Skip to contentSkip to navigation

Reframing Failure

We all fail at some point in our careers. The trick is to use it to your advantage.

Fear of failure is a topic that Leticia Gonçalves, president of Monsanto Europe, is passionate about. She faced such fears years ago while working for Monsanto in her home country of Brazil. In 2006, Gonçalves was asked to take on a management job at corporate headquarters in St. Louis, but she balked. “I didn’t think I was competent enough,” she recalls. Sleepless nights, butterflies in the stomach, and long talks with her husband, a lawyer who would have to give up his practice, finally yielded a decision to say yes.

Now Gonçalves, her husband, and their two American-born children are living in Switzerland, where she moved two years ago to head up Monsanto’s European operations. She has a few words of encouragement for others facing equally difficult choices: “We are afraid of what we don’t know. Fear of failure is not really based on facts. It’s emotional. If you can overcome that emotional barrier, you can do a lot.”

Such encouragement is sorely needed. “Even among people who are outwardly successful,” says Kristi Hedges, a Washington, DC-based executive coach, “there is a fear of either not measuring up, letting people down, or letting themselves down.” Hedges says the topic comes up “all the time” in her coaching to professionals at the highest levels of organizations. (Apparently, only in an intimate setting can many executives admit to such fears.)

The need to succeed is ingrained in our culture, and the indoctrination starts early. Even in the classroom, “you want to have the right answer and get good grades,” Hedges says. The emphasis is on getting the answer correct, not how you got there or learning from an incorrect answer. And despite the lip service that some companies pay to creating a safe environment for failure in order to nurture innovation, that clear line of thinking that divides success stories from failures follows most of us all the way up to the C-suite.

And while the corporate world is more dynamic and creative today than at any other time in history, it is also more demanding. Disruptive technologies, global competition, and incessant investor demands, to name a few stressors, are wreaking havoc on the mental state of corporate executives who face constant pressures and challenges.

Failure is also more visible. Success creates rising stock prices, heady pay packages, promotions, and public acclaim. But an executive who endures failure sees the company’s stock nosedive (along with her pay) and can lose her job and become a pariah in the media. Furthermore, social media can provide harsh play-by-plays of C-suite failures.

Is it any wonder we fear failure, now more than ever?

Sometimes the fear of failure and self-doubt aren’t based in reality, such as in the case of Gonçalves. Sometimes the objective data points to an actual possibility of a major screwup, but we persevere. And sometimes failure takes us by surprise. But regardless of the form it takes, at some point, if you haven’t already — deep breath — you are going to have to deal with the fear of failure, and with failure itself.

Those who succeed in school and in the early days of their career start having failures the more successful they become, Hedges explains. “The farther you go up the chain, you can’t have a level of information about everything you once did, there’s a lot more ambiguity, and you have to take leaps you wouldn’t have in an earlier part of your career,” she says. “So the chance of failing is always higher.”

So, the question isn’t “How do I avoid failing?” — it’s “Because failure is inevitable at some point in my career, how do I overcome the fear and use it to my advantage?”

The fear of failure, and the accompanying retribution, leads many executives to play it safe, says Carol Seymour, who founded Signature Leaders, a company that runs leadership programs for women executives. Seymour thinks perfectionism is part of the problem. “So many people get into these executive roles, they play not to lose rather than play to win,” she says. “If you play to win, you have to take some risks.”

The fear of failure, and the accompanying retribution, leads many executives to play it safe.

Stories of famous business leaders who’ve suffered monumental defeats are part of the corporate lexicon, including those of Steve Jobs and Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks. Business culture often claims to embrace failure because it leads to innovation. And innovation can’t occur without bold risks. But in reality, Hedges says, “most organizations don’t value [failure]. People don’t get paid to fail. In fact, failure is severely punished.” As a result, it’s often the people who have already suffered crushing defeats who can face the prospect of failing with aplomb. If you’ve survived it once, you figure you can make it a second time.

One CEO Hedges counseled “had a pretty spectacular fail in his career and decided that it didn’t kill him,” she explains. So when he was offered a new CEO job, he decided to take action. “I have one shot at this,” he told Hedges, “so there’s no reason not to just to go for it.”

Failures can help people take risks necessary to rise above the ordinary — and they can also teach executives the necessary humility to manage those risks the next time around.

“Success may instill confidence, but failure imparts wisdom,” says Gary Burnison, the CEO of Korn Ferry International and author of No Fear of Failure (Wiley 2011), which profiles courageous leaders. Burnison says his firm’s study of thousands of executives has found that the overriding characteristic of those who succeed is an agile mind and lifetime love of learning.

Indeed, learning from mistakes is a critical takeaway. Seymour recalls a man who took one of her leadership seminars. He told of being fired 18 months into his first CEO role. “He came back and sat in front of his peer group, and he talked about why he was fired,” she says. “He realized he had all these ideas for the company, all these initiatives, but now says he should have focused on three things that would be game changers.” It’s not just about knowing what went wrong, but also realizing what went right and using the good ideas embedded in the failure that can be repurposed the next time around.

The reality is that few business leaders make it through their careers without having some failures — often spectacular ones. Maybe the issue should be framed another way. “What we’re really looking for in leaders is resilience,” Hedges says. “Can you get yourself back up?” In the end, that’s what separates the winners from the losers.

Michelle Celarier

Michelle Celarier writes about the world of finance and power for New York magazine, FortuneInstitutional Investor, and Slate. She has reported on hedge funds and the people who run them for more than a decade.


Get s+b's award-winning newsletter delivered to your inbox. Sign up No, thanks
Illustration of flying birds delivering information
Get the newsletter

Sign up now to get our top insights on business strategy and management trends, delivered straight to your inbox twice a week.