“Your biggest problem as a leader is you spend time trying to explain why you missed your targets, and that feels a lot like justifying. Like you are making excuses for missing. As an executive on my team, I need you to own your failures, full stop. Then, explain to me how it will be different next quarter. We can’t do anything about last quarter.”
These were the words of a CEO, “Danielle,” to my coaching client, “Sandy,” about ten years ago. I was coaching an executive who was generally quite successful. He had run his business effectively, meeting many of his revenue targets and profit and market share goals for a year. However, he had recently run into some difficulties, and missed his revenue targets two months running. In the meeting with Danielle, Sandy’s efforts to explain the causes of his commercial challenges led to Danielle’s sudden and direct feedback. Sandy took in the feedback, and we moved on to other parts of the coaching. After the meeting, Danielle told me that this is, in her experience, a common problem with developing executives. As an individual contributor, she stated, this may be the right answer: “You are learning, and your manager needs to know how you got there so she can coach and train the person effectively. As a business leader, I assume you know how to do the nuts and bolts. I don’t need to coach you on running your business day to day.”
Over the subsequent years, I have had dozens of clients for whom some form of this advice was invaluable. One person described having been “beaten up” by his manager, because he missed his target by “only $100,000.” His manager said curtly, “A miss is a miss.” Planning his next quarterly business review, he was once again at 99.2% of his target revenues. This time, rather than saying “I almost made my number,” we agreed he would simply say, “I missed my number by 80 basis points.” His manager’s reaction? “Yeah, but not by much.”
Hillary Clinton has encountered this problem throughout her career. Even given the context of repeated partisan investigations and extensive, unsuccessful efforts to find smoking guns in her record, she at times struggles to take full ownership for her actions or statements. While she does take ownership, she often goes on to provide explanations and context that only cause more problems. The recent fallout from her interview with Chris Wallace is a case in point. During the interview, Secretary Clinton stated, “Well, Chris, I looked at the whole transcript of everything that was said, and what I believe is, number one, I made a mistake not using two different e-mail addresses. I have said that and I repeat it again today. It is certainly not anything that I ever would do again.” Had she limited her comments to that, perhaps she could have then moved on and no more would have been made of it other than what her opponents usually do with her statements. Because of additional explanations in an effort to “provide context,” however, she put herself in the position to be the target of further attacks and criticisms.
The reality is, most people are providing rationalizations and justifications in an effort to preserve their self-esteem. Successful executives, however, need to take responsibility for their decisions and move forward. If there really is a separate context that requires attention, that discussion should happen at a different time. As one executive said, “So I should just suck it up, huh?”
To paraphrase Jim Collins, “The most effective leaders confront the brutal facts, but never lose faith in a positive outcome.” My advice is, in almost all situations:
• Own up to what the facts of the situation are without explaining, justifying, or providing context.
• Then explain how you will change the situation going forward, and how the future will look different.
Ann Bowers-Evangelista has recently written that owning up to mistakes is the best path. My years of coaching experience have proven that taking ownership of your situation, even if you didn’t make a mistake, will lead to better outcomes, and greater faith in a leader’s capabilities from those who matter. What have you found? Does context or explanations help, or hurt an executive’s cause? I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the subject.