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On Making Mistakes

“Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new”

– Albert Einstein

I once had the privilege of meeting the formidable Jeanette Wagner, one of the New York powerhouses that built the Lauder business during the 1980’s and 90’s and laid the foundations for everything that the Lauder Group of Companies is today.

She asked me “so what’s been your best business mistake”. I had no idea what she meant by the word “best”. How can a business mistake be “best?”  Mistakes are something we hide and regret. We cover them up and hope that no-one notices. We accentuate our success’s and hope that we are not questioned about those things that have gone wrong. And yet I was being asked to share my best business mistake? I mumbled a reply – I don’t think she was impressed.

I never understood the question then but I do now. You need to make a lot of mistakes to become aware that mistakes are the very things that build success. If you don’t make a mistake it means you’ve never taken a business risk, never pushed yourself out of your comfort zone, and never aimed high enough.

The important thing is not to punish yourself or others for mistakes as long as you and they learn from them. This is the essence of the question I was asked. How had I used my mistakes to learn and which mistake taught me the most? Had I thought hard enough to understand the consequences that lead to a mistake?  Had I understood how to avoid repeating this? Mistakes might also lead to great success – what unforeseen opportunities did a mistake provide?

The question was an amazing approach to turn a fear-inducing negative into a positive, and a learning tool for greater insight. It makes you stop and think. It encourages more risk taking not less because it empowers you to learn and grow. And that success and failure are two sides of the same coin.

A simple intriguing question with enormous power.

So what’s been my “best” mistake? The irony is that mine was joining Lauder – the very place I was asked the question! I found it difficult to adapt to the prevailing culture and felt like a fish out of water from day one. I was that square peg in a round hole.

But what an amazing learning and life experience it was for the 12 months I was there.  Working for Lauder opened so many doors. Halfway through my stay I was head hunted by Bourjois and Chanel to turn around the Bourjois business in the UK – a brilliant unforeseen opportunity. And that led after 9 years to The Red Tree where the knowledge and insight I gained at Lauder – focus on sell-through not sell-in, out-reach to your customers, continually analyse the drivers and dynamics of your business – has helped build our business.

Would all that have happened without my ‘best” mistake? Impossible to tell and in some ways it doesn’t matter. Mistakes are there for us to learn and if you are not making any then you stand zero chance of success.

So what’s been your “best” mistake?

The Red Tree is the UK’s leading international beauty brand consultancy and a powerhouse of ideas, insight and inspiration. For an informal discussion on how we might help you, please contact us.

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