When Things Go Wrong

Earlier this summer I had a tough meeting with one of my work teams. We had a project that was giving us a lot of trouble. The technology was more complex than we originally thought, the requirements weren’t as clear as we would like. Most of the people around the table — including me — hadn’t been involved when the key decisions has been made. I had been asking for an updated timeline for at least a month and no one could give it to me.

Sitting in the room, with everyone telling me that it would take another six to eight weeks to just assess how long the project would take to deliver, I could feel the weight pulling the team down. They needed a way to put a win on the board and there I was, asking harder and harder questions. I took a deep breath and tried to give them a hand up.

“I hear you saying that you can’t do it any faster, but what if we took a new approach? If I could eliminate any other work from your calendar for 24 hours, what could you do?”

For me, one of the biggest challenges of leadership is not in leading in time of success, but rather leading in times of failure. When everything is going well, nearly any leader can motivate their teams and help them to do good work. Companies delivering big market share and profits can investment and provide generous benefits; sports teams who are the top of their league can easily recruit and create a legacy.

Success is self-fulfilling and empowering.

It’s harder when things go wrong. In his TED talk, Stanley McChrystal said something I really liked. “Leaders can let you fail and yet not let you be a failure.” No person or team that tries to do anything amazing ever gets there without stumbles. I’ve written in the past about my own misses and the fact that those moments have helped me grow into the leader that I am. I understand the sinking feeling in one’s center when you know that your talent, intent and focus isn’t enough. The feeling that you won’t be able to meet the expectations of those who count on you (or worse yet yourself) sucks. And if you aren’t careful it sucks you into a slime-filled pit without a handhold for escape.

Failure is exhausting.

Two days later, after putting aside all other work and focusing simply on the question of how long it would take to get to the finish line, we came back together. The answer was grim, the timeline was far longer (and the project far more expensive) than anyone had predicted. They were disappointed and they knew I would be disappointed. In my heart I knew that if I reacted with any of the fear, the frustration or the fury that I was feeling I could never expect them to tackle an assignment like that again. They would seek out easy assignments and — if they did take on hard work — I couldn’t count on them to tell me the whole truth when things were bleak. In a millisecond I knew there was only one thing I could do.

I thanked them for delivering a timeline that — only days earlier — they had told me couldn’t be done in less than six weeks.

What followed after that was a focus on the path forward. I reiterated that even though none of us were happy, we were in a better place with an aligned foundation for improvement. I asked them about their assumptions and what changes were possible to shorten the timeline. I reminded them of the business risk inherent in the timeline and our shared accountability to deliver the functionality. I asked for commitment on next steps, ownership, and our plan to communicate our status transparently to the broader team. And, I thanked them again for the good work they had done.

Later that week, I had a one-on-one discussion with a middle manager on the team. He had been part of the meeting and expressed surprise at how I had reacted to the news. Wasn’t I worried? He noted that I had actually seemed pleased in the meeting and he didn’t understand how that was possible. Looking across the desk between us I explained my thinking. I assured him yes, of course I was worried. But I was happy that we had arrived at an answer, even if I wasn’t happy with the answer itself. We had a start.

The best leaders that I have worked for, the ones I aspire to emulate, have reacted the same way. In the times when I found myself standing in the slime pit, dejected and without any clear path out, they have climbed in. Bracing their backs against the slippery wall, they have interlaced their fingers and formed a step for me to climb. Putting my feet in their hands I was able to grab the ledge and painstakingly pull myself out. It was never easy, but it was possible. That is what I want to give my team; not a way to avoid the pit, but a way to climb out of it.

And, if I’ve done it right they’ll pull me out, too.

What Theatre Taught Me about Leadership

There were three moments during our wooing phase when I seriously wondered whether my husband and I were compatible. The first happened during a vocal and agitated debate about the role of violence in movies (plot device or merely gratuitious?) after we saw Demolition Man. The second time occurred as I was falling and fuming after he abandoned me on our first (and last) cross-country skiing outing. But the most serious time was in the audience of a production while I was taking a master’s lighting design class my junior year. After a lengthy description of the complexity of lighting design — equipment, hang position, intensity, timing, gels and gobos — and the important role of the stage manager to call the cues he looked at me perplexed. “What? Don’t they just hang a few bulbs from the ceiling and flip a switch?”

Only the strength of my love kept me from walking away after that.

Sure, I’m a boring corporate suit now, but during my first two years in college, theatre was my life. As a new first year student I went to the theatre orientation and quickly volunteered to be the assistant stage manager on the big fall production. After that I went from one show to another taking on any back stage role that needed to be done. I did stage management, lighting design, flies, set builds, props — literally anything. I took every design class except costumes and I would have gotten a theatre minor if only I had gotten the nerve to take acting. I was working a full-time job for which I got no pay, until the fates shined on me and I got hired as a lighting technician. I loved the feel of an adjustable wrench in my hand as much as I loved sitting in the booth and calling the perfect show.

Recently, a fellow thespian asked me for a favor. She IM’d me and asked, “Could Too Much Mel talk about comfort with ambiguity? You are a management guru and I would love to hear how you talk about this with people.” And it struck me that, ironically enough, I learned more about dealing with the unexpected and unpredictable challenges of leadership during my time in theatre than anywhere else.

In theatre, you learn that you cannot anticipate every crazy circumstance that might happen so you either get very comfortable responding to it or you leave. It’s a common occurrence for a director to change an actor’s mark during the final dress rehearsal or for a prop or set piece to break during a production. It sucks and it can be really hard to deal with, but it doesn’t matter. Everyone on stage and backstage knows that their only real responsibility is to give the audience a great experience. I still remember the night when our lead actor was picked up on a bench warrant driving to the show. Every person who could furiously scribbled script cues on scraps of paper. We taped them to various props and the director went on stage and winged it without batting an eyelash. 

After all, the show must go on.

In business, I see people struggle with ambiguity. When faced with a new situation or an unclear assignment, some people look for an easy answer to make it go away or an excuse for why it is unfair or inappropriate. My job description doesn’t list it. My manager doesn’t have a clear vision. My company ownership is uncertain. My predecessor didn’t keep good documentation. My position is different than it used to be. Yes, those are all real circumstances that can make it difficult to feel grounded and to deliver your best work. Fortunately for me, my time in theatre gave me three ways to deal with it.

Start with a Shared Goal

In theatre, there is crystal clarity on the goal: a great performance. And everyone, from the person organizing the prop table to the lead actor, to the director, to the person responsible for operating the sound board, gets it. If you are lucky enough to have theatre friends, ask them. They will have story after story of drama, intrigues, characters and close shaves, but I’m willing to bet that they will share that everyone understood the importance of what happened between curtain rise and final applause. When you have that, everything that pops up that will harm that goal has to be deal with, quickly and without complaint. Sometimes you get a chance to get a team together and plan your action, but most times you don’t. 

In business, not all teams achieve clarity in goals. We let the details overwhelm the overall direction and once that happens ambiguity is devastating. When I took over my latest team I came up with a simple, repeatable vision statement. I say it a lot. A whole lot. So much so that I was talking to someone outside of my team about it and mentioned how glad I was that my team was getting comfortable with it, knew why it was important and could state it he smiled, “Mel, I bet I can say it.” That may seem like overkill, but when faced with a new situation, the odds are my team will have a structure under which to act.

Talk about What’s Not Working

After every rehearsal and performance the cast and crew get and give notes. Notes are all about tightening the performance or responding to things that didn’t work great. In the real world someone might call that criticism, but in the world of theatre — where everything is focused on a great performance — notes are how you get better. It could be simple (someone missed their mark) or complicated (the lighting effect in that scene still isn’t right) but each one needs to be listened to and dealt with. Sometimes notes result in a lot of dialogue or give and take, sometimes they are quickly acknowledged and responded to. And sometimes notes have to be given multiple times. But through it all, everyone knows that theatre is hard and it’s never perfect. That’s ok, you just give a note and ask for what you need.

In business, there can be a reluctance to talk about where we’re not perfect and that is too bad. No one is perfect, especially not in times of great change. In my job right now we’re introducing a complex new technology platform that we’ve never done before — and at the same time we’ve had some personnel changes on the team. I have stepped down into some working meetings and I can tell the group is uncertain. Should they be open about the challenges they are facing: what they don’t know and where they are stuck? If they knew my background I think they would be more confident in being honest in giving notes to me and to each other and we could all help each other find a path to success.

Celebrate with Vigor

My friends in theatre know how to celebrate a successful show. After we’ve struck the stage (i.e. taken the set down, cleared the lighting and made a blank canvas for the next production) the cast and crew will head off to a party. Depending on the group, it can be a low key event at someone’s house or a blow out in a bar, but the amenities are not the point. What is important is that no matter what the challenges, there is a recognition that the group came together to provide a great experience for the audience. Sometimes you have packed houses and everything works exactly as planned, sometimes you have crickets and it feels like everything that can go wrong does. But, there’s an amazing amount of comfort in coming together after you’ve survived together; that you’ve taken words on a page and turned them into a human experience not once but many times. That feeling of success has given me the strength to step into new ambiguious situations, not without fear but without paralysis.

In business we don’t always have those seminal moments when something is done. And sometimes, especially when the moments are painful, we don’t feel like celebration is appropriate. But, there is something in the human condition that needs to feel rewarded and capable after getting through a challenging situation. Taking a moment to celebrate in a way that is authentic to the person and the team can build up the experiences to make someone more capable in the next moment. It will only help the person and your team if you take a moment and say, “I know that was an unclear task outside of your normal responsibilities and I really appreciate the fact that you did it. Next time you’ll do it even better.”

I haven’t been a part of the theatre community for a long time; my last real show was in my early 20’s as a lighting designer for a high school production in which my brother acted. In fact very few people in my professional circles even know that it is part of my experience, much less what it meant to me. But, they benefit from the lessons it taught me in very real ways every time I focus on a shared goal, openly give and take notes, or celebrate our wins. I am thankful that I learned that the show must go on, no matter what crazy stuff happens.