The latest in my Celebrating Failure series for SocialStory.
Steve—who is now based in Bangalore, India—was previously the Founder and CEO of a microfinance organization that worked in a slum outside of Mexico City, Mexico.
Tell us about a failure you experienced working at the microfinance organization.
People are the most important part of any business. One major failure I have made was not moving quickly enough to change a key member of our leadership that was not working out well.
In the beginning, I was on my own getting the organization off the ground. Then I began hiring lower-level field staff and had someone to handle back office administration. But we needed someone who could take on more leadership responsibilities and focus on the finances and accounting of the business. After a search, we identified someone who had a great background, good technical skills, and appeared to be a good fit. I hired her, but after three months there were signs that she wasn’t a good fit. She was quite capable of doing the job, but her and I were not clicking as a team. My failure was that I pushed through and tried to make her role with the organization work for another six months, hoping that with enough effort everything would fall into place. In the end, the situation did not help the business–it often made decision-making more difficult and took energy and time away from growing the business.
I should have confronted this situation earlier, recognized that it wasn’t working, and made the tough decision to part ways much sooner. The early stage of a business is critical and requires everyone to be firing on all cylinders. By not making a quick and hard decision, I only prolonged an ineffective dynamic and the business suffered because of it. I should have been much more proactive at managing the situation.
How would you handle the same situation differently now?
Rather than trying to be hopeful and assume we are able to deal with or patch over any potential issues, I am now more inclined to actually draw these areas out intentionally, and put them in the spotlight and under some stress to see how everyone deals with them. A certain level of healthy tension is crucial in a dynamic environment where having different perspectives and ways of thinking is extremely important. If this crosses over to even a slightly toxic level, however, it will be a detriment. I am now much more committed to making a tough call sooner, especially in the case of key leadership positions.
Of course, these issues are usually not black or white, so they require considerable attention and focus. At an early stage, each and every person is critical, so everyone needs to be working in good cohesion. A member of the leadership team might look perfect on paper and throughout the search and interview process, but even the most thorough process can simulate life in the trenches. There is always a possibility that the relationship does not work out; the longer it takes to resolve the situation, the more disruptive to the business.
I’m very fortunate that in my new business my co-founder and I have prior experience working together. Our work relationship has been stress-tested over several years, and we’ve achieved a kind of rhythm and cohesiveness, even when we disagree about something.
What advice would you give to other social entrepreneurs experiencing failure?
You are going to make mistakes in a small, crazy start-up that is trying to do tough things. You need to tighten the feedback loop because there is less room for error in a young business. You must critically question everything, recognize mistakes, eat humble pie, backtrack, and course correct.
Two of the most important things for entrepreneurs are resilience and flexibility. Resilience is a must, because nothing will ever work out as scripted, so you have to suck it up and try things again. Having the right amount or right kind of flexibility is a fine art. A good entrepreneur is always a little hardheaded; you have a vision of what the world should be like and will not let anything get in your way. On the other hand, when you run into a wall or mess up in some way, you have to read the signs and adjust.
The biggest balance for entrepreneurs is understanding when to be hardheaded and stick to a vision, and when to recognize that things aren’t working and adjust with the same determination. You are not going to be right 100% of the time, so balancing hardheaded vision with flexibility and mountains of resilience is the fine art of entrepreneurship.
Why is talking about failure in social enterprise important?
It’s great to see an attitude of embracing failure. What I have seen amongst many entrepreneurs, especially in Silicon Valley, is that people are willing to talk about their battle scars. Naturally, it is much easier to do when there is a bit of distance in time from the failure. It is also much easier for those who have reached phenomenal success to discuss their failures.
The social enterprise space is very young, and in many ways we are still searching for our big success stories. On the other hand, the things we are trying to accomplish are incredibly inspiring. At times, I think that leads us to emphasize the positives and possibly even overstate what has been accomplished. Discussing our failures and challenges is a great way to help those who will come after us achieve much greater things.
We want to thank Steve for sharing his lessons from failure with us! We hope you will share your failure lessons as well. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.