Sunday, July 13, 2008

Mistakes and Great Bosses

Many of you will know the story of the manager in IBM who made a catastrophic mistake that cost IBM $750,000 to correct.

The guilty manager went to the office of the Chief Executive with his letter of resignation in his hand. He asked the CEO to just accept the letter and not give him a verbal rocket. He explained that he knew he had made this almighty mistake and just wanted to go quietly.

The CEO handed him back the letter and said;

‘Why the hell would I want to sack someone I just spent $750,000 training’

I’m not sure if that story is factually correct but it is a great story that tells us a lot about boss/worker relationships.

I never made a mistake in my career that cost that much money – as far as I know. I have made many mistakes in my career – hopefully I have learned from them as this IBM manager certainly would have done.

One of the biggest mistakes I made was losing the key to the safe in the hospital that I worked in. We kept large amounts of cash in the safe as well as other valuables. I was one of two key holders and it took me a week to pluck up the courage to tell my boss (the other key holder) that I’d lost the key. I was only 21 at the time and I had convinced myself I would be sacked for such negligence on my part.

I finally plucked up the courage to tell my boss, he was just fantastic. He said it was not a problem. We would get a new key cut and trust that my key had not fallen into criminal hands. I never did find the original key and sure enough the safe was never raided so it had obviously not been stolen which was always my fear – I had obviously just lost it.

The week I spent thinking about telling my boss was one of the worst weeks of my life … and yet all my fears were so unnecessary. I realise now – 30 plus years later - I should have told the boss immediately and not allowed it to create all sorts of catastrophic consequences in my head that never happened in reality.

I would love to hear your stories of a mistake you are prepared to admit publicly and the way it was handled well (or not) by your boss.


Anonymous said...

Trevor - I love this story. I always fared better when admitting mistakes. And, as a boss and parent, I know I am so much more "lenient" when the "offender" owns up to the mistake, and the opposite happens when I hear excuses.

Trevor Gay said...

Great advice Steve - I'm with you! ... Only with age and experience have I got more confident about admitting mistakes ....

Anonymous said...

As a callow young man in his first management job (in a highly unionised trucking environment, at that) I was advised by a shop steward that one of our trucks had been overloaded by our customer but he'd square it away with the driver concerned. It was all very, "we're all lads together, we know the score" and I let it go, especially as I didn't then have to go back and annoy the customer who was the source of the problem. Quelle surprise: the steward told the driver, who went ape and quite rightly refused to go out in an illegal vehicle. The steward also made sure my boss got to hear about it. Loadsa lessons, including:

Don't break the law. (Gulp: how embarrassing to admit I needed to learn that!)

You aren't one of the lads unless you've been a lad. (Whatever the trade.)

Irrespective of this, you aren't one of the lads when you're the boss.

Have a thought about people's motives.

Have a thought about what you're asking people to do. It's not a case of don't ask someone to do what you can't do yourself. (I can't do brain surgery but I'd ask for it if I needed it.) It is a case of don't ask anyone to do something illegal.

Face up to problems at source, at the time. Short term fixes often cause long term problems.

(I'm ashamed to admit I didn't do this 30 years ago:) When it's resolved, have the b*lls and decency to apologise to someone you've done wrong by.

Trevor Gay said...

That is a fantastic story Mark – thanks so much for sharing it. As you say ‘loadsa lessons.’

One of the lessons I think I have learned is to own up early and say sorry quick.

Joel D Canfield said...

Exactly what I was going to say, Trevor. I'm still learning this, but it seems like no matter what quality the boss, the quicker I admitted a mistake, the better things went.

I suffer a peculiar dichotomy, though: all my life, from the first time I had someone who felt responsible to me, I've been as near perfect as I can be in my response to mistakes. I've had some pretty unpleasant happenings, but my goal has always been to find out what caused it, not who caused it. As in, let's fix what broke and move on.

Now, if I could only convince myself that others are just as thoughtful and considerate as I am . . .

I did have one memorable experience that helped push me to practice this more frequently. As a telecom analyst, I calculated expected savings after we re-negotiated large telecom contracts.

On one particularly large contract, I left some significant costs out of the 'proposed' section, seriously inflating the savings (and the salesperson's commission.)

I'd had a hard week at a new job, made more than my share of mistakes already, and I just left it for the boss to find. (nb: do not do this.)

Instead of firing me, we went for a long drive, and talked about work and life in general, and came to a little better understanding of each other as people. The personal connection made it possible to continue working there, and to confess mistakes instead of sweeping them under the rug.

Trevor Gay said...

Great story and great advice Joel – thank you so much for sharing. Sweeping stuff under the carpet is always a temptation but the 'dust' is always still 'there' … just waiting to be discovered …