- What is the biggest mistake you made?
- What did you learn from it?
Do you remember the worst or most embarrassing mistake you made at work? I made my share. The first that comes to mind is a spelling error on a new student orientation t-shirt. As chair of the residence hall orientation committee, we created a campus-wide program to welcome students. The title of the program was “Beginnings ‘80”. However, when we received 3,500 t-shirts from the printer we discovered an error. Beginnings was spelled incorrectly. An “n” was missing. I had been on the job for a year and wanted to make a good impression with my first major project.
I was so embarrassed. I didn’t feel comfortable giving shirts with a misspelled word, so I ordered 3,500 shirts with the correct spelling and paid for them out of my pocket. I didn’t go to my boss initially. I reasoned that I was accountable for the problem and therefore responsible for solving it. When I told my supervisor he was understanding. He appreciated my desire to make things right and then reimbursed me for out-of-pocket costs. That mistake taught me to pay closer attention to detail. As leaders, we are accountable and responsible for what occurs in our scope of authority whether it is of our own making or those who report to us. Paraphrasing Harry Truman, the buck stops with us, the leaders. However, don’t succumb to micro-managing. Consider brainstorming ways to do it better next time. Above all, make your expectations clear, provide training and trust your staff.
I believe there are two categories of mistakes: negligent and aggressive. The t-shirt scenario described above is an example of a mistake due to negligence. An aggressive mistake occurs when risks are taken. The underlying factor for both types of mistakes is the absence of complete information. If we lived in a perfect world all the information needed would be available before an action is taken. Now I don’t like making mistakes, but the only mistake I would be willing to risk is an aggressive one that helps an organization achieve its desired goals.
To lessen the chance of a mistake (of any kind), one must calculate the probability that something will go wrong. On the flip side, it is better to focus on success. If you are confident that everything has been done with available information and resources, move forward without hesitation. In some cases, the worst mistake you can make is to do nothing. If mistakes occur use them as learning experiences. What have your mistakes taught you?