Did you make a mistake today? If you didn’t you may be losing out.
For the next week or so, I’m going to include excerpts from my book: “From the Sandbox to the Corner Office” and offer a peek at the lessons leaders from all walks of life learned on the way to the top.
“Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes” - Oscar Wilde
The most creative and cutting edge executives I have interviewed tended to be the ones that readily talked about past mistakes. Indeed, they wore their mistakes like a badge of honor, convinced their foibles made them better leaders.
Of course, there were those CEOs who found it hard to talk about their missteps. Several executives told me they would call back or email with mistakes after some time to think but alas the message never came.
Was it embarrassment, or the sheer inability to remember? Whatever the reason, I found no shortage of high-level managers with myriad stories to tell. Often times, the mistakes they made happened early in their careers, some right out of college, others during a job transition. Sometimes their mistakes caused thousands, even millions, of dollars to the companies they worked for, in other cases it was just the costly price of sheer humiliation.
But in all these cases, their mistakes did not cost them their career, or derail their ultimate accession to the top of the heap. On the contrary, many believe it was exactly these mistakes that helped propel them the heights of leadership because they were able to come away from their mistakes better and smarter. Early on in his career, Sears’ CEO never expected any of his workers to even think about stealing from him. This naiveté cost him big time when he first became a manager. And the head of Quicken Loans dreaded firing workers so much, it ended up wreaking havoc on his company.
In both case, these two executive learned the importance of facing the reality of life, and putting in controls to manage the ups and downs of the work world.
Okay, none of these leaders loved bungling situations up. But I got the sneaking suspicion they were happy to have erred early on in their careers and learned from their experiences as they set out to hone their skills. And the bottom line among most of them – admit you’re wrong and move on.
Aylwin Lewis, former President and CEO of Sears Holding Corp., and now CEO of Potbelly Sandwich Shop
At 22, Aylwin Lewis got a job managing a Jack in the Box restaurant in Houston where he got a reality check on the human condition.
Under Lewis’ tutelage, the store began to run into a big problem with theft, also know as shrinkage in the retail world. The district manager made Lewis aware of the problem when he showed him the store’s profit and loss statement, the first since Lewis took over. “My P&L was disastrous. The manager told me, ‘we’re here to make money and you didn’t make any money this last period.’ He said I had a huge shrinkage problem. I was shocked.”
Given his liberal arts background in school and a strong southern Baptist upbringing, Lewis says, “I believed in the glory of human beings,” so the idea that one of his workers was stealing was unthinkable. He says he was raised to be honest and if you didn’t have the money to buy something you worked until you could afford it. “It could have been an accounting problem. There can be a lot of reasons you have shrinkage,” he recalls thinking at the time.
Just a few days later it all became clear.
It was a Monday morning, his administrative day when he handled inventory and balancing accounts, but on this day he came in a bit earlier than usual, about 4 a.m. because he had a lot on his plate that day. When he drove up to the store he noticed the back door wide open, which was a safety violation for the night crew who were supposed to keep the door closed to keep strangers from coming into the back of the restaurant. At the back door he could see his night cook Tony’s car with the trunk open, and there was Tony loading it up with cases of frozen hamburger patties. “He looked at me and said: ‘I could put a couple of these in your car.’ I said, ‘I don’t think so.’ And I fired him on the spot.”
Lewis was in shock, because Tony was one of the best night shift workers, grilling at the speed of two employees and keeping the kitchen clean and organized. “He was a valuable employee, especially since it was so hard to find good workers for the graveyard shift.” he says.
But the blatant theft, he explains, “was an epiphany for me. I had never thought that people could do that but I was naïve. I realized that when people are together with food and money and things like that you will have a problem if there are no controls.” In hindsight, he says, he had few if any controls at the restaurant and quickly implemented an array of already existing policies at the chain including counting inventory at every shift, counting the cash drawer throughout the day, and implementing surprise audits. He also ended up locking the walk-in coolers and freezers and giving limited access to employees.
With all those safeguards in place, Lewis also realized he had to begin communicating his own value system to his employees, looking beyond productivity and reliability. “Unless you find people that share your attitude and values about work and business you are not going to be successful,” he says. So a key part of the interview process became trying to figure out if potential employees were on the same page as Lewis when it came to integrity. “You can never totally get rid of theft but stressing uncompromising integrity does make a difference,” he explains.