Nov 27 2007

Learn From Your Mistakes

The key to success is recognizing how it differs from failure.

Photo: Hot Shots Imaging
Jim Shanks
Executive Vice President and former CIO of CDW

A universal trait of the successful businessperson — or the successful person in any of life’s pursuits — is to learn from mistakes. That, after all, is what generally makes the difference between winning and losing. In a business sense, it’s the difference between success and failure.

Reality is that life and business are a series of triumphs and failures, and it’s how we handle each that determines the eventual outcome. Do your failures defeat you? Or do you rise to fight again the next business day?

There’s a fine line between success and failure, and we do ourselves an injustice if we aren’t continually trying to analyze and understand the difference. This is especially true of the positive or negative effects a business’ IT systems — and the people who run them — can have on company performance. It’s a topic that should be paramount in the mind of the small to medium-size company CEO or IT-shop leader.

We know from talking to executives at medium-size companies for CDW’s Business Rearview Mirror Survey that entrepreneurs who have successfully grown their firms to more than 100 employees appreciate the enormous impact of technology.

An effective IT shop — as many of us have learned through hard-knock experience — can be the engine of growth and the pathfinder to a highly successful business future. But it can attain those peaks only if it is allowed and encouraged.

That is, the useful IT organization must be encouraged and allowed to breathe, to participate, to speak, to plan, to grow, to help strategize and to take its rightful part in leading a company to greater heights than the company has ever achieved.

The topnotch IT shop must be fully integrated into the vital business decision-making process. Then and only then can it help the company achieve its full potential. And the results can be eye-opening.

What then occurs when a mistake is made? What happens if IT miscalculates, overcorrects, underestimates or loses sight of the bigger picture?

Do we lop off the IT director’s head? Do we fire the whole IT shop and start over? Or do we step back and analyze what happened, learn from it, let everybody get a good, hearty laugh out of it and then move forward?

Carelessness in business is not acceptable. I submit that the only way a business of any size can succeed in the longer term is if it allows employees to take calculated risks and learn from mistakes, because everybody — even the all-knowing boss — makes mistakes. Participating in the cold, hard world of business with its attendant risks, every­one fails now and again.

The key is to not keep employees so uptight they’re afraid to make a business decision. It’s important that individual co-workers are empowered and the critical business decisions they make have the full backing and trust of upper management.

Evaluate, Don’t Berate

That’s a shop in which I would want to work. It’s a shop in which any and all of us would be allowed to thrive and contribute to solid company performance. And it’s exactly what’s needed when it comes to a viable, business-savvy IT department that consistently and confidently gets the job done.

In the long run, if your really outstanding IT employees buy into the system, a situation can evolve in which it becomes almost impossible to fail — or even more pointedly, those IT employees won’t fail you if you don’t fail them. And if you learn to genuinely trust and respect them professionally, they’re capable of helping take your company places you might never have dreamed possible.

Jim Shanks is executive vice president of CDW, a $6.8 billion provider of technology products and services, based in Vernon Hills, Ill.