Everything you didn't learn in school that will help you survive the world of work. A place for newbies, for working moms, for seasoned professionals and "free agents" to share strategies, tips and tales from the trenches.

Jul 15, 2007

When it all blows up in your face

Instructor, Caroline Bender

Even you, flawless young businesswoman, will have your moments in the wrong limelight. A lemon-limelight, if you will, when you fear your entire reputation has soured as the result of a project gone horribly (perhaps irreversibly) wrong. You will stand there, remnants of your work dripping through your fingers like strings of dissolved soap, and you will take the next important step of your now fragile career.

Resist the inclination to fall apart with it.
Nothing will feed your credibility bank like Grace Under Pressure. (It doesn't make a good acronym, but it does deserve to be capitalized.)

Step 1: Admit it. Own it.
Small mistakes can be swept under rugs, fringe tasks left by the side of the road entirely. Miss Bender accepts a certain amount of missed targets in any project, and generally advises her students to select 1 task or aspect that can be sacrified in favor of any other.

But when it all blows up in your face, when the catastrophe is holistic -- fish rotting from the head down, as it were -- your best course of action is to present yourself for direction.

Step 2: Offer an Alternative
You must be able to suggest a repair plan. "What the hell do I do now?" is no position for anyone above the rank of intern.

Depending on the damage, and the urgency of repair, you may need to offer a short term ("stop the bleeding," the brass are fond of saying) and long term ("do-over," the Brownies are fond of saying) approach. The best way to ensure you have this to pull from your pocket is to plan it in the first place. You don't have to tell anyone you did.

Step 3: Make no Excuses
Not yet. See Step 9 below. In the moment, simply take charge of executing your resolution plan, once it has been cleared by the Boss.

At this step, apologize "down," to your project team: "I am so sorry we're going to have to start again. Here's what I'm thinking -- please help me troubleshoot it." And listen. Let's face it, hot shot, you didn't have the best idea at the table, so let somebody else have a try. If you hand over the reins, make sure your successor is not going to be a fall guy. Support her in whatever she needs, but watch for low branches. She may not have ever done this before.

Step 4: Get it Done
Execute now, talk about it later. Nobody wants to hear the story replayed for the next half hour.

Step 5: Get Dirty
If your team member has a better idea, as in step 3, and you have put her in charge, take a supporting role. Pick up a bucket and start bailing; don't just stand there. And never ever leave your post until the crisis has passed.

Step 6: Accept Help
In your zeal to punish yourself, you may turn down offers to make you less miserable. Don't.
Call in your people. Divide and conquer. Your credibility bank is made for moments just like this, so start spending your endowment.

Step 7: Document
This can happen later, but make sure you do it. You will be surprised how often you'll need to refer back to this unfortunate incident. You'll need it for your project records and for thanking your team. Unfortunately, the Boss will need it when reporting up, and won't you look professional when you have a report already prepared when asked?

Step 8: Chew yourself out
In the honest, gentle-but-firm developmental way you would have if the staff had made the boneheaded move you did that brought us here. In retrospect, as you are documenting the original plan and the disaster response that saved the day, you will see your errors. Every one is a teachable moment. Teach yourself.

If you have an unhealthy relationship with the Boss, at least you'll beat her to it, and leave her with little else to throw. If she generally supports you (even when you screw up) she'll let you off the hook you've put yourself on.

Step 9: Apologize
Don't fall on your sword, (you didn't literally kill anyone. did you? ) just acknowledge the wrong experienced by the person you're apologizing to. Like this: "Gary, I truly regret that you had to re-enter all 500 records because I mistimed the storage sequence. That shouldn't have happened." "Ma'am, I am sorry we had to redeploy the Project B team to help clean up. If I can share any staff with Project B next week, I hope you will let me know."

Step 10: Put it to Bed
Once you have made your amends, stop talking about it, before you start to sound like you're fishing for compliments.

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