This event was hosted by Neal Dempsey, the Foster School’s visiting 2013-2014 Edward V. Fritzky Chair in Leadership.
Failure is part of life. In fact, success often starts with failure. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t hard or painful. On January 21, a panel at the Foster School tackled the art of failing. The panelists were Steve Singh, CEO of Concur; Sean Dempsey, founder and general partner of Merus Capital; and Emilia Griswold, Foster MBA, Class of 2014. Bruce Avolio, professor of management and executive director of Foster’s Center for Leadership and Strategic Thinking, moderated the discussion.
The discussion covered a range of topics and often oscillated between risk, failure and success. It’s difficult to have real success without risk and the potential for failure. There was also an emphasis on the ability to adapt to change, particularly when faced with the potential for failure.
Griswold spoke about changing her strategy for finding an internship after several months of no success. Ultimately, she was successful in landing an internship because she approached her goal from a broader view and was willing to risk failure. She said this experience taught her three things:
- Focus on the goal. She came to the MBA Program as career changer. For her, conducting informational interviews with people who had successful career paths, not people who worked at a particular company, was most effective.
- Believe in yourself. If you’re trying to convince someone else you can do something before you have convinced yourself, it won’t work.
- Embrace risk. Look for opportunities that scare you—ones where you could actually fail.
In order to cope with risk, you have to possess the patience and persistence to work until it pays off. Dempsey said, whether you are building your career or a company, “You should be short-term impatient and long-term patient.” In other words, you have to keep moving forward on a day to day basis, but you also have to realize change happens over time. Persistence, even in the face of failure, is critical for success.
Trying to accomplish a goal too quickly can also lead to failure, especially if you don’t consider the big picture. Instead of making decisions based on the next 90 days, Singh, who has been the CEO of Concur for over 20 years, said he considers the impact of his decisions on the next five to ten years. He said he realized, “There are goals along the way, but there is no end goal.” For him, getting to success is a long-term process. He tells his team, “Your job is to define the world the way it should be defined. Not in the way that is best for you, not in the way where you get the most value out of it, but the way it should be.” Once you figure that out, he said, “You step back and think about how you get from here to there.”
When implementing what you’ve defined as the way the world should be, be prepared to face challenges and failure. Dempsey likened this process to being at the top of a black diamond ski run. From the top, it looks long and intimidating and there are obstacles to overcome, but he said, “The thing to do is only worry about what you can control.” From there, the strategy is to take it one step at a time.
The panelists also talked about how failing can be the ultimate teaching tool, and they pointed out that not failing is also risky—it means you’re not challenging yourself. Click on the video below to watch the entire discussion.