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36
DECISION-MAKING

My Worst Mistake in Business
 

It's not so much what I did... but what I failed to do when the timing was right.

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I paused once. Maybe only for a second, shuffling a bit in my seat and catching my breath. I looked out the window. I didn't answer the question quickly enough.

It was a fateful mistake.

This was about 14 years ago. Having risen through the ranks in the corporate world, stepping on a few toes along the way, I was in a meeting with the vice president of a large retail company. And by "large" I mean one of the largest in the world--50,000 employees scattered across the U.S. at the time plus another several thousand in the corporate office and overseas.

Leading up to that meeting, I had built up my reputation as a hungry corporate hound. My immediate boss came from the world of business consulting and he had a knack for spotting inefficiencies. Sometimes, those "inefficiencies" were living, breathing people who got fired. Sometimes, he would slash a budget or cancel a project suddenly.

He taught me everything I knew.

There's a part of me that regrets those days and a part of me that enjoyed the thrill of being in a position of power and decision-making. My team of several dozen project managers, supervisors, and knowledge workers had conquered many parts of the business outside of our own little island called Information Technology.

And now, a new opportunity had arisen. The vice president asked if I wanted to take on the director role of a new department, one that fit my personality and interests to the letter. The new department needed a thought leader for its computer operations. They would be starting a new record label, helping artists with promotion, and expanding the retail brand. Wow.

To this day, I am not sure why I paused at that meeting. I think I even said "um" to the vice president. I may have scratched my head. Why the hesitation? Why the pause? Why did I balk?

We never even talked about salary. He told me to think about the new position and said I could leave. But I knew that my pause had ended my chances for the promotion. I remember driving home that night and thinking about what a mistake it was not to jump on it. Just two years after that meeting, I was out the door after 9/11 looking for a new career.

Have you ever experienced something like that? You're handed the keys to the kingdom and you start wondering if you can handle the responsibility. Or, you're this close to launching your own idea, but you decide to stick with the familiar.

I think there's something a bit perverse about this, at least for me. There are times when I think I questioned my ability to take on that new role. I wondered if I was really the man for the job. Scared, I ended up ruining my own chances to do something amazing and rewarding.

I sometimes wonder, how would things have been different if I had not made this mistake? What if I had jumped whole-heartedly into the position? I would probably not be writing these words right now.

Don't make the same mistake. In business, when you see an opportunity to excel, take it. Push forward. Take the risk. In 20 years of working, I've found that those opportunities only come up a few times--providence smiles and everything fits together. Maybe you even have a decision to make right now. Two words for you: do it.

IMAGE: Nina Shannon/Getty
Last updated: Sep 25, 2013

JOHN BRANDON is a contributing editor at Inc. magazine covering technology. He writes the Tech Report column for Inc.com.
@jmbrandonbb




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