We all have some fear when it comes to sharing our failures but what if facing our failure leaves space for others to be vulnerable? In this episode, Speak's VPs talk all about their failures, how they navigate what to share with their teams, and how they create learning opportunities from challenging moments.
Facing Failure | A Little Off Topic by Speak Creative
David: Hello everyone and thank you for joining us. Once again, you are listening to A Little Off Topic, on agency's water cooler chat on digital marketing, business, and all the things that get in the way, presented by Speak Creative. Today, we are straying away from our usual subjects like websites, apps, and digital marketing to talk about failure. That's right. We're going to be letting our guard down a bit today by talking through some times that didn't exactly go our way. My name is David Caffey. I'm Speak's Digital Marketing Manager and the host of A Little Off Topic. Joining me this week and every week is Speak's VP leadership team. Kindra Svendsen is VP of Client Partnerships. In addition, we have the two Matts. First is Matt Roberts, VP of Marketing and Sales, and last but not least, we have Matt Ervin VP of Creative Services.
David: So you may be asking yourself, why talk about failure? Well, that is a great question. At Speak, we try our best to value people and relationships over profit, and more often than not that involves accepting and learning from each other's missteps. We'll start off today by talking about why vulnerability can be tough and why it's in our nature to not share our failures. We'll go down the line and share some failures that made us who we are today and finally, we'll talk about some not so great moments that ended up turning out for the best. So something a bit different for you today, but I know you guys will enjoy it as always. We thank you for taking the time to listen to our show today, and I hope you enjoy today's episode of A Little Off Topic.
David: We're back today talking about failure. Our biggest failures. Everything failure related is what we're covering today. My first question for the group. Let's start by talking through why is it so hard for us humans to share our failures with people?
Ervin: Pride. Failure is not fun. It's not something that we're like "Hey, check it out! I failed. Guess what guys?" So pride is probably the number one reason that most people wouldn't be very open about failure.
Kindra: We have to admit that we're not always the hero if we fail and so it's hard to admit that we need help, which is definitely pride.
Ervin: If we learned anything from Spiderman: Into The Spider Verse, though, heroes can fail and still be heroes.
Roberts: Oh, such a good movie. Man. So good. Nothing super unique from what you two have shared, but it's hard to be vulnerable and I don't know that we have to sit ourselves down on the couch and get into psychoanalysis, but there's a lot that goes into that and it's not just failures that are hard to share. It's easy to be impersonal. Especially in a workplace, it's easy to just keep your head down and keep a posture hidden under the cloak of professionalism by not exchanging ideas or talking about our failures or be vulnerable with our teammates about the fears and concerns that we have. It goes to pride and just general human nature that we want to do everything we can to be the hero of our stories, like Kindra said. Failure doesn't feel like a big part of that, which I'm sure we'll get to later in the podcast. It certainly can. But it definitely is something you have to embrace.
David: So you made a point there of embracing your failures and obviously we've just established it's pretty tough to share those, but why is it so important to embrace your failures and be transparent with others when you experienced a setback or a failure?
Roberts: There are a couple of things that make it important and one is if we're in a workplace and we can vocalize a failure, it gives everybody who is a part of that team the ability to learn from the failure and to benefit from your mistake. Just a side note on that is that you obviously have to have a culture that puts failure in perspective where it's safe to communicate failure and understand that, "Hey it happens, it's human nature. We're all gonna fail at some point. So let's not be afraid to share those places where we have failed." Obviously if you're scared of losing your job or getting you know some kind of punishment for failing and obviously those are the things that keep you from sharing. The second part of why kind of it's important to share failure is... Oh, gosh, you're gonna have to cut this. It fell right out of my head.
Ervin: It failed to materialize.
Kindra: What a fail.
Roberts: Oh my gosh. It fell right out of my head. I had a really good point too. I'm going to come back to it. The easy one was that people get to learn.
David: Don't you think that leading it in would be a good teaching moment to accept our failures and move on?
Kindra: Let's be transparent here.
Roberts: Well, hopefully that'll come back to me, but I'm going to let one of you guys talk now.
Ervin: Recently my oldest kid has changed schools and changed learning styles. He went from a Montessori school to a public school here in Williamson County, Tennessee and he'd never really received grades before. It was always just assessments. So he started getting grades and they weren't good and it was just because he didn't know what he was doing. But man, he took it hard. He was down on himself because he failed. He kept saying, "I'm not doing good. I'm failing, I can't do this." The thing that my wife, who is a lot smarter than I am, did was say, "well, you remember who invented the light bulb?" And he said, "Well yeah. Thomas Edison." She said, "Well, one of his friends went to him and said, 'Hey, isn't it a shame that you don't have any results with the amount of work you've done?' and Edison said something like 'I've gotten lots of results. What are you talking about? I know several thousand things that won't work.' So what we tried to help my son understand is that you've tried these things and they don't work, so you've got to try something else. Failure produces a load of data. If you're willing to analyze it, you can prevent future failures. You can figure out where you went wrong. There's all kinds of benefits from it if you can get past the pride aspect, like with him, where he had to get past the aspect of feeling bad for himself and thinking he was probably going to be in a lot of trouble, to thinking he's just got to do things differently and apply some critical thought.
Kindra: That's a good lesson. I like that. I just learned something today.
Ervin: You should hang around my wife, she's real smart.
Kindra: Being transparent in our failures is, not to sound too cheesy, but it's what makes us human. If we walk around like these perfect little robots that never make mistakes, we don't really have connection. It's through the failures and through the transparency of still figuring it out that we make a connection. So that's applicable in any kind of relationship, business or personal. But that humility is what allows us to connect with other people and if we don't fail, then we don't really have that.
Roberts: Yeah. That ability to be transparent and to be vulnerable to give somebody the opportunity to do anything other than praise you is hard. It's the hard part of humanity and relationships of being vulnerable. I did finally think of the second thing that I wanted to share about failure. Ervin sharing about his son made me think about what we say to our oldest daughter all the time, which is "what's the worst that could happen?" Then we ask her to actually answer the question. What happens if you do fail this test? Or what happens if this doesn't go the way that you want it to? Let's play out this scenario and talk. Failure doesn't happen in isolation. If you're in a company, you've got a group of people around you who, hopefully, will support you and help you correct whatever failure it was that happened. Obviously in our family we support each other and so even if we fail, it's not a bad thing. Even if there's consequences, let's talk through like what those consequences are. It wouldn't be the worst thing ever. It's true in any context. We can kind of really put a lot of pressure on ourselves to succeed and we don't really think through like what the worst case scenario is here. It's not that big a deal.
Ervin: We ask my son Whitt the same thing. What's the worst thing that could happen? He hasn't even thought that far. All he has thought is “Dang it, I failed.” I was actually thinking as you were talking too, we've talked about imposter syndrome and I would say that being comfortable admitting your failures is probably like one of the first big steps in getting past imposter syndrome. But it has to be accompanied with realizing you failed, and this is what you learned, and this is how I'm going to do it better. But that's a big key in defeating that.
David: So since you all are VPs and Managers and leaders at Speak, and I'm sure in some forms in your personal lives. With those that you manage or lead, do you feel like there's a line you have to walk, showing just enough vulnerability or your failures? Or is there a line you can cross where you're showing too much and you need to rein it back in? If that makes sense.
Kindra: I feel the pressure to not show my failures. I think we would all be lying if we said we didn't feel that pressure in some capacity to put the cloak on and act like we've got it. But I have found time and time again, that when I allow space to say I'm not the expert here or you're the expert you tell me or show me that vulnerability, I actually build more trust in those situations. So that while the nature part of us is to act like we've got it all together and lead with this great gusto, those times of vulnerability build the connection and build up that trust.
Roberts: There's a tremendous freedom in being able to say "you are better at this than I am." It's not easy to do. But it is extraordinarily freeing, because you don't feel like you have to pretend that you're something that you're not. None of us can be subject matter experts in everything that we oversee, whether that's big or small departments or whatever, there's just enough going on where there's somebody who is better at it than you. As a leader, why would I not want that? Why would I try to pretend or try to compete with that? It's just unproductive.
Kindra: Going back to what Matt said about imposter syndrome, I think imposter syndrome tells us you have to have the answer to not fail. But being able to say "I don't have that answer, but that's okay because I know who does" is really freeing once you realize that the right answer is to say it's not you that has the right answer.
Ervin: The question is interesting about where the line is and I probably air too far to the transparency side of things. But part of the reason is that as a leader, you are basically attempting to put yourself on a pedestal, saying "look how great I am" whether or not you've admitted that to yourself is another question. But when you do that, and you're not willing to let people see your humanity and your human errors, then people under you feel like they have to do the same. So what that ends up creating is what I would call like a "gotcha culture" where instead of recognizing there's a problem, let's work together and figure out a solution. The immediate knee jerk reaction is "Hey, there's a problem. Whose fault is it? because we gotta get them and it wasn't my fault." I've seen that and it's very detrimental.
Roberts: That's a great point.
Kindra: I've had jobs where I've made tiny mistakes and had that blame come down from management, so then I was walking on eggshells doing everything because I was certain I was going to make another mistake. Then I've had other jobs where I've made a costly mistake and when that was met with "let's find a solution" instead of "why?" Or "you're at fault" and the amount of grace extended there was transformative in how I felt about my own work. I knew that it was a mistake and not par for the course and that I could course correct and everything would be fine. The contrast between those two jobs or those two mistakes is enough to tell me everything I need to know as a manager on how to handle when someone brings a failure to you, because it really made me feel two very different ways.
Ervin: And how much harder were you willing to work for the person who showed you grace?
Kindra: Absolutely and I didn't make the mistake again. I wasn't afraid of making a mistake and so I wasn't walking on eggshells or cutting corners or missing things out of fear, which was certainly helpful.
Roberts: Continuing the conversation from what happens when we ourselves fail and how willing are we to share it, to how do you help manage failure for somebody on your team? That's pretty strongly embedded in our culture to pick whoever it is up and help them normalize saying, "Hey, this happens and let's put together a plan for helping you succeed next time." That stuff sticks. Otherwise it's just like Matt was saying a second ago, if you fail and then as leadership, we come crashing down on somebody, that just reinforces the idea that they want to hide the failure. Because everyone's going to continue to have failures in what they do and the last thing that we need is for that to be hidden from us. It has a potentially catastrophic knock on effects if that's the culture that you end up developing, because the failure stays hidden to a point where it can't be hidden anymore and it's at a much worse place by the time the team can rally and try to fix something. The other thing that we get caught up in that's worth noting is that sometimes our human reaction is to say "why?!" or "what were you thinking?" and none of that is productive. I'm sure you all know that, but we can't go back in time and change somebody's decision and so as long as the person is understanding of how the situation was created and how they might approach it again in the future, that's all that's needed. You don't have to come down on somebody or berate them just because that feels good to you.
Ervin: When you ask that question, "why would you do that?" You're implying the answer is "because you're a moron" right? Like "I'm stupid. That's why I did it that way." One of the ways I try to look at it is how the greatest batter in the history of major league baseball was Ted Williams, right? He's the only person who's ever hit over 400 in a qualified season ever. He hit 406. That means at bat, he was on base less than half the time. He got hit less than half the time. So he's a professional.
Roberts: You know who the greatest hockey player is?
Ervin: Wait a minute.
Roberts: You miss a hundred percent of the shots you don't take. See he was a man that was comfortable with failure.
Ervin: That's right, because he missed a lot of shots.
Kindra: There's a parable that I heard probably in youth group, but it stuck with me for years and years. There's this little boy who was always told not to touch the stove because it was hot and didn't want to listen to his parents and touch the stove and burned his hand. A few hours later was walking around with his fist all balled up and was so afraid of telling his dad that he had touched the stove and what he had actually done was singed his skin and then made it stick to itself. Because he was afraid to admit that he did something wrong. So the story goes that, we need to have truth in our hearts and all that, but it's really applicable. It's a story that stuck with me forever because if you hide the failure for so long, it just compounds and makes the situation so much worse. Whereas if you can admit your failures, there's a lot of movement in that and you can get past things a little bit quicker.
Ervin: I think there was a "House" episode about that.
David: So the moment of truth is here. My next question is if you're willing to share with the class a failure that was notable that you derive some meaning and learned something from and feel as though others can learn from it as well, please share with us at this time.
Roberts: Certainly I've had many, many failures all along the way, but probably the first big failure that I really remember here at Speak was when I was less than a year into working here. I proposed a project for a church client that had very clearly articulated exactly what they wanted. I had written everything into the proposal exactly the way they wanted it, but I had some fundamental mental rounding error or something and I just completely goofed. I don't remember how much it was, but let's just say let's just say it was a $15,000 project. It should have been something like a $50,000 or $60,000 project and I got it in, we got him started and then in the discovery process very early on the team came back to me and was like "Um...what now?" and I just remember physically sweating and going into Jacob's office and apologizing. I said, "I cannot believe I did this. The client is absolutely right. This is exactly what I told them. This is exactly what I sold them. I just completely screwed up." It was the first of many instances of exactly what Kindra was saying where someone says, "Hey, let's try not to make this type of mistake again and let's do what we said we'd do. Let's learn from the mistake you've made and let's carry forward." So the team ended up doing a great job. The client actually ended up working with us for something like 8 or 10 years on multiple projects. That's kind of an easy one to point to because it was a long time ago and the scars have healed over and I don't feel super vulnerable sharing it, but that's maybe a good place to start.
Ervin: Maybe they were hoping you'd give them another 400% discount.
Roberts: Maybe so. Every time. “Oh this guy is so gullible.”
Kindra: My adrenaline is pumping because I know that feeling where your heart jumps out of your mouth. That feeling is the one I wish to avoid the rest of my life.
Roberts: Oh man. It's a huge deal and it just hits you all at once. Like, Oh, I just made a huge mistake.
Kindra: I had a similar one in my early days of social media marketing where a client had something like $300 for the month of their small campaign, and I set the budget at $300 a day and noticed it on day 2 or 3. So they had spent nearly a thousand dollars out of their $300 budget and that was a big lesson. Because, you know, for a small business, that was a really big 'uh oh' so that was a good lesson in humility. Never made the mistake again. Knock on wood.
Ervin: I have a lot. There's one time I tried to make chili and put chocolate in it, because I've been reading about that. You could put chocolate in chili and it would make it really good. So what I learned from that one was if something that sounds dumb, you probably just shouldn't try.
Kindra: But it was on the internet I assume.
Ervin: It was a famous person that had suggested it and I've stopped trusting that person.
Kindra: Wow, hold on. Roberts and I just bared our soul and you come to us with a chili example.
Roberts: “Aw, I put chocolate in chili.”
Ervin: First of all. My wife still brings it up. My kids bring it up and they weren't even alive.
Kindra: I fail at dinner a couple of times a month if that's what we want to talk about.
Roberts: I was about to say, that feels like a different order of magnitude.
Ervin: That was my warmup. Call it flavor text, come on guys. Do you not listen to podcasts? The most glaring example I've got was during a walkabout when I was not at Speak. I was working for a company and we had landed a multimillion dollar project for a very large international manufacturer. The project was to help them go through what is still a pretty popular buzzword. But at the time it was a very popular buzzword called "digital transformation" and what happened was the CMO, Chief Marketing Officer, hired us and then forced us on IT and said "Hey, you're going to work with these guys." From the start, we were definitely destined to fail and for whatever reason, I didn't know that part before I did this, but for whatever reason, I went to the owners of the company and said, "Hey, I want this. You guys should give me this" and it was going to open a new office. It was a big deal. I was like, “let me do it. I can do it.” For whatever reason, they thought I could and from the time that I really got started in it until a year and a half later when I left, I offboarded myself from that project and that company. It was a tremendous lesson in how projects fail, but it was also a tremendous lesson in how leadership can fail a project. So what we saw was that first of all, this particular company had a culture of a "gotcha culture." This is where I learned about that. It formed my opinions, because as soon as something went wrong, everybody was like, "okay, who do we get to bury now?" Like I'm digging the hole, find whoever needs to go in it. It meant that nothing was ever productive and that everybody's first order of business in a meeting was to cover their back side. That's what they were primarily there to do. So my reaction to that was to follow suit. After I learned what was going on and realized that I was probably going to be the sacrificial lamb a lot and it turns out that was true. That's what I started doing and six months later, the thing was an entire mess. The whole project was an entire mess. We weren't ever going to get it done and that was because one of the chief executives wanted to do it his way and everybody underneath him hated us and hated the Chief Marketing Officer. So the project had some successes. We actually did make a lot of progress in some areas for this company. But overall, the multimillion dollar project was definitely a failure. That experience for me taught me more than I have learned in the prior 10 years. It was a hard one hard won lesson. I missed a lot of life as a result of that. I gained a lot of weight as a result of that. It was very difficult, but the things that I was able to learn from where I had definitely screwed up and then where I had watched other people above me and beside me and below me also mess up informed a lot of what I do and a lot of how I understand myself and what's going on around me today. Definitely not a crown jewel for me to say "the biggest project you've ever worked on didn't go well" and in fact would probably be considered a failure, but at the same time I'm walking out of that saying, "Man. I learned a whole lot of really valuable lessons in a very short amount of time."
Roberts: I'm glad you shared that because I wrote this for a piece that was published somewhere else a few weeks ago. I've been there many times, not in your shoes, but just in the idea that this one big contract that we could lock down would make a huge difference for us and so let's make it happen. If you were probably to trace back failures that I have precipitated on our company on projects that weren't a good fit, from clients that were difficult to work with or whatever, that's a hard thing to shake. But it is one of those things that I hope in the past several years has been instilled in our sales culture is "Hey, if the big fish has great people and the project is in our wheelhouse, that's fantastic. Let's go after those opportunities. If they're not, and the job isn't, let's just let it pass." It's okay for somebody else to get that job. We feel okay with that, but we had to learn that lesson collectively as a group because of the failures that frankly we've made kind of onboarding folks who weren't a good fit.
Kindra: Well, it occurs to me hearing both of you talk about just being in different kinds of cultures, that a culture of failure impacts everyone. So Ervin, you are talking about being in a culture where everyone's worried about covering their own and people feel that. There aren't good relationships. Everyone is stressed at home. Home life is not great. It really trickles down into things that you would never think would be impacted if there's a culture of failure. Same thing Roberts with what you were saying about if a salesperson is just worried about the dollar amount on the contract and the whole team suffers for that oversight. But when the sales team digs in and knows it's a great fit, that also is amplified throughout the rest of the team. Everything trickles out in some way. Even with our failures, if we don't overcome them or work through them, they have an impact on so many people.
Roberts: Would you call it seepage?
Kindra: Nope. Not even a little.
David: Well, now that we've gone through that, we will close today. On the flip side, is there a failure that makes you laugh and turned out for the best? There are some failures we just talked about that turned out from the best, but didn't make you laugh. I guess we got the chocolate chili thing, we got that covered. But Kindra, Matt, anything else?
Roberts: I'm sure I have something, but it's not coming to mind. Kindra, I feel like you've got something teed up.
Kindra: No, nothing. It's just a blank canvas in there. There are probably a lot more things that I didn't consider to be a failure in the moment, but looking back, I'm like, "Oh man, wow, should have done that differently." Going back to early days of social media, I would love to forget all of the campaign ideas I had back then. You miss a hundred percent of the shots you don't take.
Roberts: Okay. I'm actually glad you shared that.
Ervin: Because this is your favorite quote.
Roberts: It is. Well, it is my favorite quote. Absolutely. I've got this accessory on the wall next to me. Recently, like just over the past couple of weeks have been digging through the Speak blog archive.
Roberts: When we were when we migrated our last implementation into our latest iteration of the website, something duplicated like really old blog entries from 2009 to maybe 2011.
Ervin: I didn't do that. I don't know who did that.
Roberts: Certainly not your failure. But anyway, I've been cleaning those up, trying to get rid of the duplicates. They've been sitting around for a long time, it would need to be cleaned up and I just was like, "alright, well, this is the thing I can do when I've got 15 minutes between meetings that's easy to do." But as part of that, I've been forced to reread some of the things that I wrote.
Kindra: I've read some of those blogs.
Roberts: Oh man. Y'all first of all, I'm embarrassed to see how many times the word stoked is used in individual blog entries and then also consistently 6 or 7 blogs in a row. Like there's, there's at least one use of "stoked.”
Kindra: What was the correlation to your hairdo at the time? Did you have the frat boy flip?
Roberts: I had the messy thing going on. But no that's been funny to go back and read. I was reading something last week that was all about how something that Microsoft or Google or somebody was doing was going to change the internet. Of course it didn't. So that's easy to kind of look back on and laugh at and just say, "Oh wow. You know, a lot less than you think you do." But I'm sure I'll look back in 5 or 10 years at these podcasts and be like, "man, I can't believe I said that."
Ervin: Right. There's a statute of limitations on things that I've said. If it's more than a year old, I can't really stand by it anymore.
Kindra: That's true. I feel that way.
Ervin: I think about the time that I was doing some yard work at my house in Memphis in Cordova and we were trying to get rid of these big bushes that they planted way too close to the house and grew way too big. There's this one holly bush in particular that I knew we had to get out of there. Instead of being a smart person and just cutting it off at the bottom and leaving the stump in the ground, I was like, "no, the whole thing's got to come out." So my dad was helping me and I said," we know what we need to do. We'll just tap the back of my Jeep and I'll pull it out."
Roberts: You've got a little Mississippi right there when you said that.
Ervin: Yeah, that was on purpose. So after about a solid hour of rigging and re rigging, and probably some horrible ideas, we got to the final setup. So I'm sitting in my Jeep tugging on this massive holly bush, there's no way it's coming out of the ground, no way. All of a sudden our rig breaks, the giant hook that was on the tree end of it comes flying up and busts through the back windshield of my Jeep and hits the headrest on the back of my chair. So had I not had a head rest, I probably would have died. But after it was all over, we laughed about it. So there you go.
Roberts: We're laughing at you now.
Ervin: The wife still references that too, if you can imagine. Remember when you tied that to your jeep? Don't do that again.
Roberts: I really wish that we had that on video.
Ervin: No, sorry.
Kindra: Do we have a picture of the holly bush for the show notes is the question?
Ervin: We could probably dig one up.
Roberts: Oh, I see what you did there.
Kindra: Dig one up? Aye!
Ervin: That's a failure. We'll look back on this and laugh.
Roberts: David, anything you would like for us to laugh at?
David: I have led a perfect flawless life, moment to moment. Nothing has ever gotten past me. On that note, we'll end with that.
Roberts: No, it is funny though, because for listeners who don't know this, we're all on zoom together and we can see each other's faces, but the whole time that Matt was sharing about his previous work experience, I see David just grinning maniacally, because he knows exactly what's going on.
David: I was just saying, can you imagine if you like you graduated college and then on Monday after you graduated, you started in an environment like that and then that's what your whole foundation for how work and how office environments are supposed to work?
Ervin: Yeah, sorry about that.
David: I was on the sidelines too, so this is to your point that it trickles down through everywhere. I was on the sidelines of that, I wasn't involved with any of that at all, but I still felt it. Like I could still feel the energy and I still took it home with me and that was a whole thing. That's my one addition.
Kindra: I feel like for the show, we should also preface that it's not Speak, right?
Roberts: Right. This is when they overlapped somewhere else.
Ervin: I doubt the owners of that company are listening to our podcast, but if they are, you guys taught me a lot. You really did. Like really, really did. I'll admit it. Oh man, some of the stuff I learned from them is foundational.
Kindra: Is this where we get to talk to former bosses? Because I have some things to say. Is that another episode?
David: I'd like to talk to the manager of Malco that wouldn't give me a movie pass the week I quit. Like, what, who cares? Who cares if it's the week I'm quitting? I want to go see the Get Smart movie with Steve Carell. It was going to be great.
David: Well that is it for today. I hope you guys enjoyed it. Once again, I want to thank our VP panel for being willing to open up and share some wisdom with us on the show today. If you liked today's topic, you'll find even more great stuff on our website. We have a ton of content that touches the various facets of web design, digital marketing, app development, and even more on our blog. Head over to madebyspeak.com to check out the latest and greatest. As always, if you have some questions or feedback for today's episode, we'd love to hear from you. What are some "uh oh" moments that you can laugh about now? Speak is on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn whichever social media platform you prefer, we are there. If you enjoy the show today, I ask you to please subscribe and leave a review on your podcast platform of choice. So from myself, our panel today and all of us Speak, thanks for getting a little off topic with us.
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