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The Emerging Healthcare Leader138

Excerpted from The Emerging Healthcare Leader: A Field Guide, by Laurie Baedke and Natalie Lamberton (Health Administration Press, 2015).

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C H A P T E R 8

Bounce Back from Failure

“Mistakes are the usual bridge between inexperience and wisdom.”

—Phyllis Theroux, Essayist

Reading Points

• Managing Failure

• Taking and Handling Criticism

• Persevering Through the Nos

• Trying New Things

• Forgetting

• Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team.

• Walt Disney was fired from a newspaper for “lacking imagination” and “having no original ideas.”

• Steve Jobs was unceremoniously removed from the company he started.

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• Oprah Winfrey was demoted from her job as a news anchor because she “wasn’t fit for television.”

• The Beatles were rejected by a recording studio, which said, “We don’t like their sound, they have no future in show business.”

This list could go on and on, but our point is this: Fail- ures happen to everyone, even to very talented, famous people. As we’ve said, failures are a matter of when, never a matter of if. All we can do is hope for the best, but plan for the worst.

Don’t define your career in this constantly changing, high- stress, high-stakes healthcare industry by the number of times you failed or made a mistake. Doing so is unfair, and it dimin- ishes the countless things you’ve accomplished, contributed, and improved. Instead, see failure for what it is—an inevitable and scary occurrence that you can bounce back and learn from and you can prevent. How you overcome or rebound from adversity is what should define your career, because that’s tough work that not only requires but also shows your strength of character—whether you’re tenacious, resilient, committed, disciplined, progress ori- ented, and so on.

Many of us were schooled to believe that failure is bad. But that’s only true if you let it stop you from trying again. In fact, failure is good because it provides learning and growth opportu- nities. It also promotes taking risks by applying new approaches to old or existing processes. The corporate giant 3M, for example, has a company-wide philosophy that encourages employees to fail—and do so regularly (Kalb 2013). If employees aren’t fail- ing 95 percent of the time, the company reasons, then they likely aren’t trying anything fresh and current. Although we elevate our chances of falling flat on our faces if the new techniques don’t work, the fact that we ventured out to test new waters is valu- able. It expands not only our skills but also our professional and personal horizons.

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In this chapter, we challenge you to rethink your ideas about failure. We provide tips for managing failure, facing criticism and rising above it, and persevering despite rejections.

MANAGING FAILURE

Early careerists who are new to healthcare enjoy a grace period (although this varies from organization to organization) in which they are afforded some leeway to learn their roles and responsibili- ties and to adjust to the environment. This “honeymoon” period is a great time for you to establish good habits, including managing failure or what to do when you make a mistake.

During this time, when you are eager to pursue projects, participate in activities, and prove yourself, the likelihood that you will fail at least once is high. If it does happen, stay calm. It’s not the end of the world. Handle the situation as graciously, humbly, and professionally as you can. The grace you show at this time will be noted by your colleagues, bosses, and even patients or their families. More important, it will set you up to successfully handle more complicated failures as your career progresses.

Here are our suggested ways to manage failure:

• Admit your part in the failure. Acknowledging your mistake, often publicly, is the only way you can begin to learn and to pick up the broken pieces and start over. An admission requires bravery and humility, as there will be a lot of criticisms of your actions and scrutiny of your work processes. Explain and share information, and listen more than talk.

• Reject rejection. As painful and disappointing as a failure is, it shouldn’t have so much power that it paralyzes you emotionally and mentally. Don’t allow that to happen.

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Dwell on it if you must, but don’t dwell too long. The more time you spend on beating yourself up, the less time you spend on recovering, learning, and moving on. Bounce back!

• Put failure in perspective. Failure is a temporary, isolated setback. Many (if not most) of the workplace mistakes you make are one-time events, not patterns. If resolved appropriately, they don’t spread to other parts or cause permanent damage. If you learned from them and committed to not repeating them, they don’t recur. Have some perspective. If you see every failure as a career- ending, reputation-ruining event, you are only elevating your fear.

• See failure as part of the success process. There’s no such thing as an overnight success. Even those who won the lottery bought tickets for years before they hit the jackpot. When we landed our respective executive jobs at an early age, we had been paying dues formally and informally for several years to position ourselves for the next big thing. Success not only takes time but also involves failure—a lot of them. When you view failure as just another part of the success process, like acing a job interview and getting a promotion, then you’re taking away its power to rule you; you’re putting yourself in charge of it. Embrace it. Failing is far better than going stale in your career because you won’t take a risk at doing something new.

• Try something new. After a mistake, be brave and try a completely different approach. You’ve heard of that quote attributed to Albert Einstein: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Don’t fall in that category. While it’s ok to make mistakes, it’s not ok to keep repeating the same mistakes. Do whatever it takes to prevent that from happening.

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• Reflect in the aftermath of failure. Was your mistake a competency error? A political faux pas? The result of negligence? Do you need more training or practice? Do you need a better understanding of emotional intelligence and spheres of influence, for example? When you evaluate what happened, be honest with yourself. Think of the kinds of mistakes you tend to make and home in on the causes and solutions. Career advancement can be made on the heels of a mistake or a rejection (we discuss this point later), as long as you commit to learning from each failure and never repeating it.

TAKING AND HANDLING CRITICISM

Generally speaking, the higher your leadership position is, the more visible you are inside and outside the organization. The greater your visibility, the more critics you have and the more heat you must be willing to take. Everyone is scrutinizing your every move and feels entitled to share their opinions about your performance, decisions, behavior, character, associations or relationships, suc- cesses, and failures. You get called out for the things you did and didn’t do. You get both wanted and unwanted, constructive and mean-spirited feedback. You get blamed for every problem and scolded for every solution that doesn’t pan out. The negative atten- tion can be relentless. And all of these happen privately and pub- licly, online and offline.

If you’re uncomfortable with this barrage of criticism and feedback, now is a good time for you to grow thick skin and broad shoulders. You’re gonna need them not only when you reach the C-suite but also as you make your way there. While we can’t give you thick skin and broad shoulders, we can offer you advice on how to receive, view, and handle criticism, especially after a failure.

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Essentially, people receive three kinds of criticisms: (1) the angry or edgy comments that sting, admonish, demand, scare, shame, or belittle; (2) the constructive feedback that informs, teaches, cor- rects, recommends improvements, points out weaknesses, and encourages; and (3) a combination of the two. Expect all kinds of criticism. Your boss may give it to you, and so may your team members and even complete strangers. As we said in Chapter 7, step up to these difficult conversations.

When receiving criticism, be open and self-reflective. There’s a little truth in everything. Don’t immediately label as useless the feedback from a source you think has absolutely nothing to do with you. You might find nuggets of wisdom, no matter how tiny, in what that critic says. Don’t dismiss the lessons from or the perspective of people you don’t like or who are especially critical of you. Embrace all critiques and feedback. They give you fresh insights into, for example, why the failure took place, what areas you need to fix or approaches you need to adopt to pre- vent the same mistake, and how you can help yourself and others bounce back.

Three things can help you take and handle criticisms in general:

1. Personal development. This includes but is certainly not limited to reading life-affirming books, listening to uplifting audiobooks or podcasts, and surrounding yourself with positive people. The happier you are, the less likely you are to be bothered by criticism.

2. Self-awareness. Being aware of your strengths and weaknesses gives you confidence. It’s not arrogance, but self-esteem—the feeling of being okay with who you are despite your flaws. This confidence allows you to process criticisms without getting emotionally and psychologically wrecked by the comments.

3. Coaching. Many high performers rely on coaches. Elite athletes have position coaches, strength and conditioning

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coaches, and sports psychologists. Professional musicians and vocalists have teachers and instructors. Leaders in various industries hire executive coaches. Why approach coaches instead of your sphere of influence for this purpose? Professional coaches provide objective inputs and resources, unlike biased and loyal friends and colleagues. Coaches routinely give feedback and critique elements of performance, making their clients immune to and responsive to the critique process. We’re not saying those clients don’t feel the sting and anxiety of regular criticism, but they have an acute understanding that the feedback is not a personal attack but a tool to coax out their best performance.

See Exhibit 8.1 for strategies for handling unsolicited criticism.

PERSEVERING THROUGH THE NOS

You may not know who Cordia Harrington is, but chances are you know her product. Cordia’s business, The Bun Company, makes the bread used by McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Chili’s (among other major enterprises). This was not always the case, though. Cordia approached McDonald’s 33 times before the restaurant chain said “yes” to her product. Thirty-three times!

How many nos do you need to hear before you stop asking the question? Before you throw in the proverbial towel? We’d bet that your threshold for rejection is lower than you think. That’s because we live in an instant-gratification society, where if we don’t get immediate results or an immediate yes, we get discouraged. If we get discouraged, we tend to give up.

But anything worth having is worth doing and is worth the wait, so keep going even when you hear that no, even if you’re rejected many times. Persevere, as Cordia did; try other routes, as

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Exhibit 8.1 How to Handle Unsolicited Criticism

It’s one thing to ask and receive feedback from your network contacts and other work associates. It’s another to get unsolicited criticisms. Resist the temptation to defend yourself against them. With these steps, you can transform the negative into something productive:

• Listen. You may be quick to interrupt or state your case. Stop. Hold on. Absorb what the person with the beef has to say. Wait for them to finish, just as you would want if the tables were turned.

• Consider the source. Does this person have a genuine grievance? Or is he or she just jealous? Does this person have a track record of being insubordinate? To answer this question, you may need to reach out to your mentors, network contacts, or an objective party you respect. Ask them about the alleged critic and criticism. Find out if the criticism is truly justified.

• Don’t take it personally. This may well be the hardest tip to follow. It’s natural to take criticisms personally; after all, it’s your brand out there on the line. Resist that urge. Maintain objectivity as much as you can. Otherwise, you won’t get anything good out of this experience, only bad.

• Stay calm. Take a deep breath. One of the worst things you can do is be reactive and lash out. You need presence of mind to explore whether or not this criticism is founded.

• Ask clarifying questions. If a blanket criticism is made (“You never respond to my e-mails!”), you’ll feel like it doesn’t hold much water. Ask for specifics, details about where you allegedly went wrong. You can objectively judge if the criticism has merit only if you have these details. And you most certainly can’t remedy the situation if you don’t have the specifics about what you did wrong in the first place.

• Take ownership. If you really have wronged someone or some people, you need to own up to it. Apologize, and do it properly. (See Chapter 3 for a longer discussion of apologies.) Personal accountability and humility are some of the hallmark characteristics of exceptional leaders.

• Embrace the message. As a leader, you are in the seemingly counterintuitive position of valuing criticism. Because of your position, it’s only natural that people will have a beef with you from time to time. You need to look at this as almost an honor, that people are so invested in the team or the organization that they are willing

(continued)

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Laurie did (see her story below); and be gracious in the process, as Natalie was (see her story below as well).

Laurie’s first healthcare job post-college was as an administra- tive assistant in a large health system. She had no desire to stay in the role long term, so she started applying for roles both inside and outside the organization. In the two years she held the job, she was passed over for two internal promotions and two external inter- views for similar positions. If you’re counting, that’s four rejec- tions! It was at this point that she began to grow very discouraged. And impatient.

She could have thrown in the towel, but she stuck it out. In the end, her persistence resulted in a defining point in her career. Through a mentoring relationship she had developed, a seasoned executive offered her a role as vice president of clinics for a com- munity hospital. She was 22 at the time. Landing the position more than tripled her salary. But more important, it gave her this price- less opportunity to advance her healthcare career and her leader- ship development.

The two years she endured getting rejected but refusing to back down felt like an eternity. But in reality, that period was barely more than a blip on the radar of her career.

to put themselves on the line to make that, perhaps, brash opinion. You just may have something to learn from this critique. You never know, there could be beautiful rewards in the end when you address the criticism.

• Take action. Yes, you need to do more than just nod and speak to the criticism. You need to act on it. Value that feedback or experience as an opportunity to grow professionally as a leader. If you grow from this difficult experience, you are unlikely to find yourself in the same situation again. Good for you, your team, and your entire organization.

Ultimately, how you respond to unsolicited criticisms is what makes you stand out from other emerging leaders. Seize the opportunity to turn the negative into a positive.

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When Natalie applied for her first CEO role, she initially was rejected. She wasn’t considered for the final round of interviews because she lacked the five years of experience required for the job. When the hiring committee narrowed the field to four candidates, she was not selected as one of the four. Although disappointed, she took the decision in stride and wrote a follow-up thank you note to the board and the hiring committee. This impressed them, among other things.

Fast-forward two weeks. One of the candidates dropped out of contention and took another job. This opened up space for the committee to reach out to Natalie to give her an opportunity to interview. And she gave the interview of her young life. How did it turn out? Really well.

At 29 years old, Natalie became the CEO of a rural hospital. But had she adopted a defeatist, “sour grapes” attitude about the initial rejection, she might not have gotten a call back and missed out on her second chance.

Maximizing the Time In Between the No and the Yes

The first few years of your career seem to have a comparatively small impact on your overall career path, but this period is crucial to your development. This is the time to become stronger person- ally and professionally. This is the time to get tough. Ask yourself what you can do during this time to best position yourself when an opportunity comes along.

• Be patient. It’s hard, really hard. Have confidence that your education, skills, and experiences have prepared you for the next level, but keep pursuing continual growth. Know that the right things will happen in your career when they’re supposed to.

• Look inward. What are you doing with this experience? How do you apply the feedback and criticism you’ve

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received to better equip yourself for the next job? Instead of looking at others who seem to have it so easy, or even those who may have landed the position you wanted, look inside you. See what you’re doing to improve your chances of getting a yes. Often, a yes is simply beyond your control, but not always.

• Work on your mental tenacity. At some point during the 33 nos, even Cordia probably wondered if something was wrong with her. We know how disheartening that must have been, and we experienced just a fraction of the rejection she was up against. But she held strong and has become an inspiration for (even the envy of) many entrepreneurs and fledgling executives. That’s mental tenacity!

• Mental tenacity is a rarely discussed trait of successful people, including leaders. It’s not the same as mental discipline, which is being in control of how you think about and respond to situations (see Chapter 4). It’s the dogged, stubborn determination in the face of critics, naysayers, personal shortcoming, and other seemingly insurmountable obstacles. It’s not about being emotionally bulletproof, as if your feelings don’t get hurt when you fail or get rejected. It’s about going for it anyway.

• When you’re mentally tenacious, you get better if you get a no. You don’t surrender, you don’t throw in the towel. One day, you can stash that towel away; you won’t be needing it.

TRYING NEW THINGS

Somewhere around one year of age, most children try to walk. And after taking the first or second wobbly step (perhaps even before then), every one of those children falls. Some of them pick

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themselves back up like nothing happened. While others stay down and cry until they’re ready to try again. They all go through this cycle of falling and getting up (and crying) many, many times. Then one day, success! They’re walking—without wobbliness, without tears, without assistance from their parents. And then they move on to trying other things like running, going up and down stairs, climbing trees and tall objects, and riding a bike.

Children follow their natural curiosity. They find something of interest, and they explore it without fear of failure or pressure of success. How did we, as adults, lose so much of our childhood explorer mentality? Why are we so unwilling to take risks on new things, make mistakes or get rejected in the process, and recover only to try again?

If you’ve never failed, it doesn’t mean you’re better than every- one else. It means you’re either incredibly lucky or not going beyond your comfort zone. But if you want that dream job, go big! Get creative with your approach. Do something you’ve never done before. Explore all your options, and try as many of them as possible. Don’t be intimidated by failure, criticism, and rejection. Be brave and tenacious, just like a child learning to walk.

FORGETTING

Usually, forgetting (where we put our keys or the name of an old acquaintance, for example) is considered a bad thing, a sign of advancing age or mental fogginess. But sometimes forgetting or selective memory can be an asset. Here’s why.

After failure or rejection, bouncing back to performing at your highest level is much easier if you can forget (read: stop thinking about) what knocked you down in the first place. Remembering the details is critical during a debriefing and during self-reflection after the fact—so that you can trace where things went wrong and so that you don’t do the same thing again. But beyond that,

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replaying the details in your mind every day acts as a distraction and a detriment to your efforts to move forward.

Think about it this way: If a quarterback remembers the game- losing interception he threw during a big game each time he passes the football, do you think he’ll ever lead his team to the Super Bowl? If a nurse replays in her head that fateful day she adminis- tered the wrong dosage to a patient each time she hands out medi- cations, do you think she’ll ever gain back her confidence so as not to repeat the medical error?

Professionals move on. They have to so that they can get back to doing what they love to do. If they don’t, if they wallow in their failures or guilt or whatever psychological trauma they sustained, they will constantly second-guess themselves and weaken their per- formance. And poof, there goes their career.

As we said in the beginning of this chapter, you shouldn’t define your career by your failures. You should define it by the way you overcame the adversity, by the way you bounced back and learned and thrived afterward.

“Failure?! What failure?”

Rookie Mistakes

Staying Psychologically Stuck

Failures can be devastating, as illustrated in this first-person account of Laurie’s experience.

Shortly before the birth of my second child, I unexpectedly lost my company’s only other employee under tragic circum- stances. It was a tumultuous time, to say the least. I scram- bled to perform and deliver for my clients, but ultimately I experienced some painful failures. And I let my clients down.

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The workload spread between two employees now rested squarely on my eight-month-pregnant shoulders. I was man- aging the construction project of a medical office building for a physician group client, and the completion date was a mere five weeks away. Another client was in the final stages of recruiting a new physician and was revising its physician employment contract model.

During this time, I dropped a few balls, missed deadlines, and struggled to keep afloat. Seventy-two hours after the birth of my son, I was back in the office to meet a client’s payroll audit deadline. I performed a construction punch-list with a sleeping newborn in tow. Many of my clients were incred- ibly understanding and accommodating, but a few were less tolerant. Not delivering on a promise is unacceptable to me, because I’m a driven, Type A person. My credibility and my company’s reputation are my livelihood.

Four months later, I added two new colleagues to the team, and my business started to experience tremendous growth. In fact, we were in the very fortunate position of being able to double the staff size again to meet demand. But the residual impact of my recent failures remained. For me. Instead of finding the positive in these experiences and then moving past the negative, I allowed the failures to linger and mush- room. They psychologically devastated me.

I felt like a failure. My self-worth took a significant hit. Just as my business was starting to gain some traction, I was los- ing ground. Simply, I wasn’t myself and, more important, I wasn’t the leader the company needed at the time.

During these years, I was wrestling with the desire to pur- sue new business opportunities and devote myself more

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exclusively to speaking and training. I kept thinking that if we just grew a bit more I would be freed up to do my own thing.

One word: delusional.

Despite our growth, I started to make decisions based on emotion. I was losing objectivity. I allowed one significant event to grab hold of me and let it dictate everything, when circumstances demanded stellar, committed, confident leadership.

Ultimately, I ended up dismantling the atomic bomb. I divested two major client relationships to two of my employ- ees, who went on to form their own practice management consultancy. My other three employees accepted healthcare leadership roles elsewhere in the community. By the end of the following year, the transitions were complete. Without focus and passion for the company in its current construct, I was not capable of guiding its continued growth.

Now, I know that failures don’t define us. And failures certainly aren’t final—if you don’t let them become the be- all, end-all. That truth, my friends, is easier said than lived. Unfortunate circumstances resulting in mistakes are as inevi- table as taxes. Sure they hurt, but you’ve got to keep going regardless. Don’t allow them to bring you down—not for a long time—because out of these challenges come opportuni- ties to rise above in a way that, perhaps, wouldn’t have been possible had you not developed the fortitude from a major setback.

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REFERENCE

Kalb, I. 2013. “Innovation Isn’t Just About Brainstorming New Ideas.” Busi- ness Insider. Published July 8. www.businessinsider.com/innovate-or-die-a -mantra-for-every-business-2013-7.

Remember These

• Failures are a matter of when, never a matter of if. All we can do is hope for the best, but plan for the worst.

• Don’t define your career in this constantly changing, high-stress, high-stakes healthcare industry by the number of times you failed or made a mistake. How you overcome or rebound from adversity is what should define your career, because that’s tough work that not only requires but also shows your strength of character.

• Failure is good because it provides learning and growth opportunities. It also promotes taking risks by applying new approaches to old or existing processes.

• The higher your leadership position is, the more visible you are inside and outside the organization. The greater your visibility, the more critics you have and the more heat you must be willing to take.

• Don’t dismiss the lessons from or the perspective of people you don’t like or who are especially critical of you. Embrace all critiques and feedback.

• But anything worth having is worth doing and is worth the wait, so keep going even when you hear that no, even you’re rejected many times.

• If you’ve never failed, it doesn’t mean you’re better than everyone else. It means you’re either incredibly lucky or not going beyond your comfort zone.

 
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