Years ago I was working as a coach to a CEO search committee that was developing the questionnaire they’d be using in interviewing candidates for the job. One suggestion that stimulated a fair amount of discussion and proved very valuable in the interview process was that we’d ask candidates to describe a couple of failures over the course of their career and how they’d dealt with these setbacks. We ultimately agreed that asking candidates about how they’d coped with adversity would be an important way to illuminate certain aspects of their character, such as resilience, creativity, and, very important, the capacity to use adversity as an opportunity to grow, and that certainly proved to be the case as we conducted the interviews. Some of the candidates obviously didn’t feel comfortable talking about the potholes they’d encountered on their professional journey and certainly hadn’t reflected seriously on what they’d learned from these failures. Others, including the woman who got the job (whose leadership turned out to be stellar) were far more self-analytical, demonstrating not only that they’d faced adversity with courage and tenacity, but also that they’d learned valuable lessons about their own leadership qualities and had consciously used these lessons to grow their leadership capacity.
In the years since that experience, I’ve observed that really extraordinary CEOs pay close attention to the character of candidates they’re considering for executive positions in their organization, knowing that character traits are just as, if not more, important to success over the long run than intellectual agility and technical skills. And because the extraordinary CEOs I’ve worked with over the years have without exception mastered the art of failing well themselves – understanding that grappling with failure builds character – they always make a point of asking job candidates to explain how they’ve dealt with their own professional failures.
Two things sparked this post, by the way. One was last week’s article featuring Abe Abraham’s podcast about his new book, Thinking Your Way Out of the Ditch, which describes how he, as CEO, led his company back to financial health after a devastating setback. The other was Bill Pennington’s article in the October 2 New York Times about Theo Epstein, the world champion Chicago Cubs’ president of baseball operations (“Cursed Century Warrants a Proven Savior”). “If there is an Epstein formula for success, it is complex and multifaceted but also remarkably unsophisticated in one essential way. When deciding whether to add a player, Epstein focuses most of his attention on an athlete’s personal characteristics rather than just his physical abilities. . . .And the thing Epstein wants to know more about any potential player is how he has handled adversity.” Epstein is quoted in the piece as saying that he “would ask our scouts to provide three detailed examples of how these young players faced adversity on the field and responded to it, and three examples of how they faced adversity off the field. Because baseball is built on failure. The old expression is that even the best hitter fails seven out of 10 times.”
Thank heaven the odds of failure in the nonprofit sector are more favorable, but no CEO or senior executive can lead and manage for very long without confronting adversity, and I’ve learned that one quality separating the truly extraordinary leader from the pack is the capacity not only to face – but also to grow from – failure.
I’d love to hear our readers’ stories about contending with the failures that inevitably come all our ways over the course of our careers.