How to turn failure into a career-enhancing experience

08 September 2016 -


How can the UK reframe its attitude towards business failure? Productive economies, it’s becoming clear, see adversity and setbacks as instructive. Over the past few months, CMI has built up evidence and real-life examples to support the case

Matt Scott

The way we deal with adversity says a lot about us as people. It also says a lot about our skills as managers.

Everyone will face a crisis at some point in their career. Whether it is a personal struggle or the collapse of a business, the events can be devastating, career changing or even life changing.

But when managed correctly, crises can also transform a career positively.

CMI’s Management 2020 report identified resilience as one of the top 10 traits of successful managers and leaders. Our latest report, Bouncing Back: Leadership Lessons in Resilience, details how managers can face adversity and come out stronger.

Failure is inevitable

A survey of more than 1,100 managers found that almost all (94%) have experienced a crisis at work.

The most common crises are significant conflict with a colleague (54%), unfair treatment (49%) and project failure (36%).

CMI chief executive Ann Francke said it is important that managers are open about these experiences so they, and others, can learn from past mistakes.

“Too often, people are uneasy talking about the times when things didn’t go right,” she said in the report. “But in a fast-paced and competitive world, we can’t get it all right all of the time. Believe me, I’ve had my share of failures – getting fired among them.

“The challenge for leaders is to learn from mistakes, failure and the crises that erupt around us to become more resilient for the future. Surviving – and, in time, bouncing back – starts with destigmatising adversity and making it easier to learn lessons. We need to have more open and inclusive cultures that tolerate risk and learn from challenges.”

“On a personal level, it means learning to accept, look forward and become more self-aware as a leader,” she added.

Underpinning the importance of learning from the past, almost half (45%) of managers surveyed by CMI do not feel that they have handled crises well, and just 36% were able to effectively manage how it affected them emotionally; 82% of managers described the emotional impact as severe or very severe.

And this emotional impact can affect managers in a number of different ways.

Of those managers surveyed who had experienced a work crisis, 81% said their confidence had suffered as a result, and almost two-thirds (63%) said their capacity to do their job had suffered as a result.

But while the negative effects are clear to see, there are also positives that come out of such crises.

Most managers who have overcome adversity feel they have learned from the experience. Some 84% say that, as a manager, they are more prepared to handle a similar crisis in the future, and 85% say they’re more prepared personally.

Stephen Robertson, who stepped down from the board at Woolworths shortly before its administration, said that his experience at the now-defunct retailer is helping him in the non-executive director roles he holds today.

“Woolworths has been invaluable in terms of knowledge, stories and experiences, which I am using to help other people,” he said. “I am able to say, ‘I was at Woolworths; I’ve been there and it’s ugly, so let’s do something else’.”

Enter the professionals

The absence of professional management was a common theme in the crises analysed by CMI.

Nick Leeson, the former rogue trader whose illegal activity and hidden deals brought down Barings Bank, highlighted the contribution of the management culture at the merchant bank.

“Every time anyone made a mistake, everything was hoovered up into the illegal account,” he said. “People weren’t being admonished or reprimanded; there was no real managerial-employee type of relationship at that time.

“They became comfortable with the way things were happening . Because the [illegal] account became this catch-all account, everybody was very comfortable. They were well looked after, and it became an accepted practice. Incompetence and negligence were at the forefront of everything that went on in that period.”

More than two thirds (68%) of those surveyed by CMI said senior management was not at all helpful in dealing with crises, while 61% said the same of their line managers.

When managers were asked what would have helped them cope better with the crisis, more support topped the list, with 52% wanting more support from senior or line management, and 15% more support from the organisation.

The power of a mentor

Mentoring can help managers find their own support through tough times. Of those managers surveyed who were mentored, two-thirds (66%) found it helpful in handling their crisis.

Despite the positives having a mentor brings, only 41% of managers surveyed said they currently have a mentor.

Charlotte Proudman, the barrister who was caught in a media storm after standing up to online sexism, did put her faith in mentors.

“I was fortunate in having a very close support network throughout all of the adversity,” she said. “But most particularly, I leaned on mentors – people who I knew through professional networks who had been there throughout most of my career, and perhaps in their own walks of life had experienced things similar to myself, but were more senior and therefore could guide me through this period.

“I also reached out to prominent feminists who themselves had experienced this kind of backlash; they were unbelievably helpful. They shared their own experiences, which were very similar to mine, and that made me realise I was not alone, and that it would come to an end at some point.”

So, before you find yourself embroiled in your next business crisis, take the time to learn the lessons of those who have been there before.

Do that, and you may find that your next period of adversity turns into a career-enhancing experience.

Find out more about CMI’s research on handling adversity, including video interviews, at Tweet @CMI_managers #bouncingback

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