I truly believe one of the essential traits of a stalwart leader is admitting and embracing defeat, when appropriate, and possessing the ability to throw yourself under the proverbial bus. I am happy to share with you I have not always felt this strong conviction to share failure. In fact, as a very young employee at a major technology company I was mortified to become aware I had failed at anything.
Failure was only an embarrassment to my young mind. Failure was NOT a learning opportunity.
Over 20 years ago I was hired at Hewlett-Packard as an Executive Assistant. This was position was such a blessing for me as I found myself a single mom to a beautiful baby girl. I was unable to complete my Bachelor’s degree due to life circumstances which meant I was not eligible for higher level positions even though I possessed strong leadership skills at a very young age.
At the time , HP followed a strict ranking system based upon performance. I was consistently ranked a 5+ of 5. I was grateful to have a job, grateful to be able to support my child. I was actually gleeful to rise early, endure the long commute and work hard all day. No wonder I was ranked so highly!
As a team we gathered for a Leadership Training Program. An area of focus for this training program was listening skills. As you can imagine, given my ranking, I naturally assumed I was a powerful listener.
My listening skills exposed
After the HP Leadership Training program my manager asked to meet during a 1:1 to discuss the results of peer ratings and feedback. I remember being SO excited to meet with her. I was always engaged in conversations and I just knew I was going to receive a gold star for listening. Let me just crawl under the bus now. Yes, please join me in the laughter. (fast forward 20 years) You already know what I am going to share with you.
My manager asked in which areas I thought I could improve. I boldly stated I could likely keep my desk a tad neater. My desk was one everyone had to pass to gain the attention of our VP. I was honestly thinking someone may have noticed a paper clip out of place. Laugh, go ahead. I am literally belly laughing as I am sharing this with you.
The end of the conversation follows me back to my cubicle with my tail tucked between my legs. Alas, I was ranked the LOWEST on our team in the listening skills category. I was so embarrassed I cannot find the words to relay to you the feeling of chagrin. I had failed!! And worse, everyone on the team knew each other’s rankings and knew I was ranked the lowest in that category.
Conversely, I was the highest ranked in all other categories. Do you think I could celebrate the success for the high rankings this small town single mom should have enjoyed? Absolutely not. I spent years ruminating on that story and the bone deep embarrassment that came along with it. Fast forward to you reading this story today.
I teach Presentation Skills both in-person and online. I share this story as often as I can because it is absolutely appropriate to share my failure with others. This was an EPIC fail for someone who is a communication skills expert all these years later.
Here is the Chinese symbol for the verb “to listen”
Next time you have the opportunity to really listen, listen with your eyes, your ears, your heart and your humility. Your leadership skills will naturally soar!