The benefits of failure: Easy in theory but hard to admit and talk about

Earlier this month I received a professional request that was a first.

The request was from a former recruitment industry MD. His specific request was that I remove two of my blogs that contained extensive commentary about a company that he was the MD of (at the time of writing the blogs in question). I had named the MD in these blogs and made, what I regarded (and still regard) as valid points about that company’s performance and the MD’s various public pronouncements.

The former MD came straight to the point about why he was making the request – when his name and the name of his former employer were combined in an online search the first search result was one of my blogs. The former MD stated that he knew that this blog, and others of mine mentioning him, were significant factors in missed opportunities costing him “at least six figures”.

After reflecting overnight I called him back the following morning to advise him I was agreeing to his request. We had a positive conversation and we left open the possibility of us meeting in the future to discuss the recruitment industry and other topics of mutual interest. The two blogs in question have now been deleted.

I did not agree to his request lightly. Although I have been on the end of some pretty robust ‘feedback’ from specific individuals about the content of specific blogs over the years I have never deleted a blog before, or even made substantial corrections or inserted legal disclaimers.

My decision came down to two points:

1) The MD in question had won significant respect from me because he picked up the phone and called me in order to make the request in person. It would have been easier to send an email or have a lawyer draft something more formal (threatening, even)

2) Although I stand by the validity of my blogs I am not indifferent to the impact that they may cause. I would not sleep comfortably knowing that words I had written were causing ongoing economic harm to an individual, regardless of how valid I felt the commentary was. Deleting a blog or two makes zero difference to my life but in so doing I may remove a major barrier preventing another person from securing a professional opportunity; one that may otherwise elude him.

The reasons the former MD outlined for his request got me thinking about two things to do with recruitment decision making.

Firstly, I thought more about the importance of putting information about a candidate into its appropriate context.

Although my blogs referenced publicly available information and were specific and direct in their commentary I was only an outsider looking in, with no access to any inside knowledge about the company and its executives (as I stated in one of the blogs). I did not (and do not) know the demarcation between the Board and the MD in terms of the company’s decisions and public utterances. It’s quite possible (probable, even) that my commentary about the MD was incomplete, inaccurate and/or unfair.

I’m only a blogger, an amateur who writes about topics of interest to himself, generating no financial return. Surely any person seriously considering hiring a person of the experience and seniority of the former MD in question would be able to accurately assess the context of my blog and give it an appropriate weighting (hopefully very little) in any hiring or engagement decision they may make.

Secondly, I thought about how struggle, underperformance and failure are viewed by recruiters and hiring managers.

Although it would be hard to find facts supporting the view that this former MD’s relatively short tenure at the company in question was an outstanding success, I would argue that what’s more important in the context of a future position, is what he learned from his struggle (or underperformance or failure; pick the adjective you think applies) and how he would potentially apply that learning in another context.

Two of the longest recent premiership droughts in the AFL were broken by Geelong (44 years between 1963 and 2007) and Richmond (37 years between 1980 and 2017) after both clubs had persisted with senior coaches (Mark Thompson and Damien Hardwick, respectively) who each had six previous seasons as senior coach at their respective clubs without making the Grand Final, or even being discussed as a serious premiership contender.

Both Thompson and Hardwick were able to learn from their respective struggles (underperformance? failure?) enabling them both reach the pinnacle of football success in their seventh season as senior coach.

Although it’s easy to mouth the platitudes of learning from failure and how valuable it is the reality is that most people who make that sort of statement do so from the lofty position of current success. Accordingly most hiring managers look upon any so-called failure in the very recent-past as a reason not to hire rather than as a reason to become interested in what the candidate gained from that experience.

I was encouraged by the courage and honesty displayed by Hallis’s Victorian Business Manager, Justin Samlal on his LinkedIn profile when I read the following about his venture into self-employment

Yes, he used the F word – failure.

That takes some courage.

I was interested to know how likely it was for a senior candidate to emulate Justin’s use of the word failure within his or her resume. In an entirely unscientific exercise I emailed a handful of executive recruiters to ask them that exact question.

All the responses were the same: 0%

The answers to my other two questions were also very similar across the respndents.

What percentage of candidates in an interview with you, admit to any sort of failure in a role?  10% was the most common response.

What percentage of candidates are comfortable discussing “failure’ in an interview with you? The responses varied the most however the average was 20%

Tier One People Director and Co-founder Dexter Cousins added a comment to his response to the third question; and it’s pure gold.

”Usually they (the candidate who is comfortable discussing failure) get the job or come second – if you can envisage me interviewing 10 people for a shortlist of 3 I will usually have one person who is comfortable, transparent. Here is the distinction – the person who gets the job can recognise and highlight how that failure made them a better leader and improved them as a person.”

Davidson Group General Manager, Executive & Boards, and 2016 SARA Recruiter of the Year (Australia),  Clare McCartin made a similar observation.

“The best candidates do this…failure is no longer seen as a negative in the current world where if you’re not curious enough to find out how you can do things differently you’re going backwards- obviously it’s learning from failures and ensuring there is no pattern (eg inability to get along with others) behind the failure that matters.

I would say 25-30% of candidates understand that failure is no longer seen as a major deficit but can be seen as a preparedness to push into new uncharted territory or simply do things differently or more efficiently. These candidates also understand that being able to describe a failure they have had means they are reflective leaders and take ownership.”

Bingo!

There you have it: The benefits of failure – easy in theory but hard to admit and talk about. But the reward that awaits the self-aware and courageous person who does so can often be the slight, but important, advantage that leads to the next desirable opportunity.

4 Comments

  1. Nigel Harse on 28/06/2018 at 3:46 pm

    Good on you Ross and thanks for sharing!

  2. Martina on 28/06/2018 at 9:36 pm

    Kudos to you Ross. That was a really honourable thing to do – a great article.

  3. Mark Smith on 03/07/2018 at 8:16 am

    Enjoyed the integrity implied on all levels in this post Ross. Well said.

  4. James Kennedy on 03/07/2018 at 9:14 am

    Great read Ross – lots to take away and think about, that’s for sure. Thanks

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