Fall towards success
Failure, for most, is not the end of the world; rather, it is the ideal opportunity to learn and grow. Pete Baker explains.
Many years ago, I worked for a leading integration company in Minnesota, US. Over the course of 10 years, I became the top salesman and system designer in the company and also led the sales team.
We had a great, dedicated team at the company and builders, architects and our clients loved us. We were growing at a great pace and successfully expanding our referral network of builders, architects and interior designers.
In September of 2001, the 9/11 tragedy hit and like so many businesses in the US, we felt the contraction in consumer confidence and spending. This was the beginning of the end for the business.
This reduction was not a fatal blow by itself; rather, it brought to the surface some brutal facts that we had not fully realised or accepted in the past. Primarily, the company was saddled with an enormous amount of debt, accumulated over the previous two decades the company had been in business.
When the economy tanked, the business could no longer operate healthily and service the debt. This was a very sad and painful experience for the entire staff to endure. I am still proud to this day about the way the team pulled together, to continue to operate and deliver to end users the best possible experience. They conducted their daily duties with great pride and attention to detail, while the company walls were crumbling down around them.
We quickly came to the grim reality that sales alone could not save the company; it was literally drowning in debt. The owners of the company were either out of the office or unable to be reached by vendors, so they called me. Every day I was faced with angry vendors calling and demanding payment, while we also struggled to find products to finish projects. The manager of the bank called every day to say: “we are going to lock the doors today”. I would plead with him to give us some more time, that we had 30+ employees and countless customers counting on us. He would say “ok, let me think about it and I will call you this afternoon with my decision.” He would call that afternoon and ask what projects we had completed and money we had collected and then say “ok, we will keep it open”. The very next day, the same routine would start over again. This continued for months. It was a horrible experience to endure and one I never, ever want to go through again.
That business failed, not due to the amazing and dedicated employees who worked for the company; rather by the leadership team – which included me. I discovered that I could not sell my way out of the mess we were in and eventually the owners embarked on an effort to sell the company. This resulted in a company acquiring the assets and providing employment for many of the employees. I moved on and launched my own integration company.
Over the subsequent five years, my integration company grew rapidly, doubling in revenue every year while remaining extremely profitable. I had an amazing team (again) and through their hard work and dedication we became a well-respected, leading integration company in the area. I eventually sold the company and moved to the manufacturing side of the business. I can say with great confidence that my company never would have became so financially strong and successful had I not gone through the painful experience of failure with the previous company. I regularly thought of that banker, the employees and how they were affected, the vendors, the clients and all who were impacted by the failure of that business. This fuelled my drive to succeed!
Failure can be a challenging thing to overcome and it comes in many forms: bankruptcy, lost prospective clients, terminated business relationships, lost trust, legal battles, employee conflicts, etc… Sometimes, it can be very hard to pull away and reflect on what has happened and find some insight to learn from and become better through the failure. In my case, I learned a tremendous amount that has certainly helped me in my professional endeavours that followed. And, I am not alone.
Many (maybe even most) enormously successful leaders in our world encountered significant failures before achieving success. A few notable examples include Walt Disney, who was fired from a newspaper job for ‘not being creative enough’; Albert Einstein failed his entrance exam for the Zurich Polytechnic School; Sylvester Stallone was rejected by talent scouts 1,500 times; and Thomas Edison, who holds 1,093 patents and famously invented the lightbulb, reportedly failed an enormous 10,000 times.
So, what can we learn from failure? I really love the way Albert Einstein looked at failure: “Success is failure in progress”. Or how, when a reporter asked him how it felt to fail so many times, Thomas Edison simply replied: “I have not failed 10,000 times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those 10,000 ways will not work. When I have eliminated the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will work.”
I believe there are several key elements that can be learned from my experience:
- Learn: Take a long hard look at any failure and try to find the silver lining: what did I learn? How would I do things differently the next time? What could I change now to prepare for the future?
- Prepare for the storm: Always think out one, three, six, 12 or 24 months. You may be thriving and extremely healthy, but where will you find your business in the months and years ahead? I have a constant script running in my head: “fill the well, before you are thirsty.”
- Resilience and persistence: Business (and life) can and will throw you curve balls and we really never know what is around the corner. The more you get knocked down the better you will be at getting back up, while also being a little less skittish about the next punch that may be coming. Get back up, brush yourself off and get back in the fight.
- Respond don’t react: At the start of my professional journey, I was shaken much easier than I am now and was prone to react instantly. This is not to say that it never happens, but I tend to take a deep breath now and step back to evaluate the situation and gather all the facts before responding.
- Think about success: Reflect not only on the failure, but also remember the success(es) achieved. Maintain confidence in past success and visualise future success ahead!
Henry Ford once said: “Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.”
I do not set out to fail, but I do not fear it either. I strive for success, always. But I am also grateful for the invaluable lessons I have learned along my journey and am excited to continue learning how I can become better. I hope you also find a way to turn any failure into future success.
I would love to hear from you. Please email me anytime at: firstname.lastname@example.org