Mistakes are inevitable in business, from entry-level employees all the way to the corner office. For business leaders, the methods used in handling a major misstep are crucial in maintaining strong connections with clients and staying engaged with employees.
Maybe the mistake comes from carelessness or a flawed process. Or maybe it’s tied to experimentation. As Steve Jobs once said, “Sometimes when you innovate, you make mistakes. It is best to admit them quickly, and get on with improving your other innovations.”
Here’s a look at some ways that CEOs can navigate mistakes and the fallout that results from them.
This is the key element of reacting to a significant error in business. Making excuses is counterproductive, and won’t inspire much confidence among managers and employees. Matthew Toren writes about this for Entrepreneur, saying that honesty “shows you have integrity.”
“It’s so easy to point fingers when things go wrong or even to not speak up and hope that no one notices the error,” he writes. “However, blame and omission are not effective leadership tools for any entrepreneur who wants to stay in the game long. What kind of example does that exhibit for your team and what kind of reputation are you building if (and when) your client figures out that there’s a problem? By being proactive about the problem and honestly claiming your errors, you’re actually very likely to endear your staff and customers to you even more.”
The business leader who takes responsibility for mistakes can make a strong impression with staff, clients and peers. Stepping up in these moments can also help reduce the turmoil surrounding the mistake. In a story for Forbes by Amy Morin, Geoff Gross of Medical Guardian describes the importance of taking ownership and then moving forward.
“Let go of the pride that doesn’t want you to admit that you’re wrong,” he says. “And don’t waste time letting the guilt or shame consume you. Use that time to come up with a solid action plan to fix it (or at least reduce the negative impacts of your actions) in conjunction with a plan on how you can avoid such a problem in the future.”
Work toward solutions
CEOs will have to communicate well with those who are affected by a significant mistake, including clients. In Toren’s Entrepreneur piece, he suggests a three-step process, noting that taking an upfront approach “shows you’re relatable.”
- Determine a solution: “You may have to get creative if it’s a deadline that has been missed,” he writes, “but figure out how you can deliver on your original promise in some way as soon as possible.”
- Reach out to those affected: “Let them know first that a mistake was made. You don’t need to get into all the details because that can quickly sound like excuses, just let them know the problem. Then present them with the solution you already devised and see if that makes amends. If it does, great! If it doesn’t, see if there’s any negotiating to be done to find an agreeable solution.”
- Follow up: “It’s necessary for you to go above and beyond to own up to your mistakes. A follow-up call or visit will set things right and ensure your customer or client knows they are valuable.”
Put ego aside
It may be natural for a CEO to feel bumps and bruises after making a significant mistake. For someone who has reached the pinnacle of an organization, these pains can take their toll. But it’s important to learn from these errors and to allow the solution process to happen. Apple CEO Tim Cook discussed some of the company’s missteps in a 2016 story by Jena McGregor in The Washington Post. One of those examples is when Apple initially replaced Google’s map function on the iPhone with its own version.
“Maps was a mistake,” Cook said. “Today we have a product we’re proud of. [But] we had the self-honesty to admit this wasn’t our finest hour and the courage to choose another way of doing it. That’s important. It’s the only way an organization learns. The classic big-company mistake is to not admit their mistake. They double down on them. Their pride or ego is so large that they can’t say we did something wrong. And I think the faster you do that, the better — change gears to something else. If you’re honest, people will give you the benefit of the doubt. But if you have your head stuck in the sand and you just keep doing it, I think you lose your employees and your customers as well.”
A CEO who has established a strong working relationship with the team and with clients will be better equipped to handle a major mistake. The support he or she has earned can make a difference in the next steps that are taken. In a story for Harvard Business Review, Jim Whitehurst writes that accountability builds engagement.
“Think about it: who would you rather trust — the person who denies anything is amiss or the person who admits their error and then follows up with a plan to correct it?” he writes. “Better yet, what if that same person who admits they made a mistake reaches out to their team for ideas on how to make things right? I’ve found that leaders who show their vulnerability, and admit that they are human, foster greater engagement among their associates.”
Get the solution right
How a business goes about solving a scenario is a crucial step. In Morin’s Forbes story, Rob Butler of Maestro Health stresses having the complete and proper solutions all mapped out before reaching out to affected parties.
“You can’t start the remedy process until you know what the total damage is,” he writes. “Most people will give you a second chance. That said, nothing dilutes your credibility and apology more than having to go back and report a ‘worse than I initially thought’ second communication. ‘Hey, so I told you yesterday we messed up 10 of your orders, actually it was 15.’ Credibility party over.”
Ease up on ‘self-flagellation’
At some point, after a mistake has been acknowledged in an up-front and honest manner, business leaders will need to move on. This can help the company stay focused on the larger goals, rather than dwell on the error. Gwen Moran wrote about this in a story for Fast Company, including commentary from Supriya Desai of management consulting firm ASC Advisory.
“Mistakes and missteps can be embarrassing, and it’s easy to get mired in beating yourself up,” Moran writes. “But no one wants to hear the 20th bout of sorry-laden self-loathing. You admitted it. You apologized. You tried to make it right and ensure it never happens again. … Apologizing repeatedly can be a sign of weakness and actually hurt your credibility, Desai adds.”