It was my second week on the job.
On stage, in front of the entire company.
I was prepared and practiced.
It was my big moment.
And then, before I knew it, absolute disaster.
It started as a technical issue, and then a stumble, and then total blackout.
I was mortified. I was humiliated. I was powerless to fix it.
20 minutes later, curled up in a dark corner of my hotel room, I texted home.
I can’t believe that just happened. Nobody here will ever respect me. I’m done.
Fast forward five years: Three promotions, a handful of pay raises, and a reputation stronger than ever.
So, what happened?
That’s today’s blog.
If you work for long enough, you will at some point, humiliate yourself in spectacular fashion.
You will fail badly and publicly.
You will be embarrassed.
You will think your career is over.
Setbacks come in all shapes and sizes: Tanking a few quarters in a row, ad campaign was a total flop, new product launch bombed, you said something stupid in the media, you went catatonic on stage. It happened to me, I’ve witnessed it happen to many others, and at some point, if you keep at it long enough, it will happen to you.
You prepare and plan, and do all the things a responsible leader does. You try your absolute best. But inevitably, we all find ourselves curled up in a Courtyard Marriott having our “I’m done” moment.
But you’re not done. Not even close.
You certainly don’t have to be.
If I could dig myself back from horrifying public humiliation, you can bounce back too.
I’ve seen countless leaders rebound. And, having gone through a couple doozies myself, I’ve had the opportunity to fine tune a playbook to lead through the adversity and come back on top – better than ever.
Here are my tips for leaders who need to bounce back:
When it happened to me, I wanted to put my head in the sand and never look up again. I was completely mortified and completely powerless to change what had happened. At the time, I felt certain I had made an irreparable blunder, and the pull to just roll over and give up was strong. But that’s not what you do, those are just the emotions of the moment. You process it, you accept it, you address it with the people who matter, you build a recovery plan, and you execute it with the confidence and capability that make you great. You must go through all these steps, but the faster you can move from mortified to mobilized – the better.
In the moment, it feels like recovering from the setback will take forever if it’s even possible. There were times I thought it might be faster to focus my energy on building a time machine so I could go back and fix my mistake. But time passes, people move on, forget, and forgive. And, if you move through these steps – if you keep leading through the adversity – you will wake up one day, and you’ll be back, better than ever.
It’s easy to trick yourself into believing career success comes in a straight line. That a smart person starts their career, works hard, has a few wins along the way, and gradually rises to the top in a linear way. You can fool yourself into believing that is what a great career must look like, but it very rarely does. Just about every great leader I know has had as many failures as they’ve had successes. Their careers look much more like a series of ups and downs than a straight line up and to the right.
The more experience I get, the more I’m convinced it’s our ability to lead through adversity that determines our success in the end. I have made some epic mistakes in my career – huge setbacks if I’d allowed them to define me. But as I matured, and moved from one blunder to the next, I started to learn how to bounce back from mistakes in a very productive way. And for me, that bounce back always starts by scribbling this little picture – usually on some hotel room notepad.
This doodle reminds me of a few things. First, that your career is long, and any one moment in time is a blip along the path. Second, no career looks like a perfect straight line, and every setback is merely a setup for the next phase upwards. And last, that I’ve made mistakes before, and I bounced back stronger – that gives me the confidence and energy I need to move past feeling sorry for myself and move towards my inevitable resurgence.
Leading through adversity begins by identifying your next big win and chasing after it as if your your career depends on it. I’m always amazed how short our memories are, and how easily people will forget about the last thing to focus on the next. Unfortunately, when your setback is fresh, you are the current thing. Your blunder is front and center in your own mind, and likely in the minds of some others, although probably not as much as you imagine. What you can’t do, as a high-performing leader, is allow your mistake to be the thing anyone focuses on for very long – you included.
When I make a mistake at work, my mind immediately goes to identifying my next big win. A big win is the fastest way to change perception and get momentum working in your favor again. Move past your mortification, find a win, and then another, and then another one after that. And before you know it, you won’t be the guy who embarrassed himself on stage, you’ll be the leader who drives results.
Depending on the size of your setback, you’re going to want to enlist support in your bounce back plan. Once the emotions of your mistake have settled and you can think logically again, I have always found it best to address it head-on with my boss. Doing so is therapeutic, in the sense that it clears the air and allows everyone to move forward. It is also a savvy move to recruit support for your come back. You need to give your boss an opportunity to vent and air any lingering concerns she may have. At least you’ll know where you stand, and where you’re starting your recovery plan from.
It’s important to remember that your boss is invested in your success. He wants you to be successful, whether it always feels that way or not. And it’s vital to have your boss cheerleading your bounce back and looking out for the fresh wins you are soon to deliver. By taking it head-on like this, you won’t have to sit and wonder what your boss thinks of you, or if she’s noticing your improvements. You’ll know.
Inevitably, we all fail. And at some point, it will probably happen to you in some glorious, public fashion. Every leader I know has faced and overcome huge mistakes. What separates the truly great ones from everyone else, is not the mistakes themselves, but the pace and precision of the bounce back. I sincerely hope you’ll never need these tips, but if you do, remember you’re in good company and you WILL get back on top.