Starting Again: Key Strategies for Women Leaders to Rebound After Failure
Sure, pick yourself up, dust yourself off and try again. We have all the sports clichés and the war metaphors to bandy about, plus a closet-full of trite sayings about winners and losers and how losing makes you stronger.
Practically speaking, in the aftermath of what many consider a political defeat as witnessed last week in the U.S. presidential election, many of us can use some specific guidance on how to move gracefully ahead. Not just in politics, but in business, leadership and beyond.
“As with all unexpected losses, there will be self-examination, recriminations and a lot of what-ifs,” according to Investors Business Daily in an editorial on the Hillary Clinton loss. The next steps are critical, and can move everyone “towards confrontation, or towards conciliation.”
Certainly, losing out on a promotion, failing to get the job after several rounds of interviews, or being denied funding, loans or critical support for your project or organization is not the same as losing an election for the highest office in the country. But there are strategies to heed for all women leaders, entrepreneurs and women in the workplace when faced with defeat.
One of the 9 Leadership Power Tools as defined by Gloria Feldt, co-founder and president of Take The Lead, is to “Carpe the Chaos.” So, embrace the reality and then forge a new plan.
While it may be small comfort, rates of failure are high for small business owners and entrepreneurs.
The U.S. Small Business Administration “estimates that more than 50 percent of all small businesses are destined to fail within the first year of operation,” according to Small Business. “For small businesses with employees, the SBA estimates that 10 to 12 percent close their doors each year. In comparison, sole proprietorships, which often operate without employees, fail at three times this rate,” writes Nicole Long.
Whatever the venue, avoiding blame is critical, but accountability is crucial. Still, experts say that blame in some corporate environments is distinctly gendered.
“Female chief executives are blamed more than men when businesses they run are plunged into crisis, research has found,” according to The Australian.
“The Rockefeller Foundation found that 80 per cent of news reports about female bosses facing corporate drama suggested they were a source of blame while just 31 per cent of those about male corporate leaders in similar situations took the same stance.”
According to the report, “Examining the treatment of those at the top of corporations, the Rockefeller Foundation identified 20 leaders of companies in the Fortune 500, Fortune 1,000 or the technology industry, and reviewed more than 100 news reports about their tenures.The research found that 49 per cent of articles about a female boss specifically mentioned her gender but only 4 per cent of articles about a male leader did the same.”
Whether or not blame is gendered, many women report learning from failure and moving forward. It does not have to feel like doom, instead, loss can be the inspiration for a new path to success.
“It’s OK to fail, but if you don’t learn from it and you keep making those mistakes, then shame on you,” said Venus Williams at the recent Inc. Women’s Summit in New York.
The seven-time Grand Slam champion was talking about her 1999 U.S. Open singles quarterfinal match. According to Baseline, she said, “On the court, I was just so nervous, I let fear take over. And the next thing I know, I’m shaking hands as the loser.”
Addressing the fear of failure is a large component in ultimate success. Bianca Miller-Cole, 27, CEO of The Be Group and the hosiery brand, Bianca Miller-London, tells Elle, “My advice to women is ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’, women tend to be more risk adverse than men but statistically are better in business, so if you have a great idea get the support you need and get started.”
Learning from mistakes is key.
“True leaders know that failure is just an opportunity to learn and do better. And if you aren’t failing, you aren’t trying. Progress over perfection is key to growth and success, both for individuals as well as corporations. And as leaders, it’s really our responsibility to mentor and teach our staff how to learn from mistakes, rather than to fear them,” writes Paolina Milana in Fast Company.
Another strong piece of advice following failure or attempting to avoid it, is simply saying, “I don’t know.” This goes against the popular, flip advice of “Fake it until you make it.”
Milana writes, “Some might think that admitting lack of knowledge would spell doom. But that’s the difference between a brave leader and a coward. After all, transparency, vulnerability, truth, and being real and trustworthy are the characteristics that make a boss a real leader.”
Of course success is the goal, but not always possible, even when predicted. So seeing failure as a possibility—if not probability– is key.
“It’s absolutely critical that anyone who’s thinking about becoming an entrepreneur – or who is already on that journey – plans for failure as well as for success,” writes Julia Elliott Brown in The Telegraph.
Brown, whose business, Upper Street, shut down, writes, “But by the end 2015 – at a point when investors were expecting us to have really taken off – the business simply wasn’t growing fast enough. Our cash was running out. I felt like the captain of the Titanic, with the iceberg looming rapidly. We were unable to secure further investment, nor find a buyer for the business in its entirety. We sold our key assets to a competitor, and our dream came to an end.”
She continues, “But sometimes failure is the outcome of doing something different, trying to shake up the market. And there should be no shame in that. It’s a message that all would-be or current start-ups need to hear. After all, the definition of an entrepreneur is: ‘a person who sets up a business or businesses, taking on financial risks in the hope of profit.’ We shouldn’t be afraid to fail, and we should celebrate those who take the risk.”
According to Neil Patel at Entrepreneur, there are six steps to rebounding after a failure. The first is acceptance. “You have to accept what has happened. You won’t enjoy it, but you have to accept it and realize that there is nothing you can do to change the mistakes that were made in the past.” He adds, “The cloud has a silver lining, though. You have one failure behind you. That means you’re one failure closer to success.”
Next, grieve, but do not stay emotional for too long. “Once the failure is final, give yourself the time you need to be upset, sad or angry. That could take three months. It could take 30 minutes. Take whatever time you need,” Patel writes. “You should avoid staying at this emotional nadir, however. There is benefit in negative emotion. The benefit is to give yourself the inspiration to pick up, move on and build again.”
Third, you need to be accountable. “When you take 100 percent responsibility for the failure, you can also take action to start your recovery,” Patel writes. After this, dissect your mistakes in a list. “Creating a list of your business “oops” is a serious exercise in humility. There’s nothing personally validating about seeing where you went wrong.”
The next thing you want to do is make an action plan. And finally, just get out there and do it. “There’s nothing like the taste of failure to light you up and make you hustle. You want to get as far beyond failure as possible. The only way to do that is through the passionate, relentless, energetic and all-consuming hustle.”
About the Author
Michele Weldon is editorial director of Take The Lead, an award-winning author, journalist, emerita faculty in journalism at Northwestern University and a senior leader with The OpEd Project. @micheleweldon www.micheleweldon.com