“Oops, I Failed Again”

Face-to-face conversations among CEOs reminds and reassures them that that failure is, in fact, the norm and does not preclude success.

We recently conducted a focus group with nonprofit CEOs in New York City. Given all the recent research that points to the value of peer-to-peer support for nonprofit leaders, we wanted to know why so little of this is done online. One CEO immediately responded, “We don’t have time.”

The facilitator of the focus group was taken aback. “How do you have time to come to this two-hour focus group but don’t have the time to go online?”

The leaders in the room saw the return on investment for a well-organized meeting with their peers to be much greater than anything they could do in the digital commons. They were more confident that they would get actionable insight into management techniques. But perhaps more importantly, the meeting provided an emotional and psychological benefit that is rarely met: a space for candid conversation about successes and failures in a safe, supportive environment.

Face-to-face conversations with other leaders—commercial and nonprofit—remind us that failure is, in fact, the norm and does not preclude success.

“If [CEOs’ successes] were graded on a curve, the mean on the test would be 22 out of a 100,” Ben Horowitz of Andreessen Horowitz recently wrote on TechCrunch. “This kind of mean can be psychologically challenging…because nobody tells you that the mean is 22.”

If the buck stops at the CEO, every failure in our organization ends up piled on my desk—whether it’s a typo on the website, a bad hire, or a missed market opportunity. After just a week, the failures stack up so high that it is hard to see past the mountain of complaints.

I remember when I was running product management at a venture in the Bay Area a dozen years ago, my reaction was the same: “Who the hell is running this place?” Now as CEO of my own organization, the disturbing answer is: me.

For Ben and other fellow CEOs from the Hip Hop Generation, these challenges are hard to accept. If, as Eminem said so well, “Success is my only ^&$%ing option and failure’s not,” it’s hard to stay the course as the failures mount every hour. You suspect that your team and board also see the growing list of shortcomings and wonder how you could have let them happen. How can you not feel incompetent?

One of the greatest gifts of my career was being asked to the join the board of Public Architecture. While passionate about its mission, from day one I was deeply concerned with nearly every aspect of its work. It failed to follow the most basic best practices in staffing, fundraising, and strategic planning.

And yet I soon realized that they were achieving astounding things that felt out of reach for my own organization, where we put such pride in doing things “right.” It placed the seriousness of all my daily failures in a new light.

Success, it appears, is about doing a few things right in the presence of countless inevitable failures. This is the difference between management and leadership: The act of management is ultimately about control, while leadership is about letting go and trusting others and the universe. It is about being able to take risks in the face of bad odds and having the resilience to see a 22 percent success rate as a realistic standard.

This, I suspect, is why the heads of nonprofits find so much value in coming together in person. Nonprofit leaders need to be able to get out of their bubbles and see that they are not alone in facing continuous failure. This can’t be done online.

While we need to continue to build formal peer-to-peer support groups for nonprofit leaders, I recommend another path. Nonprofit executive directors should join more nonprofit boards where they can not only gain perspective, but also provide critical support to one of their peers. 

Read more stories by Aaron Hurst.

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  • BY Laura Weiss, Taproot Foundation

    ON October 4, 2011 07:50 PM

    Until more corporate cultures reject the antiquated incentive programs that govern employee behaviors, the barriers to honest failure will persist.  Often our only hope to learn from our mistakes is to share them with others in safe environments outside of our own organizations.  While various forms of peer-to-peer networks can partially address this need (a business school colleague of mine and I set up a peer-mentoring group over a decade ago which survives to this day), I would challenge organizations of all kinds to find creative ways in which to institutionalize failure as a deliberate activity.  One of the best ideas I’ve heard so far?  Set a failure target as part of each employee’s annual review.

  • BY John Cary

    ON October 4, 2011 08:39 PM

    I think this line says it all: “The act of management is ultimately about control, while leadership is about letting go and trusting others and the universe.” Both are vitally important acts of bravery, and arguably best in balance.

  • BY John Tedstrom CEO, GBCHealth

    ON October 5, 2011 05:07 AM

    Thanks for these important insights.  Extremely useful to all NGO leaders.

  • Alexandra Larschan, NYU Wagner's avatar

    BY Alexandra Larschan, NYU Wagner

    ON October 5, 2011 07:38 AM

    As an MPA student it’s valuable to see that you don’t have to be perfect to be an executive director—and you probably won’t be.  A large part of the classroom experience is learning from the successes and failures of fellow students.  Outside of a formal academic setting, encouraging executive directors to join nonprofit boards is an important way to continue learning from peers.  Nonprofit executive directors can offer peers valuable support and a shared perspective that board members from the corporate sector can’t always provide.

  • Linda Myers, Board Member: RAP's avatar

    BY Linda Myers, Board Member: RAP

    ON October 8, 2011 08:13 AM

    As newly elected member of a Board whose nonprofit is founded on the premise of peer-to-peer support for challenged youth, reading this confirms to me that our Executive Director is already ahead of the curve at the grass roots level.

  • BY James Weinberg, CEO, Commongood Careers

    ON October 9, 2011 07:06 PM

    Kudos, Aaron, not just for continuing to refresh the sector’s dialogue with consistently out-of-the-box perspectives, but I believe for also being the first person to ever quote Eminem in an SSIR post.  When I was a kid, a ski coach told me, “If you ain’t fallin, then you ain’t tryin hard enough.”  Later in life, a business mentor used to say: “I try 10 things and succeed at 4, while my competitors try 3 and succeed at 2; which still leaves me twice as far ahead of them at the end of the day.”  As we continue to examine the various impacts that social entrepreneurs have had on the larger nonprofit sector, I hope that increased “risk tolerance” will be among them.  We need to de-catastrophize our failures, leave our fragile egos behind, and embrace every learning opportunity we get if we really hope to achieve our potential.  The events that Commongood Careers have hosted across the country over the past few years have been met with the same enthusiasm for all the same reasons that you have noted here.  I couldn’t agree more about the important role that these peer-network convenings play in the development of a leader.  But, I also hope that technology will catch up with psychology if we are ever going to scale these valuable show-and-tell rap sessions.

  • BY Katie Keats

    ON October 15, 2011 01:33 PM

    I think this highlights the need for a new definition of failure… Failure is not the act of making a mistake, rather it is the result of making a mistake and failing to learn from it. I believe if failures were measured this way it would highlight a lot of hidden successes!

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