How To Be More Transparent About Failure

by Dec 23, 2015Blog, Change, Leadership1 comment

Recent years have seen senior leaders at huge organizations battling to keep their secrets under wraps. From the US government information released through Wikileaks to the Sony hacking scandal, both data and opinions are increasingly hard to hide.

Some information needs to stay secret, but the trend we’re now seeing is toward openness, and toward leaders either embracing this or having it forced upon them. The former is not just more pleasant but more productive, making increased openness one of the most important leadership trends of the next few years. It’s not just about being open to the outside world, but being open with others within your organization. And most important of all is being open about your failures, because the odds are good that someone will reveal them no matter how hard you try to hide.

So how can you be more open about failure without losing control?

Failures Needn’t Be Problems

The most important thing, the foundation on which this openness rests, is recognizing that failures don’t need to be problems. We all face setbacks. Not everything will go our way. But failures aren’t always the disasters they feel like.

Data security scandals provide great examples of this. Security breaches at Home Depot and Target led to brief initial dips in both companies’ stock prices, but were followed by huge bounce backs, Home Depot seeing a 21% increase in earnings per share after the failure, and Target its highest recovery in stock price in five years.

Work had to be done to remedy these failures, but in the long run they weren’t the disaster many companies fear. The public perception of failure did neither company any lasting harm.

You can afford to be open about failures.

Failures Can Bring Improvement

In many cases, failures can in fact be the basis for improvement. They draw attention to where things aren’t working right, and give us the opportunity to seek out ways to work better. With the right attitude, they can be a springboard to great things.

But this only works if you are open about failures. If people in the organization are afraid to acknowledge what has gone wrong, then there is no opportunity to examine or discuss it. Instead, the failures get swept under the rug – instead of a selection of opportunities to seize, you end up with a growing pile of unresolved problems, and a disaster in the making.

Openness about failure isn’t just a nice addition to your managerial arsenal – for real growth it’s a necessity.

Failures Need to be Discussed

So how can you encourage openness, both in yourself and in others?

As with any conversation, this is dependent on the context. One of the first steps is to create settings in which people feel free to talk in a way they may not have done before. Informal occasions allow people to talk more freely, and away days, dinners and team socials may be a good place to start. But it isn’t enough to do this away from the normal work. It needs to be part of that work.

Foster discussions around what could be done better in even the most successful projects. Respond positively to criticism and act on it, showing you’re serious about change. Be open about the moments where you have failed. If you hear colleagues back off from expressing their concerns or reservations then encourage them to speak up.

Because if you don’t embrace openness then it is going to be forced upon you. The future is coming, and any failure you’ve faced could be tomorrow’s talking point.

Mark Lukens, MBA

Mark Lukens, MBA

Founding Partner at Capatus
Mark Lukens is a founding partner at Capatus and located in the New York office. He leads the Capatus’ Global Talent and Advisory practice. He is also an expert in the firm’s research and nonprofit practice. Lukens has more than 20 years of c-level executive and consulting experience delivering strategies and transformational programs to firms ranging from start-up to Fortune 50. He has worked with clients in Europe, North America, South America, and Asia. Lukens worked extensively in various product and service categories including health care, life sciences, government, nonprofit, technology, and professional services. He also advises clients in other industries including commercial and industrial, retail, logistics and transportation, media and more. Lukens serves on several Nonprofit Boards and is a professor at the State University of New York where he teaches in the School of Business and Economics with a focus on marketing, international management, entrepreneurship, HR, and organizational behavior to name a few. Lukens has a technical background as a MCSE and earned an MBA from Eastern University.
Mark Lukens, MBA


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