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April 6, 2017

How My Small Mistake Led to Big Problems

Bruce Murray

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Learning from our own mistakes is how we progress. We can only hope that the consequences of them are not too burdensome.

Here's an opportunity to learn without paying any price. Because, in this case, the mistake was all mine...

Setting the Scene

A generation ago, I eagerly accepted a new job leading Human Resources at an emerging company of 10 people. I met all of the young, energized employees, thrilled to be working with the world's tech leaders. My job was to quickly find great talent to keep pace with the company's rapid growth.

A little background is perhaps required at this point.

At the time of my hiring, there was a rapid increase in PCs interfacing with other devices. The problem was that to share these new connectivity methods amounted to giving away the developers' "secret sauce." Soon, a non-profit association emerged with the goal of establishing standardized protocols. Virtually all companies readily agreed that this was a good idea - easily interfacing with other devices would greatly expand the markets for their products.

Where I Come In...

The association members were mostly VP-level experts, but reaching an agreement that suited all parties turned out to be difficult. An Apple iOS software standard, for instance, would be intolerable to Microsoft and vice-versa. There were similar conflicts in terms of hardware.

The association execs would meet, agree upon some steps, but then flounder when it came to getting them done. Their paying "day jobs" always had priority.

They would offer to have their company work on it, but other members would object. Why? Fear that the emerging standard would adhere too closely to that company's existing products and processes.

Our company skillfully stepped into this mess and provided objective day-to-day management of the association's affairs.

The Mistake

But, back to my mistake.

As I watched my new cohorts perform their duties, I crafted my recruitment pitch. "Come to work with us," I said, "and you’ll be flying all over the world. You'll meet with senior execs of the companies you most admire in swanky hotels. Together, you'll develop the marketing plans to recruit new association members. Together, your work will establish the standards of the next generation of IT!"

Imagine being a young marketing professional presented with that kind of offer. As a recruiter, I never had it so easy.

Now wait for it... here it comes...

But, we experienced an extremely high turnover rate during my first year. So why was this? Well, from exit interviews, as well as some precious time spent with those in the trenches, I gleaned the answer.

First, as some of you know all too well, worldwide travel and luxury hotels quickly lose their appeal. Secondly, the hours were long. Many of the all-day flights around the globe were on weekends, after a 45- to 50-hour work week.

Finally, I had a poor grasp of the scope of the actual work. The marketing plans were hatched and honed by the association's skilled executives (and our employees once they'd been around the block a year or two). It turned out that the role of our entry-level workers was mundane. They were asked to take meeting minutes, translate them into action plans for committee members, perform meet-and-greets at convention booths, and (all too often) do the least glamorous tasks, because the members just never quite got around to doing them.

A Lesson Learned

My recruitment process was adjusted to emphasize the hard work, long hours, and the tediousness of the actual role.

And, while I no longer had candidates tripping over one another to get to the front of the line, the new process worked. Turnover fell dramatically and morale improved. New candidates' expectations were more aligned to the job at hand.

In case I've left you with a faulty impression about the company, it's actually a fantastic place to work. It just isn't for everybody. Those competent and comfortable with hard work and near-obsessive diligence earn fantastic wages and develop meaningful relations with world leaders in the cutting-edge, high-tech world.

The lesson for me and you is this. The essence of a slogan or pitch is to be appealing. My original pitch met the standard of being consistent with the vision and mission of the company but where I failed was in correctly articulating the range of values required to bring success to the mission.

To summarize, I'll steal a few words from the futurist writer Alvin Toffler: "You’ve got to think about the big things while you're doing the small things, so that all the small things go in the right direction." 

How have you recovered from a mistake that you've made at work? Share your own story with us, below...

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