Mistakes happen, but life goes on

I recently finished reading Jessica Bacal’s Mistakes I Made at Work: 25 Influential Women Reflect on What They Got Out of Getting It Wrong. I was intrigued by the title and drawn into the promise that the book would feature, well at the risk of repeating the obvious, women in power admitting they had made mistakes. 

Admitting a mistake in the privacy of your own office is hard enough, but these woman were asked to detail their mistakes with the understanding that the interviews would then be published, and available to be read by the public for all of eternity. Or as long as the book remains in print, whichever comes first. For that reason, I couldn’t fault the few who chose to play it safer with their stories than others.

As way of saluting their bravery, I’ll return the favor.

Wasting Money
Wasting Money (Photo credit: Tax Credits)

When I was first starting out in my career, I was given the task of instructing our purchasing department as to how much material to re-order for an upcoming build.  Simple, right?

The challenge was the material had to be bought in huge reels sold in volume and then cut into smaller pieces by a third party. The third party then re-spun onto smaller spools measured in square feet, before shipping it to the manufacturing facility where it was cut at third time into rectangular slivers measured in millimeters.

I knew how many end parts we needed to build, which told me how many slivers were required, but I needed to work out what that usage translated into terms of reels.

I failed this particular word problem. I may have misplaced a decimal, or I might have miscalculated exactly how much film could be wrapped around the spindle of a large cylinder. It doesn’t matter. All that mattered was we wound up buying years’ worth of material with a no return option based on my recommendation.

Embarrassed by my blunder, I wanted to take it out on the supplier. I asked them why didn’t they question why we were suddenly ordering several times more than we typically did. Their answer was, they just thought our business was booming. In other words they took the money and didn’t question their good fortune.

AWESOME ... TPD Officers Placed On Leave After...
(Photo credit: marsmet463)

Fortunately, I managed to keep my job. We found a space to store the excess without too much impact on our bottom line. Eventually we consumed the material, but until that day, at least in my mind, it served as a monument to my huge blunder. Rest assured, I never repeated that particular error again.

People will say you should own up to your mistakes, but to do so you have to do more than just admit to them. You have to break down the elements making up the blunder and figure out a way to turn a short term awful experience into an experience worth learning from.

I became more willing to ask for a second opinion if the numbers just didn’t seem to add up, and better about referencing past transactions whenever possible. Additionally, I became more aware of my individual impact on larger business decisions. Taken together, the lessons I learned by this one major blunder helped me develop the skills I needed to advance through my company’s ranks.

Reading about mistakes is a good way to learn a lesson, but occasionally it is best to learn the hard way.

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Leadership and Management – is it so easy a caveman could do it?

My kids recently discovered the movie, the Croods, which is about a family of cavemen who have to leave the safety of their cave due to a series of earthquakes and other eruptions. Mid way through the father, quite bewildered by his family’s behavior, tells his daughter, I kept you safe. To which his daughter replied, we weren’t living, we just weren’t dying, there is a difference.

The Croods8
The Croods8 (Photo credit: TheCroodsGame)

It is very easy to confuse leadership with management. In the case above, the father was a great family manager. He was able to assess each of their strengths and weaknesses and as a result they were able to hunt for food as a team. They all shared in each other’s success and when the food supply ran short, the father did the noble thing by skimping on his ration so that his children could grow stronger. He also went out of his way to protect them from dangerous threats such as sabre toothed tigers and other weird creatures I am glad aren’t around today.

But he was a terrible leader. Why? Because he was so focused on ensuring that all were aware of the near certain danger, his family wasn’t able to rally around an image of a better future. Without the ability to visualize the future, the family accepted the threats at face value and never tried to find ways around them. They were well-managed, but they were stuck in a dark cave, ignorant of the larger world, and would have remained there as the land collapsed around them had it not been for an injection of fresh ideas in the form of a stranger.

Illustration from The Pied Piper of Hamelin
Illustration from The Pied Piper of Hamelin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That same stranger never showed whether or not he had managerial chops. He cared about the teenage girl, and eventually bonded with the father, but never went out of his way to really get to know the others. He gave them some nice tools and shared innovative survival strategies, but really in the end only made them more like himself rather than try to capitalize on their individual potential. He had no assurance that there would actually be a better tomorrow, and could just as easily placed the group in an even riskier situation like a Pied Piper. He proved you can be a great leader, but also be lousy manager.

Great leaders are champions of change and not afraid to take risks, they pull their teams along with them. They are the hunters. Great managers are efficiency experts and nurturing by nature, they minimize risk and push their teams into situations where success is achievable. They are the gatherers. Whether you are a great leader or a great manager you are going to get a workout.

A word of caution though. There is a reason that there is usually a trusty sidekick in every hero story. It is nearly impossible to be both the leader and the manager at the same time. The mentality is just too different.

So breathe. You don’t have to be both. It’s actually a lot less stressful for everyone if you simply pick one role and be the best possible version of that singular role you can be. Look in the mirror long and hard and figure out which route is best for you. Then go out and find your compliment. Recruit or train up. You can also still find your leadership or management balance in the form of a trusted business advisor. Self employed or other team of one? It’s still worth recognizing your strength and building up on those skills, with any luck they will come in handy before you know it.

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