In addition to your own errors, you will have to deal with blunders made by people in your organisation. Consider this scenario: your key lieutenant comes into your office and closes the door. Bad news. The vendor contract he just negotiated and signed was based on a benefits case that was flawed - to the tune of $30 million. This actually happened to me at Xerox. It took at least two deep breaths to get going, but we crafted a plan to recover. First, we made senior executives aware of the potentially diminished benefits. Second, we asked our vendor to share the pain. (It was a reasonable request with such a large contract.) Together we found a way to offset most of the problem, by wringing additional efficiencies out of other parts of the contract. Third, my team evaluated where the misstep occurred and put some new checkpoints in place. The key lieutenant remained a very successful member of the organisation, having owned up to his mistake and learned from it.
When someone reporting to you makes a major mistake, it can threaten more than just your career. Your handling of the problem can have ramifications for the entire organisation. Here are a few principles to think about.
Accept the responsibility as yours. This is your organisation. You are accountable for all its results - good and bad. There are few things more pathetic than watching a senior manager assign blame to one of his people.
Remember the golden rule. No matter how frustrating the situation, it is important to listen well and not react emotionally. Remember when you had a similar experience.
Provide air cover for your people. Unless the misbehaviour is egregious (criminal acts, for instance), support your staff publicly. Be visible with customers and senior executives so that you can hear the "hall talk". Use facts to dispel the myths.
Take the opportunity to coach. Help your people discover what they might have done differently to produce the desired outcome. Be a sounding board and offer assistance. Help restore the confidence levels.
Empower employees to find the solution. It may feel safer to tighten the reins, but this will only lead to a disempowered workforce that avoids risk.
Stay calm and confident. Your reaction to the problem will be watched up and down the organisation. Your superiors will view this as a test of your ability to handle a crisis. Employees will wonder if mistakes are career killers. They'll ask themselves if it's safe to be honest, or whether they'll need to cover up. Your ability to differentiate incompetence from occasional errors will answer those questions.
Whether you blew it or someone in your organisation did, dealing with the error appropriately requires integrity and courage. Those are two of the key attributes of an effective leader. Keep in mind the rest of Pope's line: "To err is human; to forgive, divine."
Before retiring in 1999, Patricia Wallington was corporate vice president and CIO at Xerox. She is now president of Florida-based CIO Associates
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