“You’re fired!” It’s the trademark catchphrase of Donald Trump, the tycoon-turned-Presidential candidate. I still cringe when I hear that line. His body language when he says it is unmistakeable: “You failed, so you’re a loser.” In Trump’s world he’s always a winner. Missteps are always someone else’s fault. And failure isn’t just bad: it’s humiliating.
Based on my own experience growing some of the most recognizable home-services brands in North America (including 1-800-GOT-JUNK?), I see another path to running a business: show vulnerability. Admit your mistakes. Let employees understand that risk-taking and failing are part of the process. That’s not just how you build success — it’s how you build a company powerful enough to transform an industry.
Creating a culture of vulnerability starts at the top
We have a daily stand-up meeting or “huddle” where the whole company attends. Photo by Jeremy Jude Lee.
Vulnerability comes from owning up to your mistakes. You can’t fix the problem until you put it out there.
I think back to 2008. We were growing fast and needed to hire a chief operations officer to manage that growth. My top advisors wanted us to take time to find the right person. But I had other ideas.
One candidate was the president of a U.S. Fortune 500 company, who had managed 6,000 stores and 30,000 people. Without hesitating, I hired the applicant on pedigree. Unfortunately, it soon became clear that this exec didn’t fit our corporate culture and it began to hurt the business. From a severance standpoint alone, letting this person go was a costly mistake.
I could have pointed fingers at my advisors, or even dumped the blame on the new executive. Instead, I went back to my leadership team and apologized. I learned the hard lesson to hire slow — and fire fast.
In the wake of that letdown, we took time to hire a replacement COO. I can’t remember how many cross-country flights I made to find someone, but when we signed on the dotted line, we were sure we had found the right person. Under his leadership, we’ve added three new companies to O2E Brands.
It’s not hard to find examples of the power of vulnerability even at top companies. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz literally shed tears not long ago as he apologized for major layoffs affecting thousands of employees. By fessing up to his failings and showing humility, it reminded his team that Starbucks is a company that cares about its workers.
Putting yourself out on a limb creates trust in your organization. Acknowledging failures directly is the first step to fixing them.
Creating a trickle-down culture of risk-taking
This spirit needs to start at the top, but it can’t end there. It’s key to create space for other people in your organization to be willing to fail, too.
For our company, that’s the Willing to Fail room (no coincidence, by the way, that its abbreviation is WTF). However, it’s more than four walls, it’s a philosophy. In a competitive marketplace, it’s OK to take risks. Progress depends on trying out new, untested ideas. Not all of them will succeed – that’s a given. But failure and innovation are two sides of the same coin.
Audacious, hairy and sometimes ridiculous ideas have been hashed out inside the Willing to Fail room and stem from this same attitude. Some of these ideas have flopped – but some have been gold. For example, without embracing a WTF attitude, we would never have expanded into Australia, nor would we be talking about how to achieve a billion dollars in revenue.
Vulnerability can also be adopted in day-to-day processes. Each morning we have a 7-minute high-energy huddle attended by the whole company. We bring everyone together to go over our good news but also to address the most urgent problems that need fixing – right out in the open.
Problems can be big or small – but the huddle offers an open venue for sharing them and taking the first step toward solutions. For example, five years ago one of my most successful franchise partners asked me in front of everyone, “With all due respect, do you think you’re the CEO to take this company to the next level?”
Needless to say, it hurt. At the same time, it sparked some serious introspection: I had vision and a will to innovate, but I was less skilled at overseeing daily operations and creating strategies for a rapidly expanding company. Instead of shrinking from the problem, I decided to hire a COO and employ a “two in the box” leadership strategy. The combination of my passion and the focused direction of our president, Erik Church, changed our company’s trajectory. Now I’m grateful that someone asked that awkward question!
So imitate Trump if you want, and create an impenetrable force field between winners who don’t tolerate failure and losers who get sacked. But bear in mind that there’s a certain power in vulnerability that Trump will never understand, and that a straight-up, epic fail can lead to surprising new ventures. When a WTF spirit starts at the top and spreads throughout an organization, employees will spur growth in unexpected ways.
Brands, which includes companies like 1-800-GOT-JUNK?, WOW 1 DAY PAINTING, You Move Me and Shack Shine. He's passionate about helping others grow small to medium businesses and corporate culture. Tweet him @brianscudamore
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