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The Bad, the Ugly and the Opportunity

I have watched and read all of the great posts outlining the progress that we have made and ought to make around gender equity. It is important to get to a time when there will be no difference, real or perceived, in the opportunities available to both women and men. In Canada, we are not close to being there.

I am normally pretty optimistic about progress. We (society, business, etc.) usually evolve in a way that creates more hope, more optimism and better outcomes for all of us. The changes are never as quick as some would want but generally speaking, we progress in meaningful ways.

Community Social Responsibility (“CSR”) has evolved to a broader topic around Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (“DEI”) and/or Environmental, Social, Governance (“ESG”). I would suggest that this continuation has extended new, promising thinking and, therefore, expectations for businesses, governments and societies.

While the aspiration in these discussions helps motivate us, the raw data particularly as it pertains to gender equity in business is not very promising at all. In fact, a few recent data points stand out for me as troubling:

  1. A recent Globe & Mail article recently detailed how the pandemic is being disproportionately felt by women in the economy. Since the pandemic began, much has been written about the much larger economic impact being felt by women. We know they are paid less on average and they have typically have more career interruptions to either raise children or act as care givers. Those interruptions have increased dramatically through COVID-19. We also know that women today are more likely to work in jobs affected by lock downs. If we know that women retire with, on average, 30% less in pensions and RRSP’s than their male counterparts, and we also know that the pain of the global pandemic is not being felt equally then we know we are losing ground.
  1. Another Globe & Mail article from February of this year detailed how a very prominent business law firm in Toronto had male equity partners earning 25% more than female equity partners. The review of this particular law firm also highlighted how “over 80 per cent of men got a bonus, while only 44 per cent of women did.”
  1. A World Economic Forum Global Gender Report from 2020, shows similarly troubling data. Canada ranks only 19th in the world on overall gender equity and below such countries as Rwanda, Latvia and Namibia. Even more disturbing is that we are losing ground to the rest of the world having moved from 16th place to 19th place in the last 12 years. Perhaps more damning if you read further in that report, the authors outline that it will take 151.4 years, at the current level of progress in North America, to get to complete gender parity. Let thank sink in…..151 years……from 2020……..sigh…..

So, we know that the problem is real and we know that what we are doing today is not nearly good enough and won’t solve this problem in our lifetimes.

That said, let’s not give up. Let’s get together, get past the yelling and the shouting of social media and find ways to accelerate progress. Let’s make it the mission of more leaders to take accountability for how their organization can become gender neutral.

In our ongoing discussion and thinking about this at Conexus, we have had some successes and some “do differently’s” as we have explored this topic. I want to share a few observations in the interest of helping others and also in the interest of learning from others, who are better than we are in this area. If you have ideas that have worked in your business or industry, please comment on the blog for others to read and learn from.

Here’s a few observations from our Conexus journey in this area:

  1. Organizations don’t change, people change – Whether you want to change your innovation quotient or gender equity, leaders cannot just hope and “will” the organization to change. Change will result from some targeted changes in expectations, behaviours and outcomes. What gets measured gets done and leaders cannot just hope they get better without some material action, target or change in accountability.
  2. Men need to be champions of gender equity – If men currently dominate leadership positions in organizations (including Government) and therefore, are the ones designing, supporting and funding leadership programs, they need to be mindful of their own biases. The leadership programs that created today’s leaders (mostly male) might have unconscious biases that favour producing more male leaders. I suspect that it is not intentional but the data doesn’t lie. Part of the challenge is then to have male leaders find ways to become more conscious of the differences that exist and to ensure that programming takes these subtle differences into account.
  3. Some of the learnings for men will be very uncomfortable – I wrote before about some of the very uncomfortable things I have experienced in mentoring female leaders. While uncomfortable at the time, the discomfort has led to a more enlightened perspective for me as a CEO. I am likely to have another one of those moments this coming Tuesday. A number of Senior Leaders from Conexus are taking part in the YWCA Upstander training. The training is meant to help males learn about harassment in the workplace and how to be a better ally for others around us.
  4. Female and Male professionals age differently – I had a conversation with a female colleague recently about the “seasons of careers”. My colleague was very open with me about the changes taking place for her physically as part of her journey. I had to ask some very stupid questions to better learn but I am very thankful that she tolerated the questions and helped me explore how our work environment could be more adaptable to these changes. A learning for me was how the flexibility of work environment with COVID might be a very powerful learning that we can use as we find new ways to support female leaders.
  5. Data matters – At Conexus, we measure gender parity across a number of dimensions and that data is really important to take away the assumptions of how the organization is performing. Today, at Conexus, we can certify if any gender pay gaps exists at any level in the organization. We can look at the number of applicants for all new roles and how many of each gender were considered. We can examine how our benefits programs were accessed by each gender. We know how many mentees each of our leaders has and whether they are male or female. We know from our succession analysis what the mix of the next group of leaders might be and whether we are gaining ground or not. We know how many of our Cultivator resident companies are founded by females and how we can profile and grow more of them. When I speak to groups about leadership development and our work in learning more about gender equity, I lead with data.
  6. Delivering to a segment of one – The evolution of customer experience design (“CX”) would suggest that companies organize themselves to deliver to a segment of one. In other words, the experience that a customer receives should be uniquely curated to them as an individual if at all possible. The same is true of leadership development and the path to gender equity. Leadership and development experiences can most certainly be curated and designed for the individual and be unique to their needs and most surely, their gender.

If building more diversity doesn’t appeal to your moral compass, it should most certainly appear to your financial one. Some McKinsey data correlates ethnic and gender diversity to financial performance and the conclusions are crystal clear and unambiguous.

The science about the impact that diversity has on business performance could not be stronger. The graph above shows that there are material differences in performance. I don’t know about you, but I am always interested when I can find ways to accelerate the performance of our organization. It might make you uncomfortable, but much like the blog topic from two weeks ago, the discomfort will lead to new learnings, growth and ultimately more progress. In fact, it might be one of the easier ways to accelerate performance of your organization.

What are the ways in which you have been able to materially change the gender equity in your businesses? I’d be interested in learning from you……

The Power of the Stretch

The world of people development has changed considerably since I first began my leadership journey, many years ago. What has not changed is the responsibility of leaders to participate directly in the development of other leaders.

The primary job of leaders is to create more leaders.

I appreciate that leaders have multiple responsibilities (strategy, innovation, stakeholder engagement, etc.) but none is more important than the responsibility to ensure that the pipeline of future leaders in their organization is full and constantly growing and evolving to meet the future leadership demand of the organization.

When I first joined Conexus, there was not a single internal candidate for the CEO role. The good news about that is that I had a much better chance at getting hired with less competition :-). But seriously, I would suggest that an organization of 1,000 people should have had several candidates who were ready and able to take on this leadership role and who had been actively developed for consideration when the role was vacant. Fast forward a decade, now when we post very senior roles at Conexus, it is normal to have between more than 50+ candidates for these roles including multiple internal candidates. This allows the organization to choose a great candidate from several that might be able to fulfill that role but to be able to choose one that has the skills that are most required at that particular time given the current business climate, organizational performance, future strategy, etc.

Part of this development journey for Conexus has been the creation of “experiential learning” as a key part of development planning for leaders.  Today, at Conexus, we use a 70/20/10 model for leadership development.  This correlates to the relative amount of investment (time, money, resources) in different learning activities.  The numbers correspond to:

  • 70% Experiential Learning
  • 20% Self Development (Lead Self Activities)
  • 10% Classroom Training

You might be asking why we have such a heavy focus on experiential or applied learning? The reason is simple – our experience has been that it provides a much richer learning environment where leaders can apply new skills in real life settings. Why does this matter? When building new skills, it is one thing to read about (from a book) or hear about (from a mentor / coach / leader) a business problem and how it was solved. I would also suggest that it is a completely different learning experience for an emerging leader to be directly involved in working on the business problem — The one making real decisions having impact and consequence and experiencing real accountability for those decisions. This isn’t to suggest for a minute that you take emerging leaders and throw them into the deep end of the pool without the requisite skills. On the contrary, it is taking the training wheels away from leaders as they grow so they feel the real emotion of executing at a higher level, the real satisfaction from getting results and sometimes the real pain of falling down and “skinning a knee”. Think of the first time you rode a bike and either successfully made it into the arms of mom or dad at the end of the street or fell down and had to get back up a few times to ultimately make it there. In either event, you always eventually made it to the end, by yourself without any help. I appreciate that over-simplifies the process of experiential learning but it is a helpful analogy.

On larger applied learning opportunities, we frequently hear from leaders that they might not feel perfectly ready for the opportunity to take on greater responsibility. I know that feeling well and have lived it several times throughout my career.  My first day as a CEO at Conexus included a 20 minute trip to the bathroom, to stand face to face in a mirror wondering what I was doing there and how long it would take me to fail, to then splashing cold water on my face, to telling myself I’d be fine and then getting back to work. Everyone who has taken on greater responsibility or new challenges has those feelings and guess what, they are completely normal. Just like the feeling on the bike when mom or dad let go of the back of the seat. You first feel a little wobbly, then you find a rhythm that works for you, then you speed up a little, then you start to try new tricks, then you are crushing the little jump that you begged your mom or dad to make for you out of spare wood.

We have talked openly about this feeling at Conexus to normalize it for all of those who are trying to stretch themselves. We have named that yucky feeling in your stomach “GROWTH” to make it easier and normal to talk about the feelings of anxiety that come from learning new things and admitting that you are are not the expert and need to learn a few skills for a new opportunity. The worst thing you can do as a leader is to pretend you have it all cased, not admit there are a few new tricks to learn and that you are the “expert” at this new area of the organization. PS – the rest of your Team know you are are’t the expert either, just ask them :-).

Today, at Conexus, we regularly review our list of successors and mentees and consciously match them to opportunities within the organization that need leaders and that offer an ability for them to develop while doing important work. Some recent example are having a high potential finance employee work in retail banking to review all of our processes to serve members.  Another would be having a senior member from our risk area lead the project for our new HQ in Regina that involved considerable work with outside stakeholders and involvement from across Conexus, including our Board. The only promise we make to them when taking on roles like this is that we won’t let them make catastrophic mistakes and that we trust them to lead this work. Then we engage in active coaching and feedback as they walk through new responsibilities, learn, make mistakes and then ultimately, grow.

We have seen a few direct benefits of this kind of leadership model, namely:

  1. Leaders have a much more well rounded view of the business having worked in different areas, and
  2. Leaders rely much less on being “experts” and more on involving a broader group of diverse perspectives given they are not the technical expert in those new areas, and
  3. This approach creates leaders that are a bit more likely to listen, to learn, to be curious and to ask first before simply “prescribing” the answer

In a VUCA world (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous), I would rather have a stable of leadership candidates that are actively learning new skills, engaging broadly and harnessing the power of others to create solutions than those that rely solely on their own technical expertise learned over many years applied to the business problems of today.  Would you rather be a leader with twenty years of diverse experiences or a leader with one year of experience, twenty years over?

I speak frequently on leadership development and in those presentations, frequently point to recruitment based on potential. These thoughts were formed years ago from practical experience and an HBR article that speaks to how to assess “potential”. John Harvey from ANZ Bank in Australia said it well in the article when he suggested – “When it comes to developing executives for future leadership assignments, we’re constantly striving to find the optimal level of discomfort in the next role or project, because that’s where the most learning happens. But we want well-rounded, values focused leaders who see the world through a wide-angle lens, and the right stretch assignments are what helps people get there.”

I couldn’t agree more.  What are you doing today to stretch yourself and others around you? When was the last time you felt “GROWTH” in your stomach or had to splash a little water on your face?

Is it time for you to get your hands on some new handlebars and try to get to the end of a new street of growth and learning? Comment below on some of the areas you have explored in your own journey and how you managed the “GROWTH” feelings while doing it.

CEO for a Day – We Laughed, We Cried….

Last week, I hosted another one of our exceptional Conexus team members as “CEO for the day”. What does that program entail?  In essence, we advertise to all of our employees the opportunity to be CEO for any given day and then we match the agenda from their visit to topics that match what they expressed that they wanted to learn as part of their day as the CEO in their application materials. They also get paid the CEO salary for the day, with one catch – they need to donate it to a local organization in need. The program itself is likely not unique and I’m sure that lots of other places do interesting things to develop their Team and build a strong talent pipeline. But there are a few things that surprise me every time we run this program and host someone at Conexus World Headquarters for the day as the CEO.

Their lack of real insight into what CEO’s do every day. I have met many people that tell me they want to be a CEO one day, either at Conexus or somewhere else. That never surprises me. Earlier in my career, I had the same aspiration. What I find interesting is the answer to the next question I usually ask, which is…”What do you think a day in the life of a CEO actually looks like?” Usually the answer to the question is something like –  long meetings, reviewing reports, meeting with other Executives, etc. Sometimes I get a long awkward pause which leads to a realization that they don’t have any clue what a day in the life looks like and they don’t want to tell me what they really think it is 😂.  Sometimes, they try to make a joke about golf games in the middle of the day and two beer lunches everyday. That sure sounds fun but sadly neither are true. In any event, their perception is very different from reality. Not one of the respondents has ever been actually close to describing a real “day in the life” of a Senior Executive or CEO. Notwithstanding I had the same CEO career aspirations earlier in my career, I didn’t actually know either so it’s not a criticism of their responses, just an observation.

But why is that?

In an organization of some size, are the Executives that disconnected from most others in the organization such that employees really have little real tangible observation of how CEO’s (or Executives) spend their days? I don’t know for sure, but what I do know is that their view or hypothesis of what a day actually looks like is very different from reality. The truth is that they don’t actually know what most days actually look like.  They know what they see but keep in mind that is usually through generic communication channels used by CEO’s, through social media, through their limited interaction with Leaders and lastly, through here-say around the water cooler which is the experiences of others around them.

Part of our rationale for the CEO for a Day program, is to make very transparent and de-mystify what a day in the life of the CEO/Executives actually is and have that story told through the eyes of our employees.  Partly for their own development for sure, but also partly to help others in the organization who might be considering those career paths. Then they will know a bit more about the roles, what they entail, what skills you might need to be good at CEO’ing and how they might build a development plan to get there. They might be a bit less intimidated and be more proactive in learning more about roles they aspire to. One of our “asks” as part of the their day spent with us, is to post on our internal company social media platform about the day completely from their perspective — not edited, but the raw and real observations, the surprises and the ”WTF’s” that they had throughout the day.  It is always a highlight for me as I love living the day again through their eyes and contrasting their views to my own.

If you aspire to a role, ask yourself, what does that actually look like? What data points do I have about how she/he spends their time throughout a normal day? Do I love most of those things and do they line up to my passions?

The second surprise is what I call the “black box syndrome”. Most participants expect that the material for the day will be a bright red box that awaits them marked “TOP SECRET” 🤣. The truth is that the only TOP SECRET information in my briefcase is usually my fantasy football picks and to be honest, if I made that more public, it would probably not be beneficial for me, but I digress. Whether it is a strategy session, a board package, a coaching session for another leader, etc., they frequently have this view of the material being off limits for them as an employee. Before our CEO for Day comes to the office, we send them a package of background information so that they are ready to hit the ground running. They have all the pre-reads, context, research, etc. so that they can contribute to the discussions throughout the day. When we work through the day, they realize that virtually all of the information is readily available and published in the company. It signals to me how much better leaders need to be at communicating and organizing information to better engage all employees in the future of the company.  In all my times of hosting a colleague as CEO for the day, there has not really been any information that was confidential and couldn’t be shared. Sure, I appreciate that as leaders we talk about different kinds of information than unit managers / department managers and we know where to find it, but how much better would leadership development programs be within companies if the strategic planning and execution information was more transparent and if the decisions we make as leaders were better debated by the next generation of leaders in real time, thereby creating some healthy discussion about strategic choices. In essence, the company would be building the “why” in realtime together. I get that is a utopian aspiration but the principle is important nonetheless. There are very few secrets in organizations and I find that leaders are genuinely quite interested in sharing more, not less, of what decisions are in front of them, what they are thinking about, what they are worried about and what they are working on. Sometimes you just have to ask or engage Leaders in sharing what is on their plate for the coming days, weeks and months. I suspect they will want to know the same from you.

The last surprise is the “us them” expectation. I am frequently surprised at the level of  “us” and “them” that come through as surprise in how the day actually unfolds.  Emerging leaders don’t expect that some of the things that they are asked to do regularly in the interest of improvement and learning are still critical for leaders. They don’t expect there to be regular coaching conversations, feedback, stand up meetings to quickly solve problems and get past barriers, “oh shit” moments, self development,  time to reflect on what you should have done better or differently and they certainly don’t expect any fun. They don’t expect that while the best member facing employees focus on delivering “wow moments” to clients/members, the best leaders focus equally on creating the small “wow moments” for their customers, namely their colleagues.  Notes of encouragement, recognition, appreciation moments and the small things that might seem easy to overlook are as big a part of the leaders day as they are for the customer facing professionals trying to build loyalty and trust with their clients or members. What makes you a great Advisor to clients (trust, empathy, caring, attention to detail, feedback, fun, etc.) also makes you a great leader in my humble opinion.

My most recent experience in this program was last week when I got to spend the day hanging out with Emmanuel from our Member Contact Centre. Here is how his day played out:

  • He chaired an ELT Stand Up Meeting.  Our Energizer was a “Movember Mustache Quiz”.  I think that Emmanuel finished second in the quiz if I remember correctly.  I only got the Tom Selleck cookie duster correct and finished well down in the ELT standings
  • He announced to the entire organization about the acquisition of a subsidiary company (and then answered all of their subsequent questions about the “so what” of that transaction for our credit union)
  • He mentored a very bright young leader from another credit union in British Columbia
  • He participated in start up pitches from our Cultivator resident companies over lunch
  • He called both our Regulator and our Wealth Management Dealer to talk about the evolution of our Wealth Management business
  • He observationally coached our Executive Vice President, Business Banking through direct feedback from her Team
  • He did some prep work for a meeting with the Saskatchewan Caucus of the Federal Conservative Party to provide them with our views on recent legislative opportunities (CEBA Program, Open Banking, Credit Union support of small business, etc.)
  • He fit in a few “Happy Conexus’Versary” e-mails to our Team achieving service milestones and responded to the regular onslaught of electronic messages (e-mail, Teams chats, texts, social media DM’s) from colleagues and members.

It was a crazy busy day and with him in charge, I likely should have gone golfing and for a couple of beers.  He had it completely cased. The best part of it was reading it all again this morning through his eyes and seeing how his perspective changed about what the CEO role actually is and perhaps more importantly, what it is not. Whether or not Emmanuel ascends to the CEO role at Conexus or elsewhere, at least he’ll have a better idea of what the role looks like in real life.

I can’t wait for the next one….

The gravity around “being competitive” and why it’s hurting uniqueness – for companies and for leaders

Recently, I was asked to join the BC Young Leaders Group to participate in their annual conference this year. I am always honoured to be asked to hang out with the young, bright minds working in the credit union system. The energy in the room and the passion for the purpose of cooperatives is a great way to fill my cup for a few months.

Their conference is titled “Executing Innovation” and they specifically asked me to talk about things like:

  1. How do you help your organization move forward when your superiors may be creating roadblocks?
  2. How to pitch ideas and generate buy-in
  3. How to develop an Innovation Mindset

I decided to call my presentation – Changing the “That Hasn’t Been Done Before” Mindset.  

Here’s why 🙂

When I was in business school (both times), there was much discussed about how to “be competitive” and “measure” your success. The challenge was that the measurement or comparison was always against others in the industry. The measurements in banking were not that hard to figure out — return on equity, return on assets, assets under management, efficiency ratio, productivity, etc. In fact, I would suggest that if you look at the balanced scorecards of multinational banks, community banks you’d likely see much of the same. If you went further and examined financial cooperatives you might also be surprised to see a small collection of the most used metrics that describe success.

In the businesses cases that I worked on in school, the success of the fictional business was a measurement against peer groups or others that competed in the same “vertical” industry. Both the Professors and the Students continually made reference to “being competitive”, “chasing the competition” and “closing the gap”. In today’s world, we are bombarded with Google alerts, Twitter lists and hashtag mentions of competitors, that we then use to immediately compare and contrast against the businesses that we lead.

The comparisons don’t stop with the businesses we lead either. The comparison and chase extends to the leaders in those businesses. The gravity for each of us to look, feel and appear like others is palpable. We likely all have leaders in our lives that we admire or perhaps even want to be like. I am no different. There were and still are many leaders that I look up to and hope that one day I could grow and develop to be more “like them”. It’s fine if you aspire to achieve the leadership outcomes that other great leaders achieve. I want to be more patient, more open minded, a better listener and more of a catalyst type of leader. I know leaders that do all of those things exceptionally well and I admire them greatly.

But the chase is dangerous for leaders.

It’s one thing to want to be better as a leader or business and then look for examples of what better could look like in one area or another. But the development and growth of both the leader and the business has to be in the context of being a better version of myself (or itself for businesses). As I said above, I want to be more patient. But I cannot let the pursuit and growth of being more patient tear away at the passion that I know helps me to succeed. Here is where the challenge lies. If I admire the patience of other leaders and just look to re-create that for myself, I might wake up one day very different than the “Eric version” of the leader I aspire to be. It’s the same for businesses and the evolution of the businesses we lead needs to be the same. There are other businesses I admire as being super innovative. I want to create a more innovative credit union, but it has to be a more innovative version of Conexus not just recreate a version of Conexus that looks like a different business. If we did, we might wake up one day with a business that is not aligned to our purpose or strays from our values un-intentionally. I had a great mentor very early in my career that made this point to me in a very direct way:

“As you grow as a leader, you still need to be yourself, everyone else is taken”

I realized later that was originally an Oscar Wilde quote, but it resonates with me and I use it frequently with those I mentor and coach.

The chase is also dangerous for businesses.

I was at a presentation a few years ago by Youngme Moon. She was speaking about this very issue which was highlighted in her book Different. I vividly recall a picture she showed during the presentation. It was something like the one below and she asked the conference participants which one of these we were as a business and how will we create a sense of uniqueness in the mind of our customers and potential customers.

How would you position yourself if you were the CEO of any one of these products? I know when I buy water, I care about which one I see in the cooler, how it is packaged (recyclable or not) and the size of the bottle compared to my thirst. That’s it, that’s all. I also don’t want to be a leader in any of these businesses where the consumer cares so very little about the choice. I appreciate that finding a financial partner and buying water is different and personal finance is certainly more emotive, but it was a great reminder of why uniqueness matters.

It was a sobering question when you really think about how you create competitive differentiation in the cluttered mind of the consumer. It’s also a question about how you go about the growth and development of the business and the leaders within and the danger of the “chase”. There is tremendous gravity around the chase, and we all need to be careful about allowing it to pull us places we don’t intend to be.

If you have or develop a bunch of leaders that look like each other and those leaders look, act and talk like those that work in many other businesses in your industry, what are the chances of you creating something unique, special and distinct for those that you seek to serve, either as customers or as employees (customers of the leadership environment you create)?

Very small indeed.

It’s hard enough to create new ideas, new strategies and uniqueness in business. It’s harder yet unless you are completely aware and conscious of the gravity to “sameness” and think regularly about how to grow, develop, learn and create in the context of being unique and in the case of leaders, being themselves.

I was reminded of this early by the very same mentor when he said:

Be careful. If you chase the competition, you might just catch them. Then what?

May we all celebrate those around us (business and leaders) that are unique and revel in being themselves, first and foremost.

To the BC Young Leaders – see you in a few weeks 🙂

Failing forward on the “Fail Forwards”

I posted earlier on my site about competitive advantage today being defined by the agility of an organization and the continuous speed with which is brings new value to the market. If you accept some of those arguments, then perhaps you will also accept that the new speed, iteration and “intrapreneurial” culture also brings the occasional “whoopsie” into the fray.

Most leaders I know would suggest that the organizations we lead are completely receptive to failure and that as leaders, we all support the tremendous learning and growth that comes from making mistakes. Sure we do 😂. If I hear one more musing about how you “miss 100% of the shots you don’t take” as encouragement for people to try new things, I might throw up in my mouth, if just a bit. I only say that because those kinds of things are so very easy to say, while at the same time, the experience that our employees have when failure actually occurs is not exactly as encouraging.

There has been much written about how organizations should respond to failure, harvest all the learnings, share those broadly and then go on to achieve unbelievable results as a result of the failure. Academics have long hypothesized about how the specific actions, body language, spoken/unspoken responses and behaviour of leaders all have a disproportionate and lasting affect on the those experiencing setbacks at work. Both positively and negatively. I have actually seen articles which would suggest that those initial, visible responses will have the single biggest impact on how these sorts of failures are digested by organizations and whether or not organizations truly learn and grow as a result.

That puts a lot of pressure on leaders and in particular on their own level of self awareness and self control. We all want things to work out perfectly and to succeed on things that matter. When they don’t workout that way, being in control of your emotions all the time is a hard thing to ask of anyone. For CEO’s, there is always more visibility and opinion on the choices you make and the consequence of choices. For me, when I make a mistake, I know there are 1,000 opinions on what I could have done differently. I offer that not to ask for any sympathy – I love my job and all that it brings. I offer it to demonstrate how hard it is to ask leaders to be perfect when it comes to admitting failure and really looking deeply for the lesson that exists within. It’s hard enough to admit defeat in a 1 on 1 conversation, it is infinitely harder for leaders to admit mistakes to the masses of people that count on them everyday. For that reason alone, it’s good to practice this level of transparency early in your leadership journey and graduate to admitting failure in progressively larger settings. You can get good at it, trust me, I have tried. Sometimes, I have done it well and other times, not so much 🤔.

Let me give you some real life examples

Organizational Design – Early in our journey to create more creativity and innovation in my current role, I had done lots of research on “ambidextrous organizational design“. I had grand ideas and made what was, at the time, very drastic organizational changes. The changes were very hard for the organization to digest. Our Teams could not connect “the why”, struggled with implementing the changes and to be candid, the changes were initially a bit of a disaster. I struggled with a long time to admit my failure in communicating, in researching and in listening better to the feedback I received at the time. Over the four years since then, we have slowly incorporated the learnings and are getting better at becoming more ambidextrous, but a more open admission of the failure at the time, I’m convinced, would have helped immensely. Missed opportunity for sure. #FacePalm.

The Fail Forward Awards – We revamped some of our internal recognition programs in the last few years and tried very hard to use this as an opportunity to drive home the cultural changes we wanted to make around creativity, innovation and accepting failure. We introduced a new awards category to our revamped programs that celebrated failures and importantly, incorporating the learnings from those missteps.  We did a fantastic job of almost all of this work – except one thing.  We had designed the program to allow you to nominate others in the organization for their failures.  Read that last sentence again.  OMG, yeah….oops. We quickly learned that was not the way to encourage people to open up publicly about failure and how they learned, grew and shared those learnings. We discovered the design flaw early, laughed at ourselves and the irony around failing forward on the “Fair Forward Award” design. Today, that program is one of the most hotly contested awards at our super cool, annual awards program and it is a real tangible way in which we are living our values as a learning organization. Quick recognition, transparent admission of an oversight, then a pivot to incorporate much better ways for people to share their own stories of setback, learning and growth and ta-dah, works much better. Easy right?!?

The better you get at demonstrating the vulnerability around your own imperfection / fears and the more courage you will build to allow you to share the learnings that come from mistakes. When people within the organization see leaders doing that regularly, it becomes so much easier for them to do it too. It also becomes less emotionally exhausting to lead others when you can leave your “I have to be perfect” backpack at home and just be yourself.

Inherently, people want to work for other humans – warts, flaws and all.  The sooner we act more human and let go of perfection, the easier it is for others to choose to follow.

Quick update from a reader of the blog – Jill let me know there was a “Museum of Failure” showcasing failed ideas but created as a way for all of us to learn from these whoopsies. Check it out!