My View

‘So Tell Us About Your Failures’
By Doug Eadie/School Administrator, April 2017

Years ago, I was working as a coach to a CEO search committee that was developing the questionnaire they would use for interviewing candidates. One suggestion that stimulated a fair amount of discussion and proved valuable in the interview process was to 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, importantly, the capacity to use adversity as an opportunity to grow. That certainly proved to be the case as we conducted the interviews. Some candidates obviously didn’t feel comfortable talking about the potholes they’d run into 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.

Character Traits
In the years since that experience, I’ve observed that really extraordinary CEOs pay close attention to the character of candidates they consider 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 known 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 had me thinking recently about this interview question. One was an article about Thinking Your Way Out of the Ditch, a new book by Abe Abraham that describes how as CEO he led his company back to financial health after a devastating setback. The other was an article by sports writer Bill Pennington in The New York Times about Theo Epstein, president of baseball operations for the World Series champion Chicago Cubs.

“If there is an Epstein formula for success, it is complex and multifaceted but also remarkably unsophisticated in one essential way,” Pennington wrote. “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 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.”

An Inevitable Fate
Thank heaven the odds of failure in the nonprofit sector are more favorable, but no CEO or senior executive can lead and manage for 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.

Failures inevitably come all our ways over the course of our careers.

Doug Eadie
is a leadership consultant for nonprofit and public-sector CEOs and boards, based in Tampa, Fla. This column is based on the author’s blog at E-mail: Twitter: @DougEadieCo