The Teacher Named ‘Failure’

The Teacher Named ‘Failure’

I’ve always thought that any failure is a waste unless one learns something from it.

But when K-Mart sank under the weight of a $1.8B IT infrastructure project in 2017, it seemed that the lessons learned from it would be bitter ones.

K-Mart began a $1.8 billion dollar IT infrastructure modernization project that ultimately bankrupted the company. When Sears Holdings bailed them out, they closed over 600 stores and laid off 67,000 employees.

In 2018 Sears Holdings filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

In 2019 CNN Business made the point that they believed a major key was the 12 months the organization went without a CEO.

The failure that taught me a huge lesson about absent leaders came when I worked on a team where the ‘project manager’ was present in a physical sense only. Tall, with the stance and stride of an athlete, he was charming, almost always smiling slightly. He had made a science – a lifestyle! – of putting off making decisions. In several cases, indefinitely. Frustration was a constant companion to the three smaller teams responsible for more than 75% of the work. The other two team leads and I did our best.  The project manager had been decisive about and micromanaged only 1 area – the communications channels with the senior leadership team. The three of us strategized about solutions. In the end, having inadvertently given him just enough rope, he hung himself.

Leadership from anywhere at the table (or on the Zoom screen) does not negate the need for the final voice.  Together with my colleagues and having built a team culture of open and safe communications, we knew we would get the best information from our teams. We had also learned the bitter lesson about the impact of avoiding the responsibilities of leadership. Getting that lesson this way was powerful.  Not one of us has ever forgotten the cost of being unwilling to make a decision, communicate it and execute on it.

What are the leadership lessons you are teaching?

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