Five lessons I have learned from failure

We all are human beings, we plan new things, we try them out, sometimes we succeed, and sometimes we fail. Although we always want to succeed and see failure as something which was ‘not expected‘ to happen, failures are inevitable along the way. And more often not, failures teach us more than any success can. Failure is often related with negative emotions. I want to challenge that negativity. Failures have taught me a lot and brought me where I am today. Even me writing this blog post is the result of failed attempt to do so in the past. Let me list down the five most important lessons I have learned from failure :-

1. Nobody is Special
If you think you are extra-talented, or very hard working and dedicated, it doesn’t matter. YOU WILL FAIL. Nobody is a guaranteed winner. We all are human, and like all humans, we will make mistakes too. So if we have any sense of being superior, better than others in skills or knowledge, we should give that up now before life hits us with reality. The only person who does not fail is the one who never tries anything. Many venture capitalists, when looking for a business to invest into, look for leaders who have started and failed before, because they know they are more likely to succeed in the future.

2. Nobody can do everything perfectly
No matter how much multi-tasking we can do or in however many fields we are an expert, we can’t do everything perfectly all the time. There is a saying that an expert is merely someone who has failed more than anyone else in that field. Michael Jordan, considered one of the greatest basketball players of all time, says that he has succeeded because of his constant failure. He lost almost 300 games and missed over 9000 shots, which is more than an average NBA player even plays in. He says he has used failure as motivation for his success. So no matter how good we are, we will need help from others to do what we want to do.

One of my favorite quotes about life

One of my favorite quotes about life

3. Plan for the worst case scenario
When taking upon something, I have learned that we must always prepare for the worst case scenario. What I mean is we should always have a Plan B and Plan C ready in case of when Plan A doesn’t work. And more often than not, you will need these backup plans. There is no point wondering over why Plan A did not work out as expected. It is more wise to learn our lessons from it, and move on to Plan B. The famous author Denis Waitley once said “Expect the best, plan for the worst, and prepare to be surprised.” That says it all!

4. No matter how successful in the past, we will fail again
When we taste success, our self confidence increases and we move ahead with more ambitious plans. At a time when everything has been going well and successes have been coming along on the way, a failure can be even more devastating. It can leave us in the ‘This can’t happen to me‘ state very easily as we were, more than ever, expecting a success now. The point is no matter how successful you have been in the past, you will fail again in the future. That is life, because successes don’t lead you to more successes, but failures do. Even the best of businessmen fail continuously as they expand their businesses. The only difference is that they welcome the failures and see them as stepping stones rather than stumbling blocks, in their way.

5. Failures are good, they lead to success
It might seem very ironical, but failures are good. Let me repeat again, Failures are Good. The only thing important is how we perceive it. There is a huge difference when a man says to himself, “I have failed three times“, to when he says, “I am a failure“. For it is said that failure is not the falling down, but the staying down. Thomas Edison, considered the greatest inventor of his time, kept on failing but he continued to try and try and try. He tried so many times that it took him 10,000 attempts to invent the light bulb. But we can see the positive outlook we should have towards failure when he said, ‘I have not failed. I have just found 9,999 ways that do not work.’

So let us try. Then try again. Then fail again. Fail better. Fail forward.. towards success!!

Have You Discovered Your Leadership Lighthouse? Why Should You?

A Global World

Today, we live in globalised world which is more connected than ever before, and movement of people and goods has never been easier. It is driven by economics and money, and it is possible to sit in your couch and order what you want from the opposite corner of the world, and have it delivered to you in a few days.

Open markets, lower trade tariffs and an ever increasing movement of people, goods and information to any part of the world has resulted in great prosperity for everyone involved. Major world problems like poverty, hunger and disease have decreased considerably over the last 50 years. The health and well-being of people all over the world has never been better.

However, living in a consumerist society driven by economics has also resulted in greed, corruption and a pursuit of economic success at any cost. It is no surprise then that we saw scandals like Enron in 2001, the financial crisis in 2008, and the Volkswagen emissions scandal in 2015-16. These scandals resulted from cutting corners in the pursuit of success by leaders in these companies.

Have you discovered your leadership lighthouse?

The Leadership Lighthouse

Just like ships need a compass and a lighthouse to navigate in the vast oceans, our companies and their leaders too need a leadership lighthouse to find direction in the vast ocean of global competition. The speed (of a ship or a business) is not the only thing matters. Our leaders need to realise that the direction they choose to go and take their companies along is more important than the speed.

The Leadership Lighthouse is a set of values (to guide us), standards (to measure us), and boundaries (to keep us in check); which will act as a moral compass as leaders take decisions and navigate their companies in the race for success in the global economy. These standards and values guide us in finding the right direction in challenging and exciting times.

Find Your Own Way

The whole essence of leadership is to bring our own unique values, talents and skills into the world, and to express ourselves in alignment with those. When we accept the standards and values others’ have set for us, we surrender our own will and judgement. By figuring out our own leadership lighthouse, we allow our unique light to shine upon the world.

If we only follow what everyone else is doing and not take the time and effort required to find our own leadership lighthouse, which is unique for everyone, we will soon find ourselves lost and confused. But once you have put in the effort and identified your unique set of values, motivations, desires and talents; you can nurture them and let them guide you.

If we stop and look back at the history of the world, be it in the business world or outside of it, you will find that every human achievement is an achievement of the individual who went against the norm and followed their own leadership lighthouse.

Questions to Discover Your Leadership Lighthouse

How Can You Find Your Leadership Lighthouse

As mentioned above, our leadership lighthouse is the set of standards and values that define and inspires you. It will guide you during challenging moments by serving as a moral compass, and give you a solid ground to stand upon when you face turbulent times.

To find leadership lighthouse, try answering the below questions :-

  1. What do you want to achieve in the long term?
  2. What really matters (is important) to you?
  3. What makes you happy, angry or sad?
  4. What are your duties and obligations with regard to different aspects of your life?
  5. What have you learned from the biggest failures of your life?

Answering these questions will require some sincere and dedicated effort on your side, but once you do that, you will have more clarity on how you define your own leadership lighthouse. I would also like to add that it is a continuous rather than a one-time process. You should revisit the above questions every now and then as a “health-check”.

Knowing your leadership lighthouse will give you the confidence and assurance to follow your own path instead of the path others have decided for you. Once you nurture and develop your strengths and act consistent with your standards and values, you will allow your own unique light to shine upon the people and the world around you.

How to Prepare for a Conflict Resolution Conversation?

A conflict resolution conversation is one of the most critical conversation in any organisation. The success or failure of this conversation will determine how the inherent energy in a conflict will be used, and how the relationship between the involved parties will be in the future.

As I have written previously, conflicts have a lot of energy, like an overflowing river. It is upto us to build a dam and channel all this extra water (energy) into electricity? Because if left unchecked, all this extra water can cause flooding and devastation in its path. The most effective tool to prevent the flooding and use the energy in each conflict productively is the Conflict Resolution Conversation.

Below are the 5 steps I think all of us must take before/in any conflict resolution conversation:-

1. Create A Foundation of Trust and Respect among all involved parties, which is essential for any productive conversation to happen. This is more like a step 0, as trust is like oxygen in a conversation.

Take steps to apologise or forgive for any past behaviour, and prepare a clean slate by setting any prejudices aside. This will help create an environment of trust and mutual respect. Work together as partners, and not adversaries, as you set about resolving the conflict.

2. Decide Ground Rules for the conversation before you start. These rules will allow you to proceed amicably in the face of differences and disagreements. They can include what is the common goal both parties are seeking, how would you treat each other, and what do you do if you can’t agree on a common solution?

Having such ground rules will assist both parties to keep their egos in check and keep the focus on a mutually beneficial solution. Even in the case of an unproductive conversation, these rules will leave you with respect and understanding for the other person’s position, rather than with resentment and cynicism.

What Not To Do When Conflicts Happen

How To Prepare For A Conflict Resolution Conversation?

3. Listen. The freedom to speak your mind includes a duty to listen and understand the other person’s perspective. Walk a mile in the other person’s shoes to see the situation from his point of view. Acknowledge the validity of the different perspectives without making any one perspective right or wrong.

Walk into the conversation with an empathetic attitude and care for the other party’s concerns. Understand that the conversation is not productive unless the concerns of both parties are met. If you work to address what the other person cares about, you create the possibility of a win-win result which might be even better than what you initially wanted.

“Courtesy towards opponents and eagerness to understand their viewpoint is the ABC of non-violence.” – Mahatma Gandhi

4. Differentiate Your Positions from your Interests – Ask yourself what do you really desire? And why? Let go of your attachment to your position and seek to discover yours and others’ common desires. Asking the question “why” a couple of times can help you do that.

This will help you understand the other person better and create space for collaboration and flexibility. Understanding the concerns of each other will turn you into partners rather than adversaries, and it opens up the possibility of making 2 + 2 = 5 happen.

5. Prepare your BATNA (Best Alternative to a Negotiable Agreement) – The BATNA is your lower boundary, the minimum you are willing to get out of the conversation. Knowing your BATNA increases your negotiating power.

When you enter a conversation knowing your BATNA, that gives you assurance and confidence. If nothing else works, you walk out with your BATNA.

To sum it up, doing this preparation before any conflict resolution conversation prevents us from reacting impulsively when the going gets tough. Conflicts are a natural order of life, and being prepared will allow us to turn them into an opportunity to build a strong foundation (relationship) not just for immediate but also long term results.

It is also important to note that the above steps do not guarantee a successful conversation, or the results we desire. But they will equip us to deal with conflicts with steady and not shaky hands, which is always a good skill to have.

How to Deal with Your Emotions In The Workplace And Make Them Work For You

Fresh out of college, when I started to work professionally as a 21 year old, I dived into work passionately and emotionally. Not only did I do great work during that year, I also had a lot of fun with my team, many of whom are still my good friends. I was emotionally attached to the work and the people around me, and I considered that a strength at that time.

Not soon after, I had my first performance appraisal along with my friends (colleagues). Very soon, things weren’t as simple and fun as words like bonus, promotions and salary increments entered the vocabulary. Emotions flared, arguments ensued, and I had a hard time dealing with my emotions. I gave into the temptation of reacting emotionally a few times and strained my relationships with some people.

After a few such incidents, I started to consider my emotions a weakness and shut myself down, creating personal and professional boundaries in the workplace. I am glad that phase didn’t last very long.

Today, after working for over 12 years in different companies and across continents, I consider emotions an integral part of the workplace, and they can be very powerful if we know what to do with them.

Below are a few of my observations about dealing with our emotions at work :-

Every Emotion Tells Us What We Care About
When I formed great friends during my first year at work, my emotions (of joy) were telling me I care about trust and honesty. Later when I was angry and felt being wronged, my emotions were telling me I cared about everyone being treated fairly and respectfully. And when that expectation was not met, it gave rise to the frustration and anger.

The more attention we pay to our emotions, the more aware we can be of what they are trying to tell us. We can then reflect upon and listen to what they are telling us, and then still act in a way which is consistent with our values and long term objectives.

"We gain the strength of the temptation we resist." Ralph Waldo Emerson

“We gain the strength of the temptation we resist.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

Emotions Are Always Valid. The Stories Behind Them Might Not Be
There are no right and wrong emotions. There are no positive and negative emotions. Our emotions are always valid, and an inevitable part of being human. But we can examine the stories behind our emotions to separate the useful facts from false beliefs. Each emotion can tell us about something significant in our lives, but only if we are willing to examine the stories behind them objectively.

For example – I felt angry and frustrated once when I didn’t get an expected bonus. In this case I embraced the emotion without denial and examined the assessments behind it. I believed I had performed very well and shared the same with my manager. It was then that I got some feedback which made me aware of the gaps in my performance, and which I could improve upon. Thus I came to the realisation that while my emotion was valid, the story behind it lacked evidence and was not well grounded in facts.

My manager understood my concerns and it strengthened our relationship. He also promised me to deliver any such feedback earlier the next time. In the end, it prevented me from reacting impulsively and judging others, which would have not done any good for both me and my team.

I have learned that we can always witness our emotions as they arise instead of being sucked in their gravitational power and respond impulsively.

Emotions Need To Be Expressed. Without Explosion or Repression
According to Daniel Goleman, the capacity to subordinate immediate gratification to long term objectives is the most important psychological skill. All emotions lead to one or the other impulse to act, which often are harmful to us in the long term. At such moments, we need to take the driver’s seat and prevent our emotions from taking over. Emotions are very good messengers but very bad masters.

Just like tying a wild horse only infuriates him, repressing our emotions never works. When we do so, we end up suffering inside while putting up a brave face on the outside. By repressing, we are bound to explode sooner or later and it also results in stress which can end up impacting our health. Shouting at others (explosion), or sulking in silence (repression) never solves any problem. It often only makes it worse.

Emotional Intelligence involves expressing our emotions, without repression or explosion. If we can understand our emotions and the stories behind them as a third party observer, we can accept them fully without abdicating our responsibility to them. We can then choose to act according to our values – even in the face of failure and disappointment. We can’t always control our circumstances, but we can always act in ways congruent to our values.

“To increase your effectiveness, make your emotions subordinate to your commitments.” -Brian Koslow

Give Up Your Need to Be Right

The reason we are so tempted to react impulsively to an emotion is because it provides our ego instant gratification. When we shout and explode in anger, it makes us right and the other person wrong. Even if we know it is harmful to us in the long term, it gives us an immediate boost of righteousness. To handle our emotions well, we have to give up our need to be right all the time. We have to give up the temptation to “win” in every conversation and situation.

I feel that we do our best work when we are emotionally engaged. We are our most creative and productive selves when we feel emotionally safe and don’t have to put on a mask at work. However, if we don’t know how to handle our emotions and give in to impulsive responses, we can do more harm than good.

To sum it up :-

  • When we are happy on a successful result, an impulsive reaction could be to over-promise in excitement. But a conscious expression of happiness would be to just celebrate and acknowledge the hard work.
  • When we are sad on experiencing a loss, an impulsive reaction could be resignation and cynicism about the future. But a conscious expression of sadness would be to just grieve and acknowledge your loss.
  • When we are scared and fearful, an impulsive reaction could be to shut down and seek protection. But a conscious expression of fear would be to take a step back, assess the situation properly and then act with courage.
  • When we feel anger and frustration, an impulsive reaction could be to explode or repress our feelings. But a conscious expression of anger would be to make a complaint and sharing our concerns.
  • When we feel guilt after a mistake, an impulsive reaction could be to beat ourself up and sulking in shame. But a conscious expression of guilt would be to make a sincere apology and repair the broken trust with a new promise for the future.

Five Things A Leader Must Do By Default

In today’s corporate environment, after a few years of doing your job well enough, chances are that you will be asked to step up and lead a team. You trained and studied to be good at your job, and now getting to manage people seems like a reward for a job well done.

By promoting the good performers to be managers and leaders, people have assumed for centuries that the skills that made you successful as an individual contributor would also make you successful as a manager. If you have led people for any considerable amount of time, you would know how false this assumption is. Yet in the business world, this continues to be the norm.

Today I want to list down five things which you must do, or are expected to do by default, to be effective as a manager/leader. And it is likely that nobody told you this when you were promoted. I have only figured them out after leading teams for over a decade, and I believe I am on a continuous journey to learn and know more about leadership.

1. Lead Yourself
The first thing you must do to be effective as a leader is to lead yourself. Your relationship with your team will be determined more by your trustworthiness than by any other skill or talent you might possess. Trust is the foundation of leadership, and you build trust by leading yourself first – by holding yourself accountable for what you demand from your team. Like any worthwhile endeavour, it takes time, effort and daily investments to build trust with your team.

If you want your team members to honour their promises, honour your promises to them. If you ask them to be on time for meetings, you must be on time first. Or you will lose their trust. If you ask them to be respectful to each other, you must respect them first. Or you will lose their trust. If you want them to be humble, you need to exemplify that in your behaviour. If you need them to be honest and sincere, you need to acknowledge your mistakes publicly and make amends for them. You can not lead a team if you can’t lead yourself.

“Trust takes years to build, seconds to break, and forever to repair.” - Unknown

2. Know Where You are Headed

When you are leading a team, people will look up to you for providing direction. Having a well-defined purpose clarifies why the team exists in the first place. Coming up with the team’s purpose together with your team will empower them to take decisions which are in the best interest of the team.

Listening to your team and engaging in a dialogue will allow the team to define and own its purpose. You need to spend time with the team regularly to discuss, revisit or reshape the team’s purpose. Ensuring each member understands the team’s purpose and their role in the team will empower them to prioritise their tasks effectively.

3. Be a Coach
If you have people reporting to you, then you are their coach by default. You don’t have a choice in being their coach as people will approach you anyways. When they are demotivated, when they have a conflict, or when they need help for any other reason; it is your responsibility to listen, understand their concerns, and then coach them to align their personal motivations with the team’s shared purpose and goals. If you can’t do that effectively, it will impact the results the team intends to produce in the future.

While I assert that you are a coach by default, the skills and conversations required to be a coach don’t come by default. You must invest time and effort in learning and practicing your coaching skills. How well you coach people will be directly proportional to the results the team produces. Investing in learning these skills and making coaching a priority will be your best investment ever.

“If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there” – Lewis Carroll

4. Demand Commitment and Accountability
Just as every sport has a certain set of rules, each business team can come up with rules (or standards) which apply to their business and industry. These rules will govern how you work and define success and failure. Examples could be how you treat your colleagues, how complaints are handled, and what boundaries you set in matters important to the team. Once these standards are set, it frees up everyone to exercise their own creativity in making decisions. This gives shape to the ‘culture’ in the team.

After you set up these standards together with your team, you have to demand them. Of course, for this to work, you have to exemplify them yourself. Holding your team accountable to these standards (or rules) will bring the team members together and set the team up for high performance. The intention behind it is not to punish or penalise people when they slip up, but to ensure an open, fair and supportive culture in the team.

5. Serve Your People
I believe that leadership is a privilege, and that each leader is a custodian of the company’s values, beliefs and ambitions for the future. Leadership will require you to think beyond your own self-interest, and from your team or company’s point of view. In order to lead you must be willing to serve – to put your team’s interest in front of any individual interests, which might lead you to make some difficult decisions from time to time.

Leadership is not about power or authority, nor is it about popularity. Leadership is about character – which you will need to express yourself authentically, compassion – which you will need to grow and develop your people, and integrity – which you will need to serve your people with the respect and transparency they deserve.

I believe that leadership is standing for something bigger than yourselves. You show your team the way, give it what it needs to do the job, and then get out of the way. Your biggest job is to create an environment of respect and accountability, where people have fun and express themselves freely by continuously moving forward towards the team’s goals.

Leadership is Service

To sum it up, these five points above are not strategies or tactics which you can incorporate in your leadership style to get better results. These are the bedrock which will give rise to a myriad of strategies and tactics, which in turn will lead to those results. If you try to fake them, your people will call your bluff sooner or later, and you will lose all credibility and trust. An attitude of humble service will enable you to become a better leader, while taking care of your team and company’s needs.