CEO Success Comes By Recognizing and Learning From Mistakes

I am a father, I also run a business. While there aren’t many parallels between the joys of parenthood and delights of working alongside an inspiring team, I believe there is one clear similarity between the two. Ultimately, in any area of life, we learn by the mistakes we make, not only how to improve and develop, but also how to do things differently next time.

I will freely admit, I am no expert. But, my experience and opinion is very much of the fact that true learning only comes through trying and failing. Only through this lens, can you look hard at yourself and understand how you can do better the next time around.

I run a speaker bureau with some of our most prestigious speakers being leading entrepreneurs who have amazing stories of how they escalated an idea to a multi-million-pound turnover. Most of them speak openly about their tricky paths to success, but some tell their story as if it was one upward winning streak. Either, they were unfathomably lucky or they have mis-remembered the rocky road to riches.

We live in a time of great uncertainty, when new challenges are faced daily in business, politics and people’s personal lives. Yet, as a society we have come to always expect positive results, assuming nothing less than perfection, else the person or activity is immediately positioned in a negative light.

In the business world, when a company is failing, a new executive team is parachuted in, immediate change is expected, and success is required. The stock market and industry press react to the immediacy, never looking below the layers to understand the longer-term ambitions of the leadership team. The average length of stay for a FTSE100 CEO in 2015 was just over 5 years. For a CEO to turnaround this size of company means they have to deliver from day one. Surely, if they can’t make mistakes, how will they learn, move forward and deliver sustained change?

Some of the greatest business leaders in the UK had time to make mistakes and learn from them. For example, Terry Leahy was at Tesco for over three decades and as CEO for 13 of those years. Anita Roddick started and ran The Body Shop for 30 years and Richard Branson has headed up the Virgin Group for over 40 years. When did time become a commodity that was so easily disregarded? At what point did we decide that mistakes are ‘fair game’ and should never be seen as part of a positive learning curve?

Should we blame the relentless 24-hour news cycle for this? The rise of technology has meant that every person has access to real time information which they can consume, chew up and spit out as fast as it appears. It seems very superficial to put our need for perfection down to this, as there is definitely more to this story. Whether it be business or politics, we want to see those in charge demonstrate clear leadership and direction, to give us comfort and strength to draw upon – we need the security of knowing that at least some people know how to take us forward.

But, if making mistakes and learning from them is one of the truest and clearest ways to develop, then surely society needs to stop seeing this as vulnerability, and embrace it. However, we can’t help but feel let down when mistakes are ostensibly ‘learnt from’ but the same patterns are still emerging, again and again. Surely, then and only then, should we challenge our leaders as mistakes are becoming part of the fabric, instead of re-stitched.

Nick Gold at

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