Sunday, February 14, 2010

Encourage Failure!
Or settle for mediocrity

By Jim Walton
President & CEO, Brand Acceleration, Inc.

When I was just starting my career, I was an advertising manager at a retail business which was owned by a husband and wife whose personalities could not have been any different. As the young, new ad guy, I desperately wanted to demonstrate my abilities and often brought the owners new and unique ideas. The way they responded set the tone for my three-year tenure with their company.

His approach
A young business owner, this guy was a natural-born salesman. With a short attention span and a line of bull about four miles long, he was one of those people who could make everyone love him in an instant. He really didn’t want to deal with the minutia of business ownership but he loved working with me on the advertising. Whenever I took him an idea, he would ask a few clarification questions and then ask, “How is this going to make me money?” If I could give him a clear and logical answer, he would say, “Do it!” A natural risk-taker, he would quickly measure risk versus reward and then make a decision. He clearly understood that higher risk usually meant higher reward and he just loved the game. If my idea succeeded, he publicly gave me praise. If it was less than successful, he would ask how we could change the effort and then encourage me to keep trying.

He dealt with vendors in the same positive manner. In his eyes, they were friends and business partners from whom he could learn and benefit. He treated them with respect and reverence. They returned his friendship with great ideas, great service and great deals. This guy was a relationship master.

Her approach
An equal owner in the business, she saw her husband as being too nice to employees and vendors. As a “boss,” she thought it was her responsibility to be as tough as nails and to micromanage every detail. The result was that employees feared her and rarely took ideas her way. On the rare occasion that they did take her an idea, she typically picked it apart in an abusive and humiliating way. In her mind, if she could diminish the minions, she elevated herself. If the idea actually was used, it was only after she tweaked and twisted it to the point where she could call it her own.

Vendors feared and despised her. She was unbelievably demanding, verbally abusive and reaped the seeds she sewed. They avoided her like the plague and offered her no special level of customer service. What would be the point?

Henry Ford once said, “Failure is the opportunity to begin again more intelligently.” A brilliant inventor of motorized vehicles and the father of the assembly line, Ford repeatedly tried and failed before eventually creating the Quadricycle in 1896.

Ford’s good friend and fellow inventor, Thomas Edison, reportedly tried and failed more than 10,000 times before successfully inventing the filament light bulb. In his famous Invention Factory Edison employed an entire team of inventors whose job was to try, fail, and try again until they developed something of value. As a result, Edison eventually held 1,093 patents for such inventions as the alkaline storage battery, recorded music, motion pictures and many other products far too numerous to mention.

Today, the auto industry is swirling with news of Toyota’s problems with sticking gas pedals. As unfortunate as it is, my gut feeling is that Toyota will come through the turmoil with an even stronger and more respected brand. Why? Because this is a company that has made countless deposits into its bank of brand respect. Not only do they have a history of building great products, they also have a very strong reputation as a great company. Now, in a time of difficulty, their customers and consumers around the globe are very likely to forgive their mistake because of the power of their highly respected brand. Toyota’s approach, as I would expect, is to admit their error, ask for forgiveness, make the problem right, learn from the mistake and improve their product and service.
I recently saw a very interesting video from another auto industry giant, Honda. Entitled “Failure: The Secret to Success,” it is an encouraging testament to the philosophy that we can all learn from our mistakes. It’s only eight minutes and I would encourage you to click this link to view it for yourself.

Do you encourage failure?
How are mistakes viewed in your workplace? Are they seen as unforgivable failures or as opportunities to learn and improve? I see the art of management much the same as parenting. A child should be encouraged to try new things, take risks and make a few mistakes. That’s the only way they’ll ever have the courage and desire to take risks and become successful in the workplace. If employees and vendors, like children, are micromanaged, protected and put down for their failures, they, and your organization, may be forever doomed to mediocrity.

Brand Acceleration is a full-service advertising, brand management and public relations firm operating from Indianapolis, Indiana and Charlotte, North Carolina. The agency’s focus is on economic development, architecture/engineering/construction, real estate and motorsports.


  1. You are right Jim! I have several quotes that come to mind when thinking about failure.

    Success is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.

    Many of life's failure's are people who were close to success when they gave up...

    To guarantee success, act as if it were impossible to fail

    Thanks for helping us remember that success is just failure turned inside out. We also need to look at Abraham Lincoln and see how many failures he had before he became President