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Are You Learning From Your Mistakes?

In the business world it’s easy to be blindsided when you’ve got your nose to the grindstone.

The problem is that the only person you have to blame is yourself.

When it comes to your career, you are the one responsible for your progress.

So when you don’t get that promotion, or don’t receive the accolades that you were expecting, there’s no need to point the finger anywhere but back at yourself. Instead of assuming that everyone else is wrong, it’s time we tried learning from these failures.

If you’re worried about a mistake you’ve made, or think you might make, you are not alone. We all make mistakes every day; some are big mistakes and some are minor ones. It’s part of life. If you Google “learning from failure,” you will get about 129 million results. So you are not alone. We can’t avoid our missteps, but we can learn from them.

One of the biggest mistakes I made in my career was believing that my track record and performance alone would get me promoted. I failed to understand the workplace politics, and I lacked strong relationships across the organization with key stakeholders and decision makers. As a result I was passed over for a promotion I thought I deserved. The lessons I learned from this experience now help me to coach other professional women. It allows me to help them avoid the landmines and successfully navigate the reality of the workplace. But I didn’t learn this lesson overnight.
  • A huge first step for recovering and learning from my mistake was accepting the fact that I could have changed my behaviour and mindset to influence the decision-making process.
It took some time to detach from the situation and understand that the assumption I had made, that my talent and hard work would be sufficient enough for the promotion, was incorrect.  After all, there is no such thing as a meritocracy. The reality is that people are not promoted solely based on their performance. It takes a lot more than just the minimum for you to be noticed and considered for a chance to move up the ladder. It’s a requirement, and expectation, that you perform well to maintain your title and status, but good performance alone doesn’t land you a promotion.

One of the key aspects that set you apart and designate you as someone with leadership potential are the relationships you have with key stakeholders and influencers. Your great track record needs to be shown alongside your ability to work the politics in a positive way and build critical relationships. You need to be on everyone’s radar and create visibility and credibility for yourself and your team. Unfortunately, I had my head down focused on my work and not on building these relationships.

  • Next, I needed to get over my anger and frustration before I could learn from the experience.  
After clearing my head to reflect on the situation, I realized that I had avoided connecting with key people in the organization. I had no understanding of how the decision for this position would be made. I didn’t even have a solid relationship with my boss, who was new to the organization!
  • Once I reached this awareness, it was much easier to evaluate the situation and look at it objectively.

What did I do right? Well, I did ask for the job once the position was available. I did lobby for the position and 18 of my direct reports at the time recommended me for the job.

So where did I go wrong? I had no idea how the decision to fill this position would be made. I had no idea who the decision makers were and who would influence the decision. I didn’t have any relationships with anyone who had an influence on the position.

In other words, since my boss was new to the organization, who did he ask for input? I didn’t know. I neglected to build allies and champions across the organization; I  knew no one in the office who could confirm my qualifications and leadership potential.

I was truly blindsided when I did not receive this promotion. This experience is now the subject of a popular keynote, “The Anatomy of A Blindside,” that I present across the country. The lessons learned from this experience are now used to help other women avoid this mistake.

Here are the 5 critical steps to help you learn from your mistakes:

1. Accept: Accept that you made a mistake and don’t cast your blame on others.

2.  Detach: Detach yourself from the emotions surrounding the situation and adopt an objective perspective.

3. Reflect: Once you have taken the time to detach, replay the situation step by step to get a better idea of how you could have avoided your misstep. At what point did things begin to go wrong?

4. Evaluate: What went right? What went wrong? What factors contributed to the failure of the situation? What could you have done differently?

5. Learn: Once you can objectively look at the situation and assessed what went wrong, think about how you could have approached this differently. What will you change going forward?

Today’s work requires a new leadership paradigm. Vulnerability is now considered a core competency for leadership. A real human being is vulnerable and has the potential to do something wrong. We all make mistakes. No one can possibly know everything. Admitting we don’t have all the answers and that we make mistakes is now considered a strength for today’s leadership. Admitting our own vulnerability inspires others, especially when we share our mistakes and the lessons we have learned from them.

It’s easy to blame others for our mistakes. It’s easy to become paralyzed by our emotions of anger, frustration or disappointment. We can expend a lot of energy beating ourselves up for making a mistake. That’s just wasted energy.

No matter what you do or what industry you’re in, there’s a window for failure. But there’s also a window for success. For every mistake you make, your window for success gets bigger. So you can take the risk and accept that things can go wrong, or you can stay behind and wonder what could have been. It’s your call. It’s your choice to use your mistakes and errors as a learning experience. It’s your choice to grow from it professionally, as well as personally, and keep moving forward.


Bonnie Marcus

Award winning entrepreneur and Forbes contributing writer, Bonnie Marcus, M.Ed., has real conversations for real women about real situations in the workplace today. As the President of Women’s Success Coaching, Bonnie assists professional women to successfully navigate the workplace and position and promote themselves to advance their careers. Forbes. com honored Women’s Success Coaching in 2010, 2011, and 2012 as one of the Top 100 Websites for Professional Women.