COPING WITH FAILURE

Bonobos Founder: 2 Leadership Lessons Learned the Hard Way

Andy Dunn reveals two first-hand lessons he learned from leading his company. You should probably take notes.
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Andy Dunn, CEO of Bonobos, the clothing brand which he cofounded in 2007, recently spoke with the Stanford Graduatue School of Business web site about the lessons he's learned at the helm. Any founders or CEOs who are looking to lead their organizations through setbacks or who are in the process of coping with failure will find useful advice in Dunn's first-hand knowledge. 

Take all the blame when something goes wrong. As CEO, you deserve it. It's one thing to grasp this lesson in the abstract. It's another to live through it, as Dunn did when the Bonobos site crashed on Cyber Monday in 2011 (and stayed down for two weeks). 

"It was my fault," says Dunn. "We had an engineering team when we started, but we dismantled it and outsourced our technology for two years. We should not have completely outsourced it. After that it took me too long to hire our head of engineering. If I could go back in time, I would have retained some of that initial team and been less extremist about the transitions to create more continuity." 

The concept of not pointing fingers at times of trouble is nothing new. What's interesting about Dunn's experience is the way he's processed his culpability. He's not just espousing the "blame me" mantra as a publicly noble display of leadership. He's fully owning and even embracing the authority of the CEO position. "As the CEO, you are responsible for everyone who is there, and as founding CEO, you can't even blame it on your predecessor," he says. "You can make all the excuses you want about how the world changed, etc., but if you fail, no one cares why it didn't work."

What motivates you is not necessarily what motivates everyone else. Dunn learned this the hard way in early 2010, when he questioned the work ethic of his staff during a company-wide presentation. 

"It demoralized the company and was the apex of my flawed thinking of how to inspire people," he says. "I had thought about myself and what motivates me, and I wrongly thought that applied to everyone.

Many founders work out of fear of failure. But most other people work hard out of joy and love and inspiration. Soon after my presentation, our head of engineering quit. He cast a vote of no confidence in my leadership. After he left, we had to dismantle his team because they didn't have confidence in me, either. That is what led to our outsourcing our technology, which led to that Cyber Monday site crash."

The interview, as a whole, also provides a fascinating glimpse of Dunn as a person, including where he gets his ideas, his favorite business book, and his first paying job.

IMAGE: Alamy
Last updated: Dec 18, 2013




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