Ellen Bathgate: Why failure teaches you more than success

I’ve been in leadership positions since I was 21.

I was promoted to senior property manager at 21 because I was the most experienced property manager on the team.

I was a confident property manager, and I had directors in the business who believed in me and supported me to step up into this leadership position.

Now, 21 is young. In hindsight, I wasn’t ready for that level of leadership.

I thought I was, but I didn’t know what was involved in leading a team.

Sure, I knew how to be a great property manager, but I did not know how to be a leader.

A couple of years later, I bought my first business, and I’ve been in business ever since.

You might assume that I’m a natural-born leader. But I’m not. In fact, there have been moments when I’ve been a terrible leader.

So in this article, I want to be honest with you and share some vulnerabilities.

I’ll reveal two occasions where I’ve failed and one time I had success as a leader and what I’ve learnt from these experiences.

I hope that, in my honesty, you’ll see that leadership is a learned skill – something that requires effort, attention and practice, but that, even if you’re not a natural-born leader, it’s a skill you can develop.

That in leadership, as in life, sometimes you will fail.

Failure 1

After spending five years in property management, I purchased a retail business when I was 23-years-old.

One of the most important aspects of running this particular business was personal presentation.

My team knew our presentation standards and that this was a requirement of their role.

For many years, my team presented themselves well, until one day, a team member stopped ironing their uniform, brushing their hair and stopped presenting themselves to the standard the job required.

This team member was not adhering to our presentation policy, and it was stressing me out.

Do you know what I did about it? Nothing. I silently stewed about it, turned myself inside out, received questions from clients about it, and I did nothing.

Actually, I did worse than that. I became passive-aggressive.

I avoided this team member, distanced myself, and eventually, they quit.

What I learnt

Here’s the thing. This team member had been amazing for years.

They probably had a reasonable explanation for the change in their professional presentation.

They probably had “stuff going on” that I didn’t know about.

But because of my terrible leadership, they didn’t get to explain what was going on, their boss didn’t support them, and I lost a great employee.

My immaturity and lack of leadership led to them leaving.

They were otherwise an excellent staff member, but my unwillingness to confront and address a problem led to me losing a great person and probably causing them a lot of pain in the process.

To this day, I’m embarrassed about the way I handled the situation.

I still struggle to have difficult conversations with my team. It’s my least favourite part of being a leader. But I’ll never make the same mistake again.

I’ve learnt to take a deep breath and have difficult conversations, to be candid and compassionate with my team. It’s the only way I can lead my team forward.

Failure 2

When I finally took the plunge and started my rent roll, I was a total control freak. When I first hired staff to help me out, I didn’t train them sufficiently.

The truth is, I was afraid.

I was afraid that I would train excellent property managers, and they’d leave and take my clients with them.

It turns out, if you don’t train your team effectively, they can’t do their job well. If they can’t do their job well, you end up being a super-stressed leader still doing all the work.

It took me about 12 months of working with my first employee to discover that my job, as the leader, was to train my team and trust them.

What I learnt

I was so excited to hire my first team member about a year after starting my rent roll.

I couldn’t wait to get help with the day-to-day management of my portfolio of properties.

However, I discovered that because I wasn’t willing to ‘let go’ and trust my new team, it didn’t save me any time at all. I wasted 12 months in my business, paying my employees to do work that I wasn’t willing to let them do.

Eventually, I realised that I’d never be able to grow my rent roll any further if I didn’t let go. So, over three months, I created systems, processes and training to empower my employees to do their job.

Empowering your employees to do their job makes a world of difference.

When I let go and trusted my team to do their job, they did!

The single success

For all my failures as a leader, I know I’ve done one thing right.

Interestingly, I made this decision by accident, in an act of desperation. But it turned out to be one of my biggest successes as a leader.

Many years ago, I experienced a personal crisis.

I was forced to take a significant amount of time away from my business, and I had to trust my team to take care of my clients for me.

Not only did I have to trust them to take care of my clients, I had to trust them to resolve complex situations at times that I was not able to be contacted.

So, I gave my team a “get it fixed” budget.

This made a world of difference to my team, my business, and my state of mind.

I gave my team permission to spend up to $100 to fix any problem that popped up.

If a client was unhappy with our service, my team could offer a refund of our fee, send a bunch of flowers, buy a gift card or do anything to help fix the problem, up to $100, without needing my approval.

What I learnt

Do you know what happened? My team handled every problem that popped up while I was away, my clients were happy, and my business grew.

In fact, my team didn’t spend the $100 “get it fixed” budget once.

But do you know what else happened? My team stepped up.

When I returned to my business, after being away for about four weeks, the business was thriving, the team was united, and my clients were happy.

That simple act of empowering my team while navigating a personal crisis was one of the best leadership decisions I’ve ever made. And it’s one I’ve used as part of my leadership strategy ever since.

Leadership isn’t always a natural-born talent.

For me, it’s been one of the biggest challenges of business ownership.

But it’s been in my moments of failure, as a leader, that I’ve learnt the most.

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Ellen Bathgate

Ellen Bathgate is the founder of Rent Roll Starter, and helps rent roll owners to start and grow their own rent rolls using affordable growth strategies. For more information visit