How to Have a Successful Failure, Part Two

This is part two of a two-part series on how your business can not only survive but also thrive after a major setback by embracing failure as an opportunity. Part one discussed successful businessmen who persevered after failures and ultimately became successful. Part two contains specific tips on how you can achieve a successful failure for your business.

We’ve all failed at something. Maybe it was your driver’s test when you were 16. Perhaps you didn’t make that weight loss goal you set for yourself last year. Or maybe you’ve suffered a major setback in your business and are starting to feel like a failure.

You can move on from failure. As Maya Angelou said, “You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.”

I’d like to offer a few tips on how to overcome that feeling of failure and perceive it as an opportunity for success.

  1. Accept failure, but view it as temporary.

As motivational speaker and writer Denis Waitley said, “Failure should be our teacher, not our undertaker. Failure is a delay, not a defeat. It is a temporary detour, not a dead end.”

So some marketing initiative or new product launch didn’t work out as planned. Perhaps your company has suffered a huge financial setback. Acknowledge that the attempt to meet your goal failed, but vow to move on.

  1. Learn from your previous mistakes.

If possible, determine what went wrong to cause the failure. If it’s not possible for you to uncover the issue internally, consider hiring outside help to find out the cause and help ensure success next time. An outside consultant can also help you determine if you’ve correctly pinpointed the issue. I’ve been hired to help failing companies that thought they knew exactly what the issue is, only for me to determine they were wrong and that the solution they had proposed was doomed to fail.

  1. Set realistic expectations.

It’s great to stretch yourself and set ambitious goals for you and your company. But setting them too high can result in yet another failure and demoralize your employees.

I tell the story in my book, How Not to Hire a Guy Like Me, of working with a company in Florida that bought a company in Minnesota and wanted to move it to Florida and have it operational in three days. Given their resources and logistical considerations, the plan was absolutely impossible.

I worked with them to map out a two-month process for the relocation. The move went smoothly and with a minimum of downtime.

  1. Consider your definition of success.

During the recession a lot of companies had to reconsider what their definition of success is. As I heard it described then, “Survival is the new success.” Sometimes in tough times, just keeping your business afloat is a success. Recognize that and congratulate yourself for it.

We will all fail at something in our life, and yes, that can be disappointing. But it’s how we react to it that makes all the difference. Dale Carnegie said, “Develop success from failures. Discouragement and failure are two of the surest stepping stones to success.”

How Do You Define Success?

When I interview with the owners and board of directors of a company that is considering hiring me, I am sometimes asked about my batting record. I generally state that I bat over 800, which by baseball standards means I qualify for the Hall of Fame.

By the time I am called in, a company is generally in dire straits. I deal with many unfortunate situations. Companies are on the verge of failing, they have had several rounds of layoffs, shareholder value is in decline, and creditors may be banging on the door. There are also often many personal issues of the CEOs pertaining to personal guarantees, side collateral, impending divorces or medical issues.

So what would success look like? Success needs to be defined by the goals of the owners and board of directors, as it is their business and their lives that are involved. Success may be to structure a successful liquidation or sale of a business. Success may be defined by negotiating with the bank to release or lower a personal exposure on a guarantee. Success may be to downsize, invest all of the family’s capital into a re-engineered business, and refinance with another capital source.

Success may also be defined as filing for bankruptcy and working with creditors in a structured Plan of Reorganization that is fair for all of the parties. Or a CEO may just want out and say, “Here are the keys, Lee. I just want to get off the merry-go-round and save my marriage and keep my family together.”

It’s my job in those initial meetings to determine what their definition of success is and work towards that goal.

I recently spoke to a group of turnaround professionals and was asked a few questions that had me thinking about this idea of the definition of success. The first was why was one business where I was Chief Restructuring Office liquidated?

The short answer is that sometimes liquidation is the meaning of success for that particular company. Other times it’s the only option available. And in some circumstances, the owners or board of directors chose not to follow my recommendation and the company had to be liquidated. Those are the most heart breaking for me as I feel that had my recommendations been followed, we could have saved the company.

I was also asked about some of my “failed” turnarounds. Again, it may have been too late, my recommendations perhaps weren’t followed or maybe some strategies didn’t work. Turnarounds are complicated and difficult by definition and morph constantly throughout the process.

No one in this industry can claim a 100 percent success rate and I am proud of my record. Do I wish I could save every single company I work with? Of course, and I always act as if the company were my own and try everything in my power to meet the definition of success as defined by the owners and board of directors.

Even if a company being liquidated is the best-case scenario is a given situation, it’s still tough for the owners. So the next time you know of someone that has lost a business, gone bankrupt or been downsized, be sensitive to that person’s situation. They need the support of their friends, and sometimes counseling and medication to get through a rough spot in their life.

And ask yourself, what would you do when faced with a tough decision? How would you define success?

As the saying goes, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” The same can be said of the meaning of success.