On leadership and mistakes

by | Jun 29, 2020 | Leadership

I can still visualize the colors on the graph, when I realized the scope of my mistake. I had picked up this project from another team member, and they chose various shades of olive green, orange and brown for the graph. Ironic that these colors would match the colors of the contents in my stomach, which I was about to retch all over my gray suit. I was upset. I thought this was a big mistake. A really big mistake.

I remember my mouth opening-speechless and staring at the computer monitor, seeing my mistake. We were preparing our monthly report to a Board subcommittee about our progress on one of our initiatives. The report included a very complex graph, with equally confusing and complex calculations to derive the graph. I had overstated the revenue by $4million on this report that went to the Board subcommittee the prior month. I was only catching it now, while preparing the next month’s report.

I felt my face turn red hot. My mouth went dry. I grabbed my water bottle and willed myself to steady my breathing. My boss’ temper was legendary—and explosive. I was not eager to deliver this news. But I knew I had to do it.

I first figured out what in the world I was going to say. That I was preparing the numbers and I noticed a mistake. That I found the source of the error. That I put a double check process in place to ensure it never happened again. I would tell my boss the scope of the mistake and offer to issue a personal apology to the subcommittee with a corrected graph reflecting the accurate numbers. That I was mortified.I picked up the phone. I was certain the entire floor could hear my heart thumping. I took another sip of water which stayed lodged in my throat. I gulped hard.

My boss’ assistant answered the phone, said my boss was in meetings the rest of the day and to send an email if the matter could not wait until tomorrow.

So I wrote the email with all of the points I outlined, and that I was happy to talk via phone that night if further discussion was needed. I knew I had to be accountable. It was my mistake and I needed to face the consequences. I was ready to get screamed at. I felt like I deserved it. I waited all evening with my Blackberry on my lap (this was a loooong time ago). To say I was nervous was an understatement.

Later that evening, while watching TV, I heard my Blackberry ping. I saw the email was from my boss. The response had two sentences: Thanks for letting me know. Just fix it to reflect the accurate numbers to date.

I learned so much from this mistake. The first was the obvious lesson: to pay close attention to detail and double check my work, even when I had performed the task many times. I also enlisted others to check my work on high profile assignments. The second lesson was how I wanted to treat others when they made a mistake. The third was about having a bit of compassion, along with the high expectations I had of myself. This boss taught me all of these lessons.

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Nancy Jacoby,

Nancy is a registered nurse, recovering hospital administrator and ICF certified coach and consultant. She leads individuals, teams and organizations in growth, development and process improvement to yield sustained change and desired outcomes. 

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Nancy Jacoby, RN, MBA, MHSA, FACHE, ACC

nancy@njacoby.com  |  212.779.2049  |  Connect on LinkedIn

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