What is the best business mistake you ever made? I interviewed dozens of women CEOs and C-level executives for my book, Naked in the Boardroom: A CEO Bares Her Secrets So You Can Transform Your Career, to ask what they learned from mistakes. How can you recover faster? What insights did you gain as a result of the mistake?
I held on too long. Most of the women felt they delayed a tough move-particularly in the area of firing-longer than they should have. Dianne Snedaker, former CEO of Ketchum Advertising, now CMO of First Republic Bank, spoke for many: Mistakes were all about not making hard decisions about people earlier. It’s just like personal relationships, sometimes you hang in wanting to believe you can change things, but you need to know when to leave, when it’s crossed a line to a point you are being compromised. Karen Behnke, the founder and former president of Execu-Fit Health Programs, was blunt: As soon as you suspect it’s not going to work out, fire the person. It’s better for you, for them, for the business.
Mary Ann Byrnes, CEO of Pro Trade, says she has stayed too long in the wrong job: When things start going wrong for reasons outside of my control, I feel I can’t be viewed as a quitter, I don’t want to be credited with the problem, have to stay until it’s fixed.
This hanging-on-too-long applies to other business decisions: Marion McGovern, co-founder and President of M2, a broker of independent consultants, was shocked by a landlord’s claim that they were owed $380,000 and ongoing revenues because of a technical clause in her lease triggered by the sale of her business. Her company incurred over $1 million in legal fees and severe business disruption (being served with eviction notices and endless court filings) before she decided to settle the suit. I was right on principle, but I should have settled earlier. Litigation takes on a life of its own. I still feel terrible about settling.
I didn’t get paid enough. Others echo my own regrets about my failure to negotiate compensation packages. Hilary Schneider, CEO of Knight Ridder Digital, echoes the theme ruefully: I’ve got the Imposter Syndrome-really can’t believe anyone would want to hire me, so of course I don’t feel underpaid. I don’t negotiate. Jan Brandt, Vice Chair Emeritus and former Chief Marketing Officer of AOL, is probably the most financially successful of the women interviewed. Not coincidentally, she was the least shy about tough compensation negotiations. My answer to that is to lie. I have lied about money almost every time I was hired. They were trying to pay me 70 cents on the dollar, being the female, and that was how I compensated and the only way I could get paid what I deserved.
I went into a dying business. Business failures were often cited as the best learning experiences. Hilary Schneider says I went to Red Herring [a now-defunct New Economy publication] during the Internet heyday. I’d been at Times Mirror for ten years, but the company was purchased and they wanted me to move to Chicago.
So I took the Red Herring job and for eighteen months of incredible stress managed a declining business. We couldn’t adjust quickly enough to realities. I learned more about leadership than in the rest of my career added together. How to recruit, motivate, make decisions during a downward spiral.
No one looking at my resume will recognize it as anything but a mis-step, but I’m a better executive for doing that job. Valli Benesch, former Chairman and CEO of apparel company Fritzi California, took over her family’s apparel business and promptly opened a division. Disaster. So badly received. I had to close it immediately. It was very humiliating. But I knew we had to change our image with department stores, and the failure taught me that we needed to do it gradually. I transformed existing divisions gradually, then added new ones that could use the current product as a springboard.
I should have gotten a haircut. Carol Smith, Senior Vice President/ELLE Group Publishing Director, commented, I’ve made this mistake a million times. I got a little bored and frustrated in my job and someone offered me another one and I jumped into the wrong one. It’s like the Woody Allen thing: ‘you want ME? Damn, I must be good.’ I should have gone shopping or gotten my hair cut instead.
I burnt a bridge. Nancy O’Neill, a former Times Mirror corporate officer and president of several operating units, had a summer job at USA Today while enrolled at Harvard Business School. I was very underutilized because they didn’t have other MBAs. I was dissatisfied with the summer experience, but when they made a full-time offer for me post-graduation, I told her way more than she asked. I should have kept my dissatisfaction to myself or vented to a friend. It didn’t serve any purpose.
I chose the wrong partner. When she started Gardener’s Eden catalog, Ruth Owades knew that the investor group she’d found would be difficult. They tried to micromanage everything I did. The first catalog did okay, not great. My gut was to test a Christmas catalog despite the fact that gardening is more in the spring/summer. My investors were dead set against it. The only way she could get free to do the mailing was to issue an ultimatum to her partners: Either buy me out at 50 cents on the dollar or I buy you out. I knew that they loved telling me what to do but wouldn’t want to actually do the work themselves. That Christmas mailing saved her business.
Sue Marks, the founder and former CEO of ProStaff, an independent staffing company in Wisconsin that she sold to Kelly Services, started her business at 24. Because she and her initial partner were incompatible, she mortgaged my house and borrowed money from my family to buy him out. The buyout coincided with the birth of her first child.
I gave an ultimatum and wasn’t ready to follow through. The women differed on whether you should ever do this, but agreed that if you give one, be prepared to execute on it. Jan Brandt: Never give anyone an ultimatum. I did it once. ‘Unless you promote me, I’m quitting.’ The next day I apologized. And started sending out resumes.
I assumed friendship would make a difference. Beth Sawi, former Chief Administrative Officer of Charles Schwab, comments You shouldn’t assume that because you and your boss are friendly, that he really likes you, that he will be willing to take risks about giving you a new opportunity. I had a very positive working relationship with my boss, but when a sales position became available, he wouldn’t overlook my lack of direct experience and give me a chance.
I took the wrong job.This was a common mistake, particularly early in their careers, but never fatal. Carol Smith chose between an early job in corporate lending at Citibank, and one as the first woman in ad sales at the Wall Street Journal. I took the Citi job because it was amazing to be offered it since I didn’t have an MBA. I was there seven days and went to the lobby to call the Journal and see if they still wanted me. That’s how I started in media.
Nancy O’Neill thought that her Harvard MBA meant she was ready for senior management, so she declined a classic marketing position at Procter & Gamble because it sounded too junior. I couldn’t stand the thought of having to prove myself. So I had to teach myself on the job and in my free time, which was much harder and took longer.
In Jan Brandt’s case, the mistake was starting her own company. First, I picked an area I did well in, but wasn’t passionate about. Second, I don’t think I like being the first one in-I like a little structure and momentum already there.
Sometimes, an apparently wrong job choice works out just fine. Ginger Graham was at Eli Lilly. They asked me to do something no other director would have found appropriate. I ended up writing speeches for the CEO. He was the President of the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association. He gave me hours at his desk, answering my questions. He’d been leading the industry for longer than I’d been out of diapers. It was a gift rather than something I was stuck with. She is now the President and CEO of Amilyn, a pharmaceutical company.
You will make mistakes. Resilience will rescue you. Women tend to be much more self-critical and perfectionist than men, which can make mistakes more painful. Leslie Jacobs, former CEO of the Rosenthal Agency, one of the top 100 insurance brokers in the U.S, had a great technique for disaster recovery: I allow myself two days of self-pity and flagellation and then it’s time to move on. I am a deadline type of person. I put it on the calendar. Two days.
Robin Wolaner is the founder of Parenting Magazine. This is an excerpt from her new book Naked in the Boardroom: A CEO Bares Her Secrets So You Can Transform Your Career. You can find out more about Robin by visiting her site