I’d just started a new assignment one month earlier when my boss called me into her office. The good news was that our business was great this year, and we were on track to overdeliver our objectives. The bad news was that next year was shaping up to be much tougher. To hit our numbers, we’d need to do some belt-tightening.
She asked me if there were any projects we planned to do next year that we could do now, since funding would be harder to come by next year. “Next year,” by the way, started in six weeks.
Eager to please my new boss, I told her I was sure we could. I quickly convened my team leaders and asked for ideas. They delivered plenty—about $1 million worth. I asked if we could execute that much work in only six weeks. (I was not so secretly hoping we could. It would be nice to deliver that big round number to the boss.) They assured me it would be no problem. I committed the number to my boss and my team swung into action.
By the end of the month, it was clear I’d made a terrible mistake. My team was working around the clock. They were stressed out and tired. And in the rush to get the projects started, mistakes crept in. One was bad enough that we had to start the whole thing over. In the end, we only got about 75 percent of the work done we’d promised. And the cost of the mistakes offset much of the savings I’d promised.
In hindsight, I should have seen it coming. In addition to the million-dollar rush job, we were going through a corporate restructuring that put people into new and unfamiliar reporting relationships. And I’d just lost two of the department’s most experienced leaders. It wasn’t a good time to put the organization through this fire drill. I had shown poor judgment in committing my team to such a Herculean task.
But why? I was normally a better manager than that. Why had I so foolishly accepted my team’s assertion that we could get all that work done in the last six weeks of the year when there was so much evidence that it was a bad time to take on extra work?
After some reflection, I concluded it was this: In my eagerness to please my new boss, I overlooked the fact that I wasn’t the only one who had a new boss he wanted to bend over backward to please. The 25 people in my department also had a brand new boss—me!
If I had been thinking about them and their best interests, instead of my own, I would have made a better choice. Part of being a good leader is thinking of others before yourself. As a leader, it’s your job to help others succeed. You can’t do that when you’re only worried about your own success.
A few months after making that mistake, I shared that story with my team. It was my way of admitting my mistake and apologizing, but also helping them learn a lesson from my failure for when they find themselves in the same position someday.
A year later, I found myself in a similar situation, with the same request from the same boss who had asked for the million dollars the first time. Here’s where I found a second use for this story. I shared it with my boss, perhaps for the first time fully admitting what a disaster it had been the prior year.
After that, it was much easier for me to respectfully push back and say, “So you can see how I screwed up last year. This year I’ll shoot for half a million, okay?” She quickly agreed.
Don’t be afraid to share your own failure stories with your team, and your boss. Not only can it teach worthy lessons and prevent similar mistakes from happening in the future. But it also earns you respect and appreciation you’re unlike to get any other way. It shows humility too rare in leaders today. People will recognize and appreciate that. It shows you care enough to help them grow at the expense of exposing your own shortcomings.
[You can find this and over 100 other inspiring leadership stories in my book, Lead with a Story.]
Paul Smith is one of the world’s leading experts on business storytelling. He’s a keynote speaker, storytelling coach, and bestselling author of the books Lead with a Story, Parenting with a Story, and Sell with a Story.
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