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How to Recover From Your Worst Mistakes

Leaders sometimes make big mistakes that threaten their careers and companies. Here's how they recover and survive to lead again.
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We all make mistakes. Over the course of your professional life, you can count on making a few bad career choices. It comes with the territory. Still, those mistakes can really drag you down. And recovering from them is definitely not a trivial matter, as I know all too well.

I once accidentally erased my boss's entire PC hard drive. After he calmed down, he said, "You can make mistakes; just don't make any you have to live with." Indeed, he had messed up in ways that continued to haunt him. But his comment turned out to be surprisingly prophetic for me, as well.

The following year I was courted by two high-tech companies: one an established leader, a public company; the other a start-up, a spinoff from that same company. Offers in hand, I chose the start-up. Just a few months later, I knew I'd made the wrong choice.

Hat in hand, I called the hiring VP of the company I'd turned down. He graciously declined to reengage. If I heard a note of satisfaction in his voice, it was drowned out by my disappointment. Actually, I felt a lot worse than disappointed. I felt like a failure.

There's nothing worse than failing by your own hand, your own hubris, your own stupidity. Now I knew what my old boss had meant. I would have to live with this.

It's Not the Failure That Matters...

But here's the thing. Jazz great Miles Davis once said, "When you hit a wrong note, it's the next note that makes it good or bad." To this day, I marvel at the wisdom behind that simple notion. If you just add a little self-confidence and courage, it's all you need to recover from even the worst blunders, career or otherwise.

In my case, I decided to take the song--I mean my career--in a whole different direction. A former associate had been after me to make the jump from engineering management to sales by joining his sales rep firm. So I took him up on it. After all, I had nothing to lose and nowhere else to go.

Looking back on it, that segue into sales turned out to be the smartest career decision I ever made. It expanded my horizons, taught me skills I needed, and opened a path that would soon lead to executive management and a successful and rewarding career.

Everything Comes Full Circle

That single mistake--the risk I took by joining a start-up instead of an established company--and more importantly, the decision to double down and take an even bigger risk, would ultimately make all the difference in my career.

Not surprisingly, I've since used Miles Davis's wisdom over and over throughout my career, and not just for me. I've used it to help executives and management teams overcome all sorts of issues, from relatively minor missteps to strategic blunders that threatened entire companies.

After I show the quote on a Powerpoint slide I've used too many times to count, I tell them this: We all make mistakes. If we don't, we're not taking enough risks. Executives with big responsibility sometimes make big mistakes. It comes with the territory.

Don't wallow in it or lament what could have been. Just pick yourself up, gain whatever wisdom you can from the experience, accept it as the new reality, and go from there. You're still in the band. Play your next note.

IMAGE: mujalifah/Flickr
Last updated: Mar 14, 2013

STEVE TOBAK | Columnist

Steve Tobak is a management consultant, an executive coach, and a former senior executive of the technology industry. He's managing partner of Invisor Consulting, a Silicon Valley-based strategy consulting firm. Contact Tobak; follow him on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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