Failure is a beautiful thing
10 October 2021
I forgot my name badge. It was a few years ago, on warm summer’s evening in Berlin as I stood in front of the conference hotel. I was annoyingly early for the coach to take the delegates to dinner, so I set my mind free to wonder. I became aware of a woman standing beside me – she had almost finished a cigarette. It was past the point of politeness where I hadn’t acknowledged her when she first appeared, in fact so much time had elapsed it was now becoming awkward within social norms. Was she even one of the delegates? Thankfully I didn’t let this get in the way and introduced myself. She was Anna – head of Business Development for BDO’s Real Estate industry sector. “Solly Benaim leads the group, but he retires in June” she continued. Solly Benaim, I said heavily to myself.
Solly did his first degree at the London School of Economics and became a partner at BDO in London in his twenties. He went to Harvard Business School just before becoming a partner. He became Head of BDO’s London Office in his thirties. When he stands, he casts an impressive shadow. He recruited me 23 years ago. I’ll just recount one incident from 1998. I was discussing points regarding an audit and fee far too late with a client and, understandably, they got upset with me. I mean extremely upset. It was Solly’s client. I immediately went past his PA, dodging her “you can’t go in there” look and straight into Solly’s room. I told him that I’d messed it up. I remember the look on his face like it was yesterday.
With gentle eyes, Solly asked me to sit with him and then he asked me to recount exactly what happened. We sat there together working out how to resolve it. As the camera in your mind’s eye pans away from Solly and I talking at his desk, across to the sweeping landscape of London through the windows behind us – let you and I reflect. Solly has position – but he treats it as a responsibility - not a power. He carries his position as a privilege - not a right. I had already owned my failure. Solly never blamed me for it. He never mentioned the incident again. He never asked me why I failed. He was completely focused on instilling confidence and getting a solution.
We are just people. We do multiple things everyday – we will fail at some things. Indeed, if we push ourselves – we will fail at more things. That is a good thing. It is a waste of talent and opportunity to remain within the safety of not trying and thus not failing. But with failure comes with responsibility – embrace it and learn from it because it is beautiful. The success in my career and development is due to working for many great leaders, like Solly, who gives me the confidence to fail. It means that I’ve never been afraid.
Life presents itself with leaders or people that I report to who may not be so great – it isn’t for me to judge them. But I have very sincerely told them how I feel about them pointing out little mistakes or some mistake from four months ago – about how it affects my own confidence, about how I don’t enjoy coming to work, that I just feel that I can’t do anything right. Every time I’ve said that – the situation turns positive instantly – I don’t believe people set out to break confidence or make an environment unpleasant – it’s just a blind spot. Any who manages talent should reflect – will someone recount the way I deal with a mistake 23 years later?