I Love to Fail Forward!

This is a guest post by Lisa Stirgus. She is a District Manager at VP at Wells Fargo.


When Amber asked me to write a guest blog, my first response was a very excited YES! Then reality set in and I quickly remembered that I have minor anxiety attacks when I have to put my thoughts into writing. After thinking about a fun topic to catch you, the reader’s, eye I thought I would follow up on some thoughts I had after my earlier interview with Amber.

The very best leaders are learners. They are not afraid to admit they do not have all the answers and they are always asking, “what can I learn from this?” Over the past few years, I’ve seen a lot of wasted time and energy invested in defending actions. I have become a little obsessed about helping my team understand that defensive attitudes are barriers for learning. Removing barriers and helping my team realize that leaders are never satisfied with status quo, opens up opportunity that frees them to enjoy the journey, grow to the next level of excellence, and remain excited about their progress and development. It’s what I call failing forward.

It’s a statement that is near and dear to my heart, and one I’ve come to live by. I learned this from my personal development coach when I first became a District Manager and after beating myself up over the hundreds of mistakes I made my first day. It wasn’t productive to spend time worrying about what I shoulda, coulda, woulda done. Instead, I let my guard down, stepped away from the fear of “I did something wrong,” and learned to be open to feedback. I learned to become a learner. When I did, the positive growth gained from the situation and implementing my learning helped me progress so much further and become a stronger leader.

As leaders, creating space for learning gives us more time in our day to improve processes, implement solutions, and succeed at a faster more positive rate. So, break down those defensive barriers and fail forward.  When you do, you’ll become a stronger, more successful leader.

What I Learned from Stephen Covey

Stephen Covey was an influential person in the development of my philosophies on life and leadership. Many knew him as the author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, which has sold over 25 million copies since it was first published in 1989. In April, at the age of 79, Covey fell off of his bicycle, and was in the hospital for months trying to recover. On July 16th, he lost that battle. It is a sad loss, of an illustrious teacher, for the business community. To honor him, I have decided to share the three most important things I learned from this great man.

Begin with the end in mind
This habit encourages a person to start every project, life change, and decision by focusing on what they want the end to look like. Covey said that it “is based on imagination—the ability to envision in your mind what you cannot at present see with your eyes.” This habit or mental model has shaped my life in three different areas: my vision, my relationships, and my projects.

Think Win-Win
Most people think in terms of either/or. It is a natural human process. However, by defeating this mindset, a person can open up new doors. Covey said: A person or organization that approaches conflicts with a win-win attitude possesses three vital character traits:

  •  Integrity: sticking with your true feelings, values, and commitments
  • Maturity: expressing your ideas and feelings with courage and consideration for the ideas and feelings of others
  • Abundance Mentality: believing there is plenty for everyone

The WIN-WIN model has helped me shift from dichotomous ways of thinking during conflict, with my clients, and even in relationships. I’m constantly asking, “How can we both get what we want?” Many people think WIN-LOSE/ LOSE-LOSE/ or LOSE-WIN … so I love thinking in terms of having it all – WIN/ WIN!

Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood
The simple temptation to show what you know can be extremely inhibiting, especially in leadership. It takes practice and patience to simply listen. Listening is an art and it doesn’t mean simply sitting without speaking, or even just paying attention.  What Covey is referring to is the ability to actively listen and ask good questions.  Questions like, ““What does this person want?” “What’s at the root of this?” “What happened before this that may have triggered this response?”” Finding answers to these questions—thus understanding the other person—is an easy way of finding solutions.

What it all boils down to is mindset. Developing and holding the right mindset on a daily basis makes a person more successful. It doesn’t always come easy and often takes effort, especially at first, but once mastered the results are undeniable.

Covey, Stephen R. “Books: 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” StephenCovey.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 Aug. 2012.

A Little Help Up The Ladder

Recently, I’ve heard a rise in discussion about the difference between a mentor and a sponsor. While both mentor/mentee relationships and sponsor/protégé relationships are important, more people tend to focus on the former. Robin Madell does a nice job differentiating the two in her article, “Having a mentor and/or a sponsor can make all the difference in your career,” in which she quoted Mika Brzezinski, author of Knowing Your Value:

a mentor [is] someone who will offer advice, provide feedback, suggest strategy, and explain company culture. A sponsor, on the other hand, [is] someone who is willing to use his or her own social capital to help pull someone else up the corporate ladder. 

If a person is trying to move up the ladder without actively seeking a mentor, sponsor or both, then they are trying to climb that ladder with their shoelaces tied together. While both are important in achieving success, finding a sponsor can offer additional benefits because of the vast resources available to them. Whereas a mentor is willing to offer advice and suggestions based on their experiences, a sponsor “has some skin in the game” and is willing to put their reputation on the line.

Finding a sponsor is something that can be pursued actively, as opposed to waiting passively and hoping they find you. Without letting the person know what your interest is, the chances of them simply volunteering are unlikely, even if they have considered it as a possibility. Therefore, just because you have not already been chosen by someone as a potential protégé does not mean that you are not a worthwhile investment for someone. It is exceedingly rare for a person to be chosen out of the blue, and even then usually requires some soliciting. Do not be afraid to take initiative, schedule a meeting and be clear about what you are looking for.

So what is a sponsor looking for in a protégé? The resounding answer is loyalty and the willingness to go the extra mile. A sponsor does not want to waste their time on someone who is not willing to put in the effort to take the guidance they are giving. Remember, a sponsor/protégé relationship is a two-way street and one of the biggest things a sponsor gains from a protégé is loyalty and the opportunity to “do the right thing” by giving back. Understanding this can be the key to having a successful relationship with a sponsor. Furthermore, having a successful relationship with a sponsor can be the difference between being successful and being wildly successful in your career.

Moving forward, challenge yourself to look to your extended network and make a list of potential candidates who could serve as your sponsor. But, don’t stop there; be proactive. Schedule a meeting with each of the people you listed and make your intentions known.


Hewlett, Sylvia A., Melinda Marshall, and Laura Sherbin. “The Relationship You Need To Get Right.” Harvard Business Review Oct. 2011: 131-34. Web. 29 June 2012.

Madell, Robin. “Having a mentor and/or a sponsor can make all the difference in your career.” career-intelligence.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 June 2012.