This coming fall I celebrate (if that is the right word) 30 years as an adult professional (for an idea of what that means, watch this). In that time I have held eleven jobs, and have been unemployed a total of seven weeks (one of which was intentional). Of those eleven jobs, I’ve failed at two of them, was no better than mediocre at two, and was good to damned good at seven. For the last eighteen of those years, I’ve had my own LLC and side business that has brought in anywhere from a few thousand a year to the high five figures.
Is this a typical career today? I have no idea. But I would like to do several postings for Steve over the coming weeks of some things I’ve learned in the process.
Today I’d like to focus on failure. When I say that I’ve failed at two jobs, I mean that I’ve gotten criticized, demoted, fired, and in one extreme case, sued.
What did I learn from these failures? First, I learned that I can’t predict them. If I am going to change jobs and go into a new company, even if it’s in a similar role to what I’ve done before, I will always run the risk of failure. Hopefully it is a small risk, but there are many unknowns.
Is it me or what? That is the seminal question. Well, certainly it was in some part my doing. I lacked engagement at the two jobs at which I failed.
Could I have been engaged? That had to be my failure, right? If I’m getting paid six figures (in one of the cases), my employer has the right to expect immediate engagement and productivity. Well, I think in both cases there was an institutional aspect that contributed to my failures.
Fundamentally, in both I lacked an awareness of the culture of the organization. For different reasons, both were cultures with which I couldn’t adapt to. In the first, it was a culture of surprise and attack. In the second, it was a culture of blame. I lacked the skills to respond effectively.
I can’t criticize either, and perhaps I am being harsh in my assessment, but it is certainly true that they were organizational cultures that I lacked the ability to adapt and respond to. Should you wish to avert such a failure, you need to be perceptive to the culture of your company, and whether your own personality is compatible with the way that your employer works. If not, flee while you can.
I do know that failure can be averted, but you need inside help. In my current job (at which I am damned good), my boss asked me to support the firing of a colleague. I refused, and instead delivered a strong defense of her work. Although I didn’t know it at the time, that defense not only saved her job, but also changed the way our senior management perceived her efforts and results.
The moral of that story is to know the people that you work with, their strengths and weaknesses, and more important, what they contribute to your goals. And know what is in their hearts, if you can. If they can make a difference, go to bat for them. And maybe hope that in the future someone does so for you.
But in the course of 30 years, make no mistake – you will fail. It’s not a badge of honor, but nor is it a scarlet letter. If you are reaching, and trying new opportunities, failure is a certainty. You need to let some time pass, and soberly assess and learn from the lessons. But more immediately, you need to move on.