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The Success of Failure

Screwing up now can make you better later

13 October, 2021

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Failure can be an addiction, especially if someone else’s helps us mask our own. EPIC FAIL! Who doesn’t love to see people mess up and then pile on in the comments section? Perhaps with so many people advertising that their lives and businesses are an unending cycle of perfection, we like to see that we’re not alone in screwing something up.

It is, however, possible to fail at something and still be a success in life. Often, how you handle that failure speaks to who you are and gives you the opportunity to grow in ways you may not have considered beforehand.

In a backhanded compliment, when we thought of failure, we turned immediately to Bill Silverman at Springboard Business Coaching. Bill helps contractors deal with short-term failures and even to work through the feeling that their whole career is a failure. For one, he advises, take the time to analyze what went wrong. “In the crush of the day to day, there’s not enough time to stop and go, 'What happened? Let’s rewind the game film and see what we can learn here,’” he said.

You can use one fail — say your truck breaks down — as a kick to look under your proverbial hood and see what else is wrong. “I had a client where some guys left the shop and were driving down the road, and when they got up to speed, the hood flew up. That seems like such a one-off thing, but he said, no, if that happened, then there’s probably other things happening similar to that that we need to take a close look at, like are the mechanics not paying close enough attention to detail, something like that.”

By analyzing the small failure now, you might avoid the bigger one later, which in this case could have been literally “down the road.”

Re-define Yourself

Do you define yourself by your failures or your successes? “We always say, oh man, I screwed up, and we beat ourselves up and go, what’s wrong with me, blah, blah, blah,” said Silverman. He pointed to a book called Little Voice Mastery by Blair Singer, which encourages you to listen to yourself more closely. “If you sold the best, biggest job you’ve ever sold, sometimes what’s in your head is, ‘Well, that was just one job, and I can’t do that again,’ and you beat yourself down,” he said.

What if you changed your head trash talk? “When you lose a big job, tell yourself that the client doesn’t know what they’re missing; it’s their loss, not yours. And when you sell something big or you do something good, give yourself a high five. That’s where the energy is, but we tend to do the opposite — we make failure our script,” said Silverman.

Fail Forward

The Epic Fail

Now, the big one. You messed up and it’s your fault, and your company, reputation and livelihood are in danger. What next? “Transparency is really important. Not being transparent and not showing vulnerability usually don’t work,” said Silverman. “You gotta say, ‘Yeah, I did it, and it’s going to hurt us.’ A lot of owners are afraid to be anything but super-person, and that doesn’t work in these situations.”

After that, work with the team on a game plan. “They need a path forward, at least the first couple of steps, or they need you to say, ‘I’ve got some ideas of how we can right the ship, and I want to involve you in it too,’” said Silverman. It’s important to give the team a stake in your recovery; these days, with painters at a premium, they can just as soon bolt for someone else. “At this point, you probably need to say, ‘Your opinion matters because obviously what I did didn’t work,’” he suggested. “If things really get bad, you can offer people incentives to stay, because if people start leaving, then it’s very difficult to recover. You get in this negative spiral, and it’s hard to come out. By owning your fail, you give yourself the power to fix it.

Fix That Failure Known as 'My Life'

What if you get to a point in your career where you think, ugh, I’ve worked my whole life for this? Long story short, Silverman has a client who had a reasonably successful business, but it wasn’t as good as he had hoped. He’d invested years into it, but he felt like a failure. Maybe it was time to fold up and work for someone else. “He explained it like this: You’ve got the angel saying you can make this business work, and on the other side, the devil telling you to pack it in. We were making like tippy-toe progress, but then he actually went to interview for a job. When he came back, he said, ‘No, I can’t do that. I’m making this happen.’” That was the spark it took, to look true failure in the face. “He’s on fire now,” said Silverman.

Even a coach needs coaching. “I recently did a webinar where I tried a bunch of new things, but it didn’t quite yield what I wanted it to,” Silverman said. “I looked at a lot of different things to try to figure out where it underperformed … where were the weak links, and what can I tweak to make it better? Then it becomes a learning experience rather than a failure.”

Have a 'Failure Fund'

And you don’t need to call it that. Aaron Moore, president at Chicago area PPD Painting, has had his share of — we won’t necessarily say failures, but things that didn’t go his way. Sometimes, he notes, the fight isn’t worth the cost, even if you're in the right. Customers will stiff you or file frivolous lawsuits; any number of things can happen to a business owner, and you can feel like a failure through no fault of your own — you just can’t stop it from coming your way.

Essentially, says Moore, by putting a percentage of each job aside, you can create your own “insurance fund” for things that aren’t insured. Moore learned, when he was much newer in business than he is now, that sometimes you just have to swallow your pride and spend a few dollars, and what’s fair or failure doesn’t factor into it.

“I had a talk with somebody who was more seasoned in business than me, and he said, ‘This is just a cost of doing business,’” said Moore. “So when you’re looking at business and when you’re looking at financials and budgets, if you take a little percentage of each job and put that off to the side, that way when something like that happens, you’re can say, ‘OK, I don’t like it, but I can take care of it.’

“I’m not saying let people not pay you. When someone tries not to pay you, you’ve got to try to go after it,” said Moore. “But at some point, you’ve got to chalk up your loss. And if you have that mindset of, ‘I’m putting aside a small percentage of every dollar that comes in into this kind of insurance fund against stuff I can’t insure,’ it makes it a little easier pill to swallow than having someone come after your house."

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