The past tense of success

One of my former colleagues broke a pattern during a management team meeting – let me tell you what happened. He simply suggested to all of us that we share something we were struggling with. Something that worked out badly, a mistake we had made since our last meeting.

Wanted to drag him over the conference room table and give him a mediterranean hug.


Despite being a huge fan of sharing successes, regardless of whether big or small, this was a breakthrough moment for my thinking (I am talking a lightyear ago).

In some organisations the overwhelming mantra still is ‘failure is not an option’. Okay, when you’re the quality control’s final responsible at a manufacturer of safety equipment, this motto may hang over your bed at night in capital letters. You don’t want to be the one held responsible for a train going off the tracks.

An alternative is creating and maintaining environments where people can speak up freely about their experiences – to what extent do we need to talk about ‘mistakes’? – and mutually coach, mentor, teach and lead. Mutually stimulating and supportive teams where we are all responsible and accountable for each other’s growth. Self steering teams from the text books. Brazilian company Semco Group, led by Ricardo Semler, goes more than the extra mile in this.

Maverick Semler in a 1989 (!) Harvard Business Review article:

‘In Brazil, where paternalism and the family business fiefdom still flourish, I am president of a manufacturing company that treats its 800 employees like responsible adults. Most of them—including factory workers—set their own working hours. All have access to the company books. The vast majority vote on many important corporate decisions. Everyone gets paid by the month, regardless of job description, and more than 150 of our management people set their own salaries and bonuses.’

Failure…? Experimenting should be the key word.

We tend to see the outside of successful people and do gap analyses on the inside to understand why we ourselves can’t accomplish our wild goals (‘Big, Hairy Audacious Goals’, cfr. Jim Collins).

Let those we consider successful commence with telling us stories about their experiences. Share with us what worked and also what didn’t work and what they would have done differently. Starting with the CEO, the Chief Energising Officer?

Followed by my peer coaches and trainers and other practitioners, story-telling about how we’ve experimented and experimented until we became more ‘established’…?

Do you remember the time?

The past tense of success