Leanne Pilkington: why failure is the precursor to success

Failure, in any endeavour, is a dirty word. Something to avoid at all costs. But if we accept that some of the best lessons come from the mistakes we’ve made, are we ignoring the value of failure by refusing to even risk it? Laing+Simmons Chief Executive Officer Leanne Pilkington reveals some of her failures and why she has reframed her perception of making a misstep.

It can be hard for anyone to own up to mistakes.

It’s natural to want to project a sense of infallibility. But to do so is disingenuous.

I’ve had to consciously become more comfortable in admitting the failures I’ve had.

In doing so, it has helped foster an environment in which the team has the psychological safety to openly discuss the failures they’ve had.

The way we approach failure – with curiosity – is important. It enables us to recognise what failure really is: the precursor to success.

Some of the biggest failures I’ve had have been in recruitment. 

Some time ago, I employed a marketing manager who was well-considered, worked logically and carefully through processes, and spent significant time reviewing and reconsidering.

But we are a fast-paced team. We want to get stuff done, not haphazardly, but efficiently.

There was no alignment in values.

The lesson? Never compromise your organisational values.

In another recruitment ‘fail’, I once employed a person I liked immensely.

Trying to put them first, I skewed the role I needed to fill to better suit their strengths.

This person – a great person – was just not up to performing the original role.

Unsurprisingly, it didn’t work.

Here the lesson was more subtle.

Having great people in your team is one thing, but those people will only reach their potential and achieve satisfaction if the role is right for them.

This is what being people-first is actually about.

As a leader, I don’t believe in micro-management. I trust my team to come to me if they encounter a challenge or require guidance.

I’ve found empowering people to run their own areas and projects not only attracts great people, it elevates the enjoyment and satisfaction for them.

I look for opportunities for those who flourish in this system to step up to new positions where appropriate.

It’s a practice that has served us well, but not before one major misfire.

It happened when I moved someone from a franchise operations role into event management.

We met regularly, and the person always indicated to me that everything was under control.

But there were some red flags. At a particular awards event, I could tell things weren’t right.

We discussed their performance, and we agreed it was not up to standard. The person left immediately.

Worse, I soon discovered that all the other events planned for that year were not locked in.

An incredibly stressful month followed.  

I’ll keep supporting team members to advance to new roles, but I’m much more diligent in my team oversight, and I employ more senior people when experience is needed these days.

Over the years, I’ve led a wide variety of projects which I’ve been passionate about.

They haven’t all been home runs, though. 

The ones that didn’t reach the potential I’d envisaged had a common thread. I hadn’t engaged the team in the right way.

I hadn’t effectively sold the ‘why’.

I now know that getting your team’s buy-in at the outset is critical.

When team members take shared ownership of new initiatives, as though the idea was theirs too, the impact on delivery can be profound.

Every leader makes mistakes. Acknowledging mistakes can be uncomfortable but once done, it sets in motion the more productive part of the process. Understanding the ‘why’.

Approaching failure with open curiosity ultimately leads to success, and it empowers everyone in the team. It may not eliminate the fear of failure, but it reduces it. And there’s significant value in that.

It starts with putting your hand up and saying, “This one’s on me.”

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Leanne Pilkington

Leanne Pilkington is Chief Executive Officer and Director of Laing+Simmons.