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Leaders Make Mistakes, Too: Why Owning Them Will Help You Grow

written by: •edited by: Carly Stockwell•updated: 3/23/2016

From the time we could walk and talk, we’ve been making mistakes — it’s what makes us inherently human. In business, the path to success is fraught with faux pas. It's not avoiding mistakes, but how we react to those mistakes that makes us better leaders.

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    I’ve worked in the strategic communications field for more than 25 years now, and I’m not afraid to admit I’ve made my fair share of blunders. One in particular has always stood out in my mind: Years ago, I hired an employee who simply wasn’t a good fit for his job or our team. Rather than let him go, I tried to “fix" him so he could perform the job the way I’d envisioned. Predictably, my plan didn’t pan out, and I had to let him move on. But the time I’d spent trying to groom him had stalled my entire team’s progress.

    I was, of course, disappointed, but instead of denying or covering up my mistake, I came clean to my team. I quickly discovered how much better we worked without the employee, and he went on to a new career path that suited him much better.

    As leaders, it’s our duty to not only acknowledge our failures, but to also learn from them. Employees and customers alike don’t expect us to be infallible, but they do insist on honesty.

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    Fessing Up Helps You Grow

    Admitting you’ve made a mistake is a humbling experience that will show your community of brand ambassadors the kind of authenticity and rawness they can respect and emulate. And doing so quickly and efficiently can make an even bigger wave within your staff and beyond.

    One study found that when leaders display humility, employee engagement and performance increases. And when you, as a leader, can admit failure and walk your teammates through a process of growth and discovery, they’ll become better employees and leaders themselves. As a result, you’ll build a culture centered on trust and openness.

    Externally, effectively communicating what took place, how it’s being resolved, and what you’ll do to make it right can pay dividends for your reputation.

    Last year, Whole Foods Market was heavily criticized after a report revealed that several store locations were mislabeling food items and overcharging for them. Rather than let the scandal blow over, executives Walter Robb and John Mackey decided to go on camera and issue an apology.

    “Straight up, we made some mistakes, and we want to own that," said Robb. “It’s understandable sometimes that mistakes are made. They are inadvertent. They do happen because it’s a hands-on approach to bringing you fresh food."

    The company didn’t stop there, though. Robb and Mackey outlined a three-pronged solution that involved retraining employees, auditing stores to ensure items were properly priced, and refunding customers. Whole Foods Market owned up quickly, leveraged the mistake as a learning experience, and built from there.

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    Own Your Mistakes Like a Pro

    I like to handle mistakes quickly, and this process helps me make sure I’ve done so professionally and in a manner that gets attention:

    1. Be humble, sincere, and transparent. Whether it’s big or small, once you realized you’ve made a mistake, don’t let it fester. The last thing you want is for someone else to point it out for you. Instead, own up to it on your own terms. When you officially apologize, be heartfelt, open, and personal. In many cases, you can’t apologize to each individual person, but you can identify triggers that make the apology more sincere.

    2. Explain what happened and why. Whether the mistake is due to a decision you made or it came from an outside source, explain what happened (and why it happened) to everyone affected. Now is not the time to point fingers. People want to know you’ve taken the time to get to the root of the issue.

    4. Spell out what you learned. Mistakes are great leaning opportunities, and when we don’t learn from them, we’re doomed to make them again. Find nuggets that you learned from your mistake, and let others know what they are.

    5. Ensure your community it won’t happen again. Because you’ve learned from your mistake, you can take steps to ensure it won’t happen again. Tell your staff or your public audience what will happen the next time you’re faced with a similar situation and how you’ll handle it differently.

    6. Move forward. If you dwell on your mistake, others will, too. Find a way to move on and incorporate the lesson you learned into your business.

    Mistakes are a simple fact of life. But whether you make one internally or on a national scale, it’s important to fess up and explain how you’re going to make things right. Not only will it make you a more trusted leader, but it will also make you a better one.

    About the Author: Sarah Clark is the president of Mitchell, an award-winning public relations firm that creates real conversations between people, businesses, and brands through strategic insights, customized conversations, and consumer engagement. The agency is headquartered in Fayetteville, Arkansas, with offices in Chicago and New York City.






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