The Most Important Quality an Executive Can Have

Rob Enderle
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There is one quality that I think defines most successful executives: the ability to learn from mistakes.

It seems to me that this is something that gets weeded out of executives as they advance, and I don’t think that’s a good thing. One of the first things my business mentor taught me was that it was OK to make mistakes, but it wasn’t OK to make the same mistakes repeatedly. Yet we watch companies like Google not only repeat their own mistakes but repeat the mistakes made by rivals like Microsoft.

Let’s talk about that this week.

The Three Most Common Mistakes

The theory is that the smartest people always lead the tribe, making it more successful and leading its evolution in a positive direction.

However, in the earliest times, mistakes were generally punished by death. The brilliant idea to wrestle a Saber Tooth tiger, for example, or eat something that was pretty but deadly generally weeded out those who seemed smart but weren’t.  But as time passed, the outcomes were tied less to the decision-maker and became far less deadly. (Even in war, the worst generals were still smart enough to stay off the front lines.) The result was that the wrong behaviors were passed on.

Three common mistakes are made after a bad decision is discovered. The first is to cover up the mistake. No lesson is learned and the decision-maker doesn’t suffer any consequences unless he or she is caught. As an internal auditor, I took particular pleasure in catching executives like this and finding them new careers in other companies. And, to be clear, I was generally very kind to folks who admitted they made a mistake because often the mistake was made due to a lack of resources or overwork. Those mistakes I thought should be largely forgiven because addressing the conditions could ensure they wouldn’t be repeated.

The second mistake is to blame someone else. This practice not only prevents the person responsible for the mistake from learning from it but it’s also an abuse of power. People who abuse power, in my opinion, shouldn’t have that power, whether they’re managers or police officers.

The third mistake, and the worst in my opinion, is shafting the person who didn’t agree with a bad decision to start with. Generally, when a bad decision is made, at least one person raises a hand, before the decision is implemented, and suggests, nicely, that it’s stupid. However, once the decision bombs, some managers will choose to get rid of the person who was right in order to eliminate a reminder that the execs not only did something stupid, but they did so despite a timely warning.

The Lesson

When executives do these things, they not only lose the respect of the people around them, but they set a bad example of not learning from their mistakes. Executives do get caught, and then they cover things up and blame others, which establishes a string of scandals that lurks in the executive’s background and can pop up at inopportune times. And sometimes the folks who are wrongly punished have an opportunity to return the favor.

Wrapping Up: The Fallout of Mistakes

Companies don’t advance if their executives aren’t willing to take risks. A culture of blaming, covering up, and scapegoating tends to make a firm unwilling to take risks. Mistakes will happen. Good managers and executives take ownership of and learn from their mistakes. Those less capable don’t do that and don’t really grow either. You can decide what kind of company you want to work for and what kind of a manager you want to be. You can be someone who learns and evolves or someone who works tirelessly to convince people you’re always right and, in the end, never learn why you aren’t.  

Rob Enderle is President and Principal Analyst of the Enderle Group, a forward-looking emerging technology advisory firm.  With over 30 years’ experience in emerging technologies, he has provided regional and global companies with guidance in how to better target customer needs; create new business opportunities; anticipate technology changes; select vendors and products; and present their products in the best possible light. Rob covers the technology industry broadly. Before founding the Enderle Group, Rob was the Senior Research Fellow for Forrester Research and the Giga Information Group, and held senior positions at IBM and ROLM. Follow Rob on Twitter @enderle, on Facebook and on Google+.


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