The gift of mistakes

25 Apr 2019  |  Jan Gooding 
The gift of mistakes

It’s not easy saying sorry and explaining what led you to make a poor decision, writes Jan Gooding - but doing so is an act of strength rather than weakness

Very early on in my career as an advertising account manager I was given a very firm piece of advice from the client services director. In the face of something going wrong the rule was ‘never apologise, never explain!’. It sticks in my mind because I thought it was so odd at the time, and it has come to have even less credibility over time.

It’s natural to want to avoid paying for our mistakes

As I understood it, the essence of the argument was that to apologise was to both admit failure and imply accountability. Not something to be encouraged, because it would most probably lead to the agency having to pay for any mistake that had been made. Better to sort the problem out, without attributing blame, and hope the budget contingency would accommodate any rework. I suppose I can understand that a bit, although it didn’t seem like a very honest way of trying to build a relationship of trust.

The more discordant part was the notion that to explain your position in any way would show weakness and undermine your authority. I really didn’t understand or relate to that idea. It seemed a little macho.

Mistakes cost money and dents reputations

Someone asked me recently what I felt about leaders being required to show vulnerability in order to evidence their authenticity. Specifically, we discussed the issue of admitting to failures and mistakes, and the potential cost of that both in terms of money and credibility.

I had to admit that handling mistakes that are going to cost your company significant amounts of money to fix can be problematic. Depending on the scale of the potential loss, you are likely to find that ‘coming clean’ is not your decision to make. The celebration of mistakes is something often more easily said than done, and in my experience, corporate lawyers usually have a point of view on how public to be about them.

Leaders reduce risk by leading the way

However, what I do think is absolutely crucial, is to foster an environment of owning up to mistakes. And yes, that includes apologising to the relevant people, whether that is customers, suppliers or other stakeholders. I have also become convinced that if that is the kind of culture you want to foster you are certainly going to have to lead by example. There’s the rub.

A senior executive I worked with comes to mind. An old school ‘never apologise, never explain’ kind of leader who found it impossible to show vulnerability. On giving a compelling presentation on the imperative of fostering a ‘fail fast’ culture, they were not unreasonably asked to share an example of a big mistake they had made in their career. You could feel the subdued laughter in the room when they told an over polished anecdote about ‘not promoting people more quickly’.

Their response hung in the air. It was a cop out, and we all knew it. In one visceral moment this leader had demonstrated that they didn’t know what was required in a culture that truly deals with failure in an open way. We could each name half a dozen mistakes he had made, and it seemed odd he should think we hadn’t noticed. Or give us the opportunity to discuss the lessons learnt.

It also made me wonder. If I had been put on the spot with the same question in front of my peer group how would I have answered? It’s easy to criticise, but no-one wants to be a famous fool.

The power of a public forum

I was clearly not alone in my reaction. I learnt that our Polish office subsequently instituted a regular monthly team drinks and presentation called ‘Fuck up Fridays’ where people could come and share, and celebrate, things that had gone wrong and what could be learnt from them. Real war stories. So painful they became funny. I truly admired the confidence of that ritual. I suspect a key success factor was that the directors of the company both attended and contributed. As far as I am aware there were no negative consequences for those brave enough to share their stories. Although I imagine it might not be wise to be up with a story at every event.

Mistakes provide critical experience others can learn

If mistakes are covered up, or unwelcome news, you have opened up all sorts of risks around integrity and positive behaviour"

To make a mistake is to have exercised poor judgement. Of course, that is not something anyone would naturally go into broadcast mode about. But I have come to the conclusion that to share a mistake with colleagues is to help them learn from your experience, and hopefully avoid making the same one. It should become part of the corporate memory, and an opportunity for everyone to learn, not just remain the ‘bad’ of the individual who made it.

For example. Three years ago, I signed off a campaign for stocks and shares ISAs when I was at Aviva. I had been told that most people wanted to buy a cash ISA, despite them representing poor value. However, I was persuaded that a brand of Aviva’s stature would provide sufficient reassurance to persuade potential savers to invest in the riskier equity-based option.

We were wrong. It was an expensive mistake. And yet, last week I noticed an ad on the tube which read ‘Stocks and Shares ISAs at Aviva. No experience necessary.’ It would seem we didn’t celebrate that mistake enough, and I find myself concerned that the same expensive error is being made. And that is in spite of exactly the same creative and media agencies being involved. No doubt there is a simple explanation.  Although I have to admit, I would have thought that the copy immediately under the headline which read ‘capital at risk’, would be enough to send most people running back to low interest paying cash ISAs.

I hate admitting I was wrong about something as much as the next person. It’s also not easy saying sorry, explaining what led you to make a poor decision, and how you plan to make amends. But I am convinced it is an act of strength rather than weakness.

Firstly, because if you admit you don’t always make the right call, it is an invitation to others to help you make better ones in the future.

Secondly, because fear of failure is toxic. If mistakes are covered up, or unwelcome news, you have opened up all sorts of risks around integrity and positive behaviour.

And finally, because it builds trust, which is priceless.



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Jan Gooding is one of the UK's best-known brand marketers, having worked with the likes of BT, British Gas, Diageo, Unilever and Aviva. She is also the chair of both PAMCo and LGBT equality charity Stonewall, the president of the Market Research Society and a partner of Jericho Chambers. She writes for Mediatel each month.

@Jan_Gooding

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