long to try and rehabilitate people.” Debi finds that keeping someone who isn’t working out well hinders the entire staff, but the issues go beyond that.
Debi adds, “From that experience I learned that it’s very important to your success as a woman and as a manager to surround yourself with the best people you can find. Some people don’t want to hire anybody who might be nipping at their heels, but in fact you want somebody who can step into your slot and keep the place running if you aren’t there tomorrow. You only do that by hiring the best you can find. Then you have to allow them to make mistakes, and you need to act as a mentor.”
Mentors have played an important part in Debi’s career, especially in helping her learn how to avoid potential mistakes. She lists the best information she learned from a particularly good mentor as the following:
Debi says, “That advice has been helpful to me, especially in dealing with physicians who are acting as independent practitioners. You don’t have any official control over them, but they control 90 percent of the organization’s expenses by the way they manage the treatment of patients. So my working relationship with physicians is very important to me. The advice from that mentor has really served me well, though it’s harder to do at some times than at others.”
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