Do Our Clients Expect Perfection? A Follow Up to the Failure Wall

Last week I did a story about Dun & Bradstreet CEO Jeff Stibel (@Stibel) on how he had created a Failure Wall at his company in an attempt to build a tolerance for risk-taking and failure within the organization’s culture (Post Here).  I was just able to watch a similar interview that the Huffington Post had done a week prior with Jeff and three other guests.  I found the discussion with the other guests absolutely bizarre but worth addressing.  On one hand they were all praising Jeff for his ability to create a culture that has learned to tolerate failure without being fired.  But on the other hand they all expressed deep concern over what would happen if someone took a picture of someone’s failure from the wall and shared it on social media.  This is exactly the fear bordering on paranoia that Jeff is trying to address with his Failure Wall.

I think that their comments are very indicative of the same feedback that I have received from talking about the importance of failure over the years.  Here is a summary of the lessons that we can learn from their discussion:

Alyona Minkovski (@AlyonaMink) was the host of the event for the Huffington Post (Video Link) and the other guests were Shenan Reed (@Shenan) CMO of Morpheus Media, Dawn Rasmussen (@dawnrasmussen) the author of “Forget Job Security, Build Your Marketability,” and Jocelyn Greenky (@jocelyngreenky) the author of “A Girl’s Guide to Office Politics.”

Shenan had remarked that “a lot of clients come to our office that I am pretty positive that we wouldn’t want to showcase our failures for… we want them to think that we are perfect all the time and as far as they are concerned, we are.  We are perfect all the time.”  But my question is how much risk are you taking with your clients?  If the answer is between zero and a little then you’re right in that you should be near perfect.  But most marketing firms that I have worked with don’t play it that safe.  They take risks and sometimes those risks payoff but sometimes they don’t.  If that is closer to reality then your client certainly knows that fact too.  They are the one’s paying you to take risk and there is an assumption that some of those initiatives might fail.  How might your next conversation with the client go if you shared the risks involved in each of your proposals?  This one is safe but will get you a modest return and this one is a little more risky but it could have a huge payoff.  Then share with them that even if the initiative fails we could do x, y, and z.  I can tell you that from the client side there is nothing worse than big expectations for a new marketing campaign that eventually bombs.  Few things can kill the relationship faster.  But maybe things could be different?

A little later Shenan gets to the root of what is causing her anxiousness when she states that “I think that the thing that I get caught up on… is truly the word fail … It doesn’t give me that positive I want to come to work in the morning and read that board.”

Dawn had picked up on a concern that Jocelyn had made about possibly making yourself vulnerable by sharing your failures.  She had made this comment based on the idea of a coworker taking a picture of your failure and posting it to social media, “… how would this be construed outside of the current environment?  If someone took a picture would that damage your career brand at all because that was taken out of context.  Sure this could be an issue but it sounds like a worst case scenario.  We all have enough failures to choose from in our lives.  If one is a little too personal or a little too significant then just pick another.  Or perhaps they could just sign their first name or first initial?  At the end of the day, if a hiring manager passed over a candidate because the candidate had recognized one of their failures, learned from it, and was courageous enough to share it with their colleagues then I have to question the strength of the hiring organization.

Jocelyn later made the comment “the positive things that we have also accomplished [are] really important to celebrate as well.”  My take on this comment is that the Failure Wall isn’t meant to be the be-all end-all for employee recognition in the organization.  It is meant to provide reinforcement that leaders want employees to take calculated risks and if those risks fail the employee won’t be punished or fired.  Jeff goes on to mention how every other wall in the office is available to be devoted to success but this one is for sharing failures.  When we only recognize successes and ignore our failures we are subtly reinforcing that failure is something we don’t want.  This would be like a parent who compliments the child only on their “perfect” spelling quizzes and ignores the rest while not understanding why the child thinks that they need to have perfect scores every time.

Food for Thought:

  • We have all had failures in our lives, how hard are we trying to be perceived as perfect?
  • Do you get anxious when you think about having to share your failures?
  • Would you rather work for a company that addresses the idea of failure head on in an open and intelligent way?  Or an organization that tries to maintain an air of perfection?
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