Executive Handbook

How to learn from success

key to success

"Learn from your mistakes."

How frequently do we hear that — or something similar? Failure is touted as one of the most powerful teachers we'll ever meet. It's been elevated in some cases to a magical status that can produce outcomes of legendary proportions. (Think 3M and the less- sticky glue that ultimately birthed adhesive notes.)

As a result, over the course of our lives, most of us have become very adept at recognizing our mistakes and missteps. We spend considerable time reflecting on what went wrong and our role in it. (Some of us have raised this to an art form — or obsession.) And most people can outline exactly what they won't ever do again to avoid problems from the past. We indeed do learn from our mistakes.

But can we say the same about our successes? When something goes well, do we invest the same evaluative energy? When we reach (or beat) our goals, do we conduct a robust "after action review" to get to the bottom of what went right? No! And it's an enormous missed opportunity. Excellence is based not just on fixing mistakes but also on leveraging what's going well toward even greater results.

The work of Gallup, Zenger Folkman and others has changed how we think about strengths. Today we know that focusing on strengths and dedicating time and attention to growing those can have a huge impact on performance (versus working like a dog to overcome weaknesses). A similar movement needs to take hold in the failure/success arena.

Why do we fail to embrace success as a teacher? Why do we miss the opportunity to squeeze learning out of those situations that turn out just like (or even better than) we planned?

I'll speak for myself. I'm generally "on to the next" by the time the results of previous efforts become evident. At that point, there's no time to wallow in my success. If I'd screwed up, failure would grab me by the throat and force attention, but success just slips quietly into the night.

Read the full Executive Handbook package

Main page
How to spot a turkey farm
How to make the most of a mentor
How to share a service
How to join the Senior Executive Service
How to assess your team
How to influence policy
How to stay out of the weeds
How to foster better performance
How conformists can spark creativity

What if we could develop as much discipline wringing learning out of what's worked as we do out of what hasn't? We can! And I believe it can be as productive as — and even more energizing and fun than — focusing on failure. The next time something goes well, consider the following questions:

1. Why exactly am I so pleased with the results? Being clear about how we define success and what it involves is the first step toward being able to create more of it.

2. What specific steps did I/we take to contribute to the success? When we recognize what we did to help generate the positive results, we can replicate the productive steps and even teach others.

3. Who else helped make this success possible? Success is rarely the product of a one-man show. Recognizing who's helped provides an opportunity to express appreciation — and draw consciously on those resources again in the future.

4. What other conditions conspired to produce this success? Some conditions are out of our control; still, it's helpful to have them on the radar screen. But other conditions might be more malleable and might be factors to leverage for future success.

These questions can help you — and others — mine your success for the rich lessons that it can teach. Who knows? Maybe it's time to graduate from the "school of hard knocks" to a kinder, gentler "textbook of triumph."

About the Author

Julie Winkle Giulioni, co-author of "Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go: Career Conversations Employees Want," is a training consultant who works with organizations to deliver results through learning. She can be reached via her company website, DesignArounds.com.

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