Supermac War Story 8: Cats and Dogs – Admitting a Mistake

At SuperMac, I thought I was good VP of marketing; aggressive, relentless and would take no prisoners – even with my peers inside the company.  But a series of Zen-like moments helped me move to a different level that changed how I operated.  It didn’t make my marketing skills any worse or better, but moved me to play forever on a different field. 74HGZA3MZ6SV

Zen moment #1- Admitting a mistake and asking for help

Up until this point in my career I had one response anytime I screwed something up: blame someone else. The only variable was how big the screw-up was – that made a difference in whom I blamed.  If it was a very big mistake, I blamed the VP of Sales.  “This marketing campaign didn’t work? It was a brilliant strategy but Sales screwed it up.”  (My own lame defense here for this behavior is that sales and marketing are always cats and dogs in startups. Historically, these were two guys with high testosterone. They hit each other with baseball bats until one of them dropped.)

This first Zen moment happened at a SuperMac exec staff meeting. I was asked to explain why a marketing program that cost $150,000 bucks literally generated nothing in revenue for the company.  I still remember that I was gearing up to go into my ‘I’m going to blame the sales guy’ routine. Since our sales guy was a good street fighter, I knew the ensuing melee would create enough of a distraction that no one would talk about my marketing debacle.  My brain had queued up the standard, “It’s all Sales’s fault,” but instead, what came out of my mouth was, “You know, I really screwed this marketing campaign up, making it successful is important for the company, and I need all your help to fix it.”   You could have heard a pin drop.  It was so out of character, people were shocked.  Some stammered out, “can you say that again?”

Our president picked up on the momentum and asked me what I needed from the rest of the exec team to fix this debacle. I replied:  “This is really important for our success as company and I’m really at a loss why customers didn’t respond the way we expected.  Anybody else got some other ideas?”

From there, the conversation took a different trajectory. It was uncomfortable for some people, because it was new ground  – I was asking for help – wanting to do what was right for the company.

It was definitely a “Zen moment” for me in terms of my career.  From then on when I screwed up, not only did I own up to it, I asked for help.  This behavior had an unintended consequence I couldn’t have predicted: when others started volunteering to help me solve a problem, finding a solution became their goal as well.

Soon one or two others execs tested the waters by making a small tentative “ask” as well.  When they discovered that the sky didn’t fall and they still had their jobs, our corporate culture took one more step toward a more effective and cohesive company.

Ownership and Teamwork not turf.

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7 Responses

  1. Excellent!

  2. Have you read Carol Dweck’s Mindset. In her terms, you’re talking about moving from a fixed to a growth mindset.

    Not coincidentally, the growth mindset has been found in a study of race car drivers to be correlated with increased flow experience. And if you haven’t read anything about Csikszentmihalyi’s flow, then go read Creativity immediately. Completely blew my mind. But as C. acknowledges somewhere, this all goes back to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.

  3. Thanks for sharing Steve. Looking forward to reading your book.

  4. “””When they discovered that the sky didn’t fall and they still had their jobs””” — hum, seems like the corporate culture (or the perceived/assumed one) was also partially responsible.

    But where does this corporate culture come from? I believe it’s just like a family trait, which starts from the characteristics of the top C-level executives and cascades all the way down, from the type of mid-management they hire, to who the mid-management hires, and then the way everyone is supposed to walk and talk.

    So after practicing Steve’s Zen, it might also be fun to find something else to blame other than one’s own testosterone. :)

  5. It seems to me that if a startup has followed the Customer Development process with executive buy-in from day 1, there’s less reason for Sales and Marketing to be at each other’s necks when something unexpected happens. True? Or simply wishful thinking?

  6. I agree with Jerry Ji. A lot of credit must be given to the CEO and the culture of the company. I recall a moment similar and the response was “Great, that doesn’t do me any good. I don’t have time for anyone falling on the sword, just go fix it.” No group effort and certainly no room for saying, I don’t know what to do.

    Good for you for saying it, even better for your organization allowing you to say it.

  7. [...] (uncontrollable) conditions or internal scapegoats, than admit mistakes.  (Blank talks about this, [...]

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