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Is Your Team Failing Elegantly?

John Hamm November 2011 issue of Skin Inc. magazine

"Failing elegantly” sets in when people stop believing they can be successful, and start devoting their energy to how best to lose. There is a moment, and everyone can feel it, when a project or the commitment to the promised results enters the risk zone—when challenges arise and there are no clear answers or remedies. It is at this fork in the road that leaders must recognize the signs of an impending crisis of confidence and intervene with specific messages and actions aimed at getting everyone back into the winner’s mindset. Following are several leadership mistakes that put your skin care facility’s team in danger of failing elegantly—along with some remedies.

Don’t set impossible goals. Leaders need to learn the fine line between an invigorating challenge and a wholly deflating expectation for their spa team. They also need to realize that everyone on the team may not share their level of commitment. Goals that are clearly beyond any reasonable confidence of achievement are worse than easy goals—they actually disengage your team’s energy.

Don’t let people get pseudo-wins. Very talented skin care professionals can and do lose focus on problems that must be solved to transform an idea into reality. Leaders must develop an eye and ear for this weakness—and must try to listen for it in every conversation and look for it in every review. They must relentlessly redirect energy to the hard problems, realizing that it is human nature to drift from the tough stuff in favor of more emotionally fulfilling and easier project modules.

Don’t tolerate common excuses. When you’re failing elegantly, you tolerate excuses. What you want, and what the winner’s mindset demands, are insightful explanations for the gap between expected and actual performance. There is tolerance of the simple fact that it is impossible to control every variable in the game, so at times—through either forces outside your influence or simply because you didn’t run your best play—the results are not as wished.

Don’t allow sloppiness and imprecision. The nice person in you wants to politely look the other way, allowing a corner to be cut. Shoddy work and sloppiness almost always stem from being lazy or uncommitted or not having enough pride in the finished work. High-reliability organizations, such as skin care facilities, never allow sloppiness, because they know it equals death. Excellent leaders have a zero-tolerance policy for sloppiness.

Don’t encourage editorialized data. Leaders, being eternal optimists and enthusiasts, also have a dangerous tendency to signal, often unconsciously, their dislike of bad news. When that happens, subordinates will begin to shape and color the data to meet the leader’s hopeful expectations and emotional needs, rather than the leader’s intellectual needs. Excellent leaders demand that performance feedback data be delivered promptly and be uncolored, objective, plentiful and robust.

Don’t fail to measure what matters. The right metrics will serve you in enormously useful ways. Measuring what matters is perhaps the very highest use of leadership authority in leading the domain of execution. The one thing you must have, to make the real-time course corrections that will inevitably be required, is good data. Invest in what is required to gather, analyze and present the data you need—quickly, accurately and easily.

Don’t allow the commitment to winning to slip. A tolerance for excuses, corrupt data that compromises strategy and a distorted view of what is really happening all can result in systematic failure. When your spa team has already begun to distance itself from an absolute commitment to winning, it starts blaming everything and everyone. The fact that many people—the honest and secure ones—see what’s happening and hold the behavior in contempt often proves to be an effective vaccine against the contagion spreading.

John Hamm is one of the top leadership experts in Silicon Valley and was named one of the country’s Top 100 venture capitalists in 2009 by AlwaysOn. Hamm has also been a CEO, a board member at more than 30 companies, and a CEO adviser and executive coach to senior leaders at companies such as Cisco and Hewlett-Packard.

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