What Is Your Biggest Failure?

April 12, 2011



Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

“What is your biggest failure and what did you do about it?”  That was one of the questions I was asked following my presentation at ITESM.  I wasn’t prepared to answer that, so the only thing that came to mind are the handful of spectacular communication failures that have occurred in my career.  Busted!  While my answer was still valid, I should have done better, especially since one of the slides was specifically about embracing failure.  So, over the past couple of weeks I reflected on my career and came up with some more concrete examples and the lessons learned.  I am a human being, so I have made mistakes.  I hope publicly discussing my past mistakes on my blog doesn’t turn out to be one of them!

My First Business Trip

This first failure happened in the first year of my career.  We received a reel of parts with markings that were slightly different from what we usually received.  The Bill Of Materials (BOM) did not provide that detail. Since I was the Quality Engineer for the end product, the Buyer brought it to my attention.  The supplier said the parts were the same as usual and we checked with the Component Engineer, who also said that the parts were okay.  So, I let the reel go to the manufacturing floor.  Well, the parts weren’t the same. Not only that, our tests couldn’t catch the difference.  Our customer started noticing issues, but even they couldn’t catch it consistently.  Two weeks later, my manager showed up at my cubicle, asked if I had a passport and then told me I was being booked on a flight to California leaving in 4 hours.  A manufacturing lead and I were being sent to our customer’s floor to disassemble, inspect and reassemble 600 assemblies and send back the ones that had the problem part for repair.   What I learned from this failure actually prevented more failures.  Since then I have always verified information first hand from the best source of information.  In this case, I should have verified with the customer, which I always took the time to do after that.  Even now as a director, I will take a little extra time to determine and get some critical facts before making important business decisions.

Bad Hiring Decisions

I have interviewed and been involved with hiring a lot of people, but there were two people I have regretted hiring.  The first lasted 6 weeks on my team.  As always, I was very honest about the job and my expectations.  However, he expected he was being hired into the Executive circle.  Reality was not even close.  Fortunately, he was mature and realized there was a mismatch of expectations fairly quickly, knew it wasn’t going to work and resigned.  The second case I hired against my better judgment.  We urgently needed someone with a particular skill.  While this person was not a perfect fit, HR pushed me into hiring the candidate because the skill we were looking for was so hard to find.  All I can say is that it didn’t work out.   The latter case reinforced something I had learned a long time ago:  if you are spending time justifying why you should hire someone, then you probably shouldn’t.  Good hires are obvious.  I also don’t let HR talk me into hiring someone.  Since the former case I spend a lot more time in interviews understanding the candidate’s expectations.

One I Am Still Learning

I cannot share details, but there were at least two points in my career where I was blindsided by a business decision that was at least partly the result of someone else pushing their agenda.  I have learned that I need to spend more time doing public relations with my peers and Executive team, which I enjoy doing.  However, I am very good at getting stuff done to keep the business moving.  It also doesn’t help that I believe that real results speak for themselves.  As a result, “getting stuff done” fills up all of my time and I still don’t spend enough time on “selling” my team.  So, here’s where I will appreciate input from my readers.  Any advice on simple, lightweight things I can do to increase the amount of “selling” I do?

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About Liza Wood

After a dozen years leading video game development projects in a variety of roles, I decided to pursue a Master of Data Science at the University of British Columbia. Studying data science doesn’t mean I’m moving away from leading people. Growing data science teams need collaborative, pragmatic, Agile leadership to connect data to all areas of the business. I would like to share that point of view, along with my experiences, on this blog.

View all posts by Liza Wood

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One Comment on “What Is Your Biggest Failure?”

  1. Patricia Says:

    One of my biggest lessons was about office politics. It’s a shame that one doesn’t get a course in office politics with their degree. I learned to evaluate the messenger and their agenda before acting on any information. Or as Ronald Reagan would say, “Trust but verify.”

    In terms of “selling” your team, first you need to get comfortable doing it, which can be a cultural and/or gender-conditioning bias. Always talk-up your team. Take every opportunity to highlight your team’s strengths. Look for chances (large or small) to sell someone on your team. When using a story-based reference, make it team-oriented. Offer help on problems with “let me kick that around with my team” or do it in retrospect, “I brought up your issue with my team and we came up with this possible solution…” Just make sure that you watch people’s eyes to make sure you’re not pressing their annoying button.


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