By Stephen Gilliland
I was surfing last week and almost got myself in big trouble. When surfing, there is a right way to fall off your board and a wrong way. The right way involves protecting your head from the surfboard, staying clear of the fins, and keeping off the rocks and coral on the ocean floor. But last week I took the wrong way. I lost my balance when trying to cut back and was going over. Rather than flop into the water, I tried to do a forward roll. Unfortunately, it turned out I was only in 18 inches of water and my head drove straight down into the sand, crunching my neck. I gingerly moved my head to make sure I could and then walked to shore to assess the damage. People have broken their necks this way, but I was lucky. A chiropractic adjustment and several sleepless nights later, my neck is slowly healing… a painful reminder of why I need to pay as much attention to falling off the board as staying on.
Like so many things in life, there is also a leadership lesson here. As leaders we tend to focus our attention, and the attention of our people, on strategies for success. What does it take to successfully compete? What does it take to deliver customer service excellence? What does it take to stay on the board? Most of us devote far less time and attention to falling correctly. How do we protect ourselves and our organizations when we fall? What does it mean to fall the right way?
I frequently challenge executives I teach to think about how they responded they last time one of their people messed up, or when they messed up. Did they focus on the outcome or the process? An outcome focus is on the consequences of the failure, such as financial loss or brand damage. This focus may tempt employees to avoid taking risks and to try to hide mistakes. A process focus looks at intentions behind the actions. Was the “fall” a result of pursuing an innovative idea that didn’t work? A process focus looks at the learning that resulted from the failure. We can learn much more from our falls if we really try to understand what happened and what could have been done instead. A process focus looks at how we protect the downside of the fall – the safety nets we put in place to limit losses. It encourages employees to innovate and allows organizations to learn from mistakes.
Service delivery errors are going to happen. Research has demonstrated that how we recover from service failures has an enormous impact on customer satisfaction and retention. Some research has even demonstrated greater customer commitment following a successful response to a service failure than before the failure. Innovations can also result from looking at failures through a different lens. Post-it Notes were the result of a failed super-strong adhesive by a 3M scientist.
Ten years ago I also had a bad fall from a surfboard when I kicked out in the water and sliced my foot open on my surfboard fin. Since that time I have resisted the urge to kick until I know where my board is after a fall. In the future, I will most assuredly be thinking about my head, neck, and body angle when coming off my board into the water. The temptation in surfing and in leadership is to focus on the ride. Effective leaders also think about the right way to fall.
Associate Dean, Executive Education