When You Screw Up – Big Time – Twice in One Week

Last week will go down as a memorable one in my journal. I made two major mistakes that stirred up some dust and made me wonder if I was fit to run a business.

The first was a classic e-mail snafu. For several weeks, I was having confidential discussions with the Chairman and the CEO of a business about compensation for the four top executives, including the CEO himself. My job was to help come up with a new plan that would be fair to everyone now and into the future, so we wouldn’t have to revisit the issue every year.

I’d been having private discussions with everyone involved and then getting back to the Chairman and CEO for their reactions. Finally, I thought I had something that would work well for everyone. In response to a message about the program from the CEO, I attached my plan and asked for his thoughts. If he liked it, I’d show it to the Chairman. If he approved, we’d present it to the other execs.

That was the plan. What happened was this: In sending the attachment to the CEO, I hit the “reply to all” button instead of the “reply to sender” button. My attachment, with all the personal income proposals, went to everyone at the same time, including a senior executive who wasn’t even part of the program.

The moment I sent it off, I realized what I had done. But it was too late. By the time I’d verified that it had indeed been sent to six people instead of two, they had all read it.

Everyone assumed it was the final draft. But there were two propositions that the Chairman didn’t like. So then I had the unpleasant task of telling people that they wouldn’t be getting as much as I had suggested. Needless to say, this was a difficult conversation. What should have been a very gratifying experience for everyone involved became an anxious, urgent problem.

My second mistake was more serious.

I wrote an ETR message that was sent out to all of our readers without careful editing. The result was that I publicly shamed someone I greatly admire.

ETR’s philosophy is to draw our articles from actual experience. We like to think that our readers want to get their advice from someone who’s walked his talk. Because of this emphasis on inductive reasoning and “erfahrung”-based (primary) knowledge, we try to write about things that happen in our daily working lives.

To keep the original story straight in my mind when I write my articles, I use the actual names and situations. But to protect the innocent, we change lots of insignificant details during the editing process to make the story/people unrecognizable.

Several times in the past, we unwittingly embarrassed or upset someone who felt we were criticizing him or her in public. So now our policy is to write the essay as a journal entry first, and then edit it so that it retains the big idea but loses the identifying details.

I wrote such an essay a couple of weeks ago about someone we hired recently. In telling the story, I attempted to analyze why we were lucky enough to hire her. My theory was based on little bits of information I had picked up here and there, but it was ultimately a speculation.

The point I was making was a good and valid one. And since I knew the story and the people were going to be disguised beyond recognition, I felt at liberty to drive my point home … even if it wasn’t entirely fair.

You can guess what happened. The article was published in its first draft.

It was my fault. I assumed this and assumed that and never bothered to check the copy before it went out. The result was that my colleague’s employees and competitors might have read what appeared to be a mean combination of pot shots and boasting.

Needless to say, I haven’t been sleeping too well since then. Although I try to rationalize my mistake by reminding myself that most of what I said was positive and approving, I know that the net effect was negative. I am very sorry for that.

Two big mistakes in one week. Makes me wonder if I am no longer capable of operating as a senior consultant to so many great, top-notch companies.

Over the weekend, I told my neighbor what happened. She said that whenever her husband screws up, he asks himself the same question. (When I asked him if he’d ever done two things as stupid as I had done in a single week, he just smiled.)

Roughly speaking, business leaders fall into one of two categories. There are the entrepreneurs who start businesses from scratch and do everything necessary to get them strong and profitable. And then there are the corporate executive types who take over when the business is up and running and use their management and communication skills to keep it operating smoothly.

I am – I’m sure this won’t surprise you – the entrepreneurial type. I’ve spent almost all my business life starting businesses from scratch and working with them on a daily basis until they were big enough to be run by someone else. For the most part, it has meant taking them from zero to about $10 million in sales with a 10 percent to 15 percent profit.

Counting the businesses I’ve owned, directed, and advised, I’ve done this at least 20 times. Starting a business from scratch and making it profitable is something I believe I can do with my eyes closed. But running it once it’s gotten big and profitable – well, that’s another story.

The kind of mistakes I made last week are the kind that wouldn’t matter all that much to an entrepreneur getting his business off the ground. Starting a business from scratch takes a great deal of pushing and shoving. You’ve got to be willing to step on a few toes.

But when a business is up and running, it needs a more careful, polished hand. With substantial sales and a significant profit stream to protect, the CEO’s job becomes as much about protecting the existing asset as it is about making it bigger.

Rather than try to convert myself from hard-boiled entrepreneur to polished corporate exec, it might be wiser to continue to do what I do best, but in the context of businesses I’ve already started. In other words, instead of trying to be the guy who manages the whole enterprise, let someone more thoughtful and careful do that and throw myself back into the war zone where I have won so many medals.

That said, I’ve learned three lessons this week:

1. Before hitting the “send” button, double-check to make sure my e-mail is going to the right person/people.

(The last thing you want to do is have someone read comments that could be misinterpreted or cause upset. I’ve warned ETR readers many times about this common trap – and I fell into it myself.)

2. Give everything I write a final proof before I let it be published.

3. Accept the fact that when it comes to leading businesses, I can be fish or fowl … but I can’t be both.

I hope, after hearing my embarrassing confession, you can avoid getting yourself into similar predicaments.

[Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]
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  • Erica

    I just had a screw up today.. Could possibly cost my employer a $1,000.00 loss. I should know for sure tomorrow but I keep kicking myself for this. I know it has to look really bad on my part even though it was an innocent mistake. Your story helped me a little better that I’m only human and crap happens, so thank you for sharing.

    • Stay strong, Erica!

      And to paraphrase the CEO of IBM from a legendary story, you didn’t cost the company $1,000… they just invested it in your learning!