Why you fail to learn from your mistakes – and what you can learn from the executives who did


Only 6% of you always learn from your workplace mistakes – that was the finding of a poll conducted during our webinar Putting mentoring into practice with Sara Parsons. While the vast majority ‘sometimes’ learn, that means a
huge 94% have repeated past mistakes.

The reasons you sometimes fail to take the lessons are as varied as the mistakes themselves. Often you want to reframe what happened in a positive light to avoid feeling a failure; you may even rationalise what happened until you
convince yourself that was how things were supposed to turn out (something cognitive scientists call choice-supportive bias). Or, if your mistake is promptly followed by a success in a different area, that achievement might edify you to
the extent you gloss over the earlier mistake.

Having a great mentor can save you making all manner of blips as you navigate your career, but not everyone has an official mentor, and those who do are unlikely to have them on speed dial every time things veer off course.

That’s where the advice of the world’s top female executives can be invaluable. They’ve not only made mistakes along the way, they’ve taken the step to share them with the world, so that the greatest insights they’ve had can become
yours too.

Arianna Huffington, Founder & Editor-In-Chief, Huffington Post, Author of Thrive:

“My biggest mistake was beginning my career by subscribing to a very flawed and dangerous definition of success. When I was first starting out, I wish I had known that there would be no trade-off between
living a well-rounded life and my ability to do good work. I wish I could go back and tell myself, ‘Arianna, your performance will actually improve if you can commit to not only working hard,
but also unplugging, recharging and renewing yourself.’ That would have saved me a lot of unnecessary stress, burnout and exhaustion.”

The lesson for you: take regular digital detoxes and make your personal and professional wellbeing a priority. The everywomanNetwork has a
workbook on this subject, which guides you through the ‘five ways to wellbeing’, and how you can build resilience to stress factors.    

More: Using stress to your advantage: 4 strategies you can implement today

Cher Wang, Co-founder & Chairperson, HTC:

One of Asia’s richest women and the computing world’s biggest stars, Cher Wang cut her teeth in the tech industry by door-stepping potential clients with cheap second-hand computers she hoped they’d buy. Despite running a multi
billion-dollar corporation, her biggest career lesson actually came from her experiences in those door-to-door sales days. She sold a huge order to a client who couldn’t pay. She hadn’t done her background checks and lost out on
hundreds of thousands of dollars as a result.

“To understand your customer, to visit them, to really understand what they need is very important.”

The lesson for you: Do your background research before any deal or project that matters. The ‘know your customer’ mantra applies every bit as much when you’re
negotiating a pay rise,
having a difficult conversation with an employee or trying to fire up a demotivated team member. Understanding what makes them tick and how
they’re likely to respond in any given situation, will enable you to perform better and achieve a successful outcome. Click on the links to start downloading everywomanNetwork workbooks on some of these topics.

Robin Chase, Co-Founder, Zipcar:

“With my second company, GoLoco – social online ridesharing – we spent too much money on the website and software before engaging with our first customers. This meant that part of our learning was undoing our first guesses.”

The lesson for you: Understand what problem you’re trying to solve before you start trying to solve it. When a problem presents itself, it’s easy to rush headlong into idea generation followed by prompt action.
Sometimes you have to take a step back and work out what the end goal is. Learn the brainstorming techniques to make your idea generation relevant, efficient and successful:

Problem solving: techniques to get you thinking about your thinking

7 ways to unleash your team’s creative side

8 golden rules for running brilliant brainstorms

Gisel Ruiz, COO, Walmart:

“I began my career in one of our Walmart stores. My boss at the time had other aspirations for me and he was persistent in his efforts to get me to take other roles at the company’s headquarters. I relented. But the truth is my head
wasn’t really in it because I was pretty happy where I was. After he went to bat for me, I really let my boss down. It was the worst interview ever. I blew it and I didn’t get the job. It was a huge wake-up call and made me realise
that I needed to open my mind to other possibilities; to stretch myself in the spirit of learning and growing; to consider less traditional paths. It was in that moment that I realised the joy of the journey – the gratification that
comes with discovering new strengths, the realisation that failure doesn’t equal collapse, and the enjoyment that comes with facing a new challenge every single day.”

The lesson for you: it’s not about the destination; it’s about the journey. Forgive your mistakes, seize opportunities to learn new things and find inspiration in whichever way you can. Start with the following
everywomanNetwork articles:

Overcoming mistakes: turn your workplace failures into career success stories

Mentoring inspiration: Unlikely sources in everyday life

Presentation inspiration: 6 great talks to inspire you at work

Liz Earle, Founder, Liz Earle Cosmetics:

“The biggest mistake I think we made was not taking on more help in the early days. My partners and I were young mums at the time, and we were working 20-hour days. I think with hindsight we should have been kinder on ourselves, and
brought in a team of specialists and experts earlier than we did.”

The lesson for you: learn to delegate. If you’ve worked for a boss who won’t let anything go, you’ll know how demoralising it can be to miss out on ‘stretch’ assignments. To delegate is the mark of a true leader and
serves to empower your teams. “You run a major risk when you assume that you alone have all the answers: You don’t, and that’s okay,” wrote Georgette Mosbacher in her book Feminine Force. “You don’t have to be afraid to admit
there are certain things you either don’t like to do or aren’t any good at. You reach a goal by covering all your bases, and you cover all your bases by hiring good people.” everywoman Associate Pippa Isbell discusses the need for
delegation as you progress your career in the webinar What changes as you get promoted? (listen back).

Still in need of inspiration? Watch this TED talk from Diana Laufenberg ‘How to learn? From mistakes’


*Arianna Huffington was speaking to Heathrowexpress.com; Cher Wang was broadcast on CNBC; Robin Chase was interviewed in Buffer Social; Gisel Ruiz was writing in Fortune; Liz Earle was talking to the BBC.

Webinars you can listen back to on the everywomanNetwork:

What does mentoring involve

Powerful workplace communication: talking and listening

Risk-taking: building self-confidence and competence


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