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.

Lois Paynter, Saint Mary’s Health Plans, VP of Operations


Lois has created a work environment that has her employees wanting to come to the office every day––or not. For those days that her employees prefer to do something else and not come to work, well that’s OK too. Thanks to programs like flextime, Lois encourages her employees to spend time away from work with friends and family. She believes in work/life balance and she helps her employees achieve that balance by supporting and encouraging flextime.

Lois recognizes her employees have dynamic lives outside of their 8-to-5 shifts. Every week, Lois dedicates an hour to each member of her team. Her team members know they have the freedom to bring any topics to their one-on-one weekly meetings with Lois, even if the conversation goes beyond the parameters of work. These meetings help Lois better understand who her team members are outside of work, which helps her be more accommodating in achieving the work/life balance company-wide.

With Lois being responsible for 56 employees, she says open communication and scheduling are the secret ingredients. While employees are encouraged to take advantage of flextime by leaving work early, coming in late, or not coming at all; the program could crumble without proper scheduling.

“We don’t have an attendance problem here,” said Lois. “Employees can take time off as needed, everything is captured on the calendar.” Because of the emphasis on healthy work/life balance, employees show up and give their all during work shifts. Everyone appreciates the flexibility and works as a team to complete the work demands.

The team approach is productive and helps employees spend more time with their families and, in turn, helps create a work culture that resembles that of a big family––all members are eager to help one another. It’s a dynamic that many companies strive to instill in their cultures, but it takes a lot of trust and communication to achieve.

Creating that warm family feeling in a work environment also requires the right people. During my interview with Lois, she was constantly referring to the incredible people within her organization. She mentioned instances where employees have left because of tempting new titles or pay increases elsewhere, but they’ve come back. One returning employee even said to her, “I didn’t realize how important the people I worked with were, until I didn’t have them anymore.”

Witnessing a family-like environment in a workplace is always impressive to me. It takes such a high level of mutual respect, understanding and trust. At the end of my discussion with Lois, she said something that demonstrated to me just how much faith she has in her employees: “It’s important for me to be compassionate, be honest and listen to my employees––they’re smarter than we are!”

Basically, Don’t Threaten the Basics

The best leaders are usually part psychologist, taking the time to figure out what makes their employees tick, possibly even going so far as to empathize with their position. In doing so, they find the ability to make sure that they are providing the most vital needs that their employees have. Even the slightest failure in providing such necessities can be devastating.

Recently a colleague shared that his paycheck was going to be delayed by four weeks because someone in his office missed the payroll the deadline.

Besides the obvious legal issue this creates, there is a much deeper problem here. How can this employee now return to work and actually focus? Expecting top-notch performance from this individual is out of the question. Their mind, instead, is going to be running circles with thoughts like:

·      How am I going to make my car payment?

·      My rent is going to be late!

·      What will I do for groceries this week?

This is where the work of Abraham Maslow, a psychologist who published a paper in 1943 entitled “The Theory of Human Motivation,” comes into play. In his paper, Maslow introduced his now famous hierarchy of needs. The most basic of these needs he classified as psychological. These needs include food, shelter, water, etc.––exactly the type of needs that were being put in danger in my colleague’s situation.

Psychological needs will always be the priority in most people’s lives. By far, the majority of workers go to their jobs every day to ensure that their basic needs and the basic needs of their loved ones will be satisfied. When it is questionable whether or not they are going to be able to meet their basic needs, employees easily lose focus and become distracted, which is not productive for any company or organization.

It’s sometimes the basics that are the easiest to overlook. A lot more is at stake for a company that fails to satisfy the basic needs of its employees. Something as simple as forgetting to turn in employee timesheets and delaying their paychecks can easily snowball into major issues as employees are unable to concentrate on daily tasks. In order to move into higher-level strategies for increasing employee engagement and productivity, company leaders must first ensure their employees’ basic needs are not being overlooked.