Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Failure and other Fun Topics

Some months ago, before we left our diplomatic posting in London, my niece visited us. Erin is a young investment banker who is searching for a professional path that offers a moral compass, weekends off, job satisfaction and the chance to indulge her other great passion - dance. Erin and her colleagues say, "I can work 18 hours a day and put up with a lot of bad behaviour at the office, but I would rather not." Anyone in the field of finance who reads this will be thinking, "well, good luck Missie, you chose the wrong career!" (In fact, research shows that in the field of finance, women make the largest sacrifices in their work/life balance.)

But wait. Those people will not have heard of my friend Herta von Steigel. I first met Herta at a womens' networking event in London and I knew immediately that she would become my friend. Herta is a banker who will not compromise her ethical OR her professional standards. She made millions for Citibank and now is running her own sustainable energy fund in Africa, Ariya Capital.

But the reason that I want to talk about Herta here is that she had a crazy, but superb idea. Herta is a trustee of a disability charity in London and she decided to climb Mount Kilimanjaro with a group of people with disabilities from her charity. Of course, each disabled climber had buddies, and there were porters to carry supplies. Herta and her husband Hans funded the entire climb.

And they didn't stop there. They made a documentary film about the climb called "The Mountain Within". And then...Herta wrote a book by the same name describing all the lessons learned on the climb up Kilimanjaro and the application of those lessons to business. 'Failing fast and failing forward' is one of those lessons.

Herta says that when you fail, it's important to accelerate the failure in order to get it over with, learn lessons quickly and then change trajectory. Use failure as a teaching tool and move forward, but do it as quickly as you can.

Everyone has failed at some point in their lives and of course, I am no exception. I have failed spectacularly in my lifetime. When I look back on my life, my imagination defaults to a visual metaphor - a throwback to my days as a theatre director. When I think of 'me failing', I visualize myself walking down the street as a stylish, competent business person. Suddenly, my heel catches in the sidewalk and breaks off. "Nevermind", I think, no one will notice if I walk as if it's still there. But, of course, I can't. I trip and tear my stockings - my knee is bleeding. Picking myself up, I dust off and continue walking, hoping no one will notice the gaping holes in my imaginary facade of absolute competence.

This dream or visualization comes from a fear (or even an experience) of trying to repair the circumstances of failure when the writing is literally on the wall - failure is inevitable. The problem is clear - I worry that I don't know how to 'fail forward'. Of course, in the cold light of day, I reassure myself that I DO know how to fail forward and have done so lots of times. Still, fear of failure is part of the human condition and so, I will continue to have these dreams of broken heels and bleeding knees.

I urge anyone who cares about inclusion, leadership, ethics and success to read "The Mountain Within" (and to see the wonderful film as well!)

Failing fast and failing forward is just one lesson that Herta teaches in her book. There are many others and every one is applicable to success in life, business, being a mother, being a wife and being on a team of any kind, especially one that includes people with disabilities.




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