how-i-learned-to-fail

If I could go back ten years

A Newbie who started a job during the recession

My first job in the staffing and recruiting industry. Looking back, I’m glad I didn’t know what a difficult time it was to start. Six weeks after I began, Bear Stearns collapsed and the global recession began. I had never sold anything before, I had never recruited anyone, but here I was on my first day. Deep breath, there’s my desk, my phone, my computer.

My training consisted of my manager helping me log into our customer database, running me through a script of what to say on the phone, and handing me a list of zip codes–my territory–that I needed to start calling through to get business.

I looked at the screen, and noticed that there was a notes tab. Well, I thought, if the person before me left notes I should definitely read those first–understand where I can pick up in the conversation. Also, there was a link to the company website–I should definitely know what’s on the website first, right? Three open browser tabs and 10 minutes of reading later, I was ready to make call. I picked up. Dialed the phone. Immediately realized I needed to dial 9 first. Tried again and got the person’s voicemail. 

Analysis Paralysis

Each time I thought about picking up the phone and calling, my heart would start to pound and I would flip back into research mode. As a singer (yes, I was a musician before I was a recruiter), I was used to failing in the practice room, not in public/in front of my team. I thought that if I armed myself with enough information, I would be more successful on the call–if I ever got someone to pick up. I left the most well-researched voicemails ever. But not too many of them.

Day three or day four, I was researching my way through my list of calls. After one dial, as soon as I put the phone down, I heard a loud, highly irritated, voice behind me:

“What the heck are you doing? What did you learn on that call? Why is it taking you TEN MINUTES to make a phone call?”

I nearly jumped out of my chair. At some point, my Vice President had walked up behind me and started observing. She could immediately see that I was overthinking and overanalyzing every single move I was trying to make. She gave me a new assignment.

“Ripping the training wheels off was painful. I didn’t mind the trial part, but I hated the errors.”

New Assignment

My VP challenged me to dial through every company that already existed in our database within my territory and just learn one piece of information from each of those companies–who is the buyer at that account. I didn’t have to “sell” anything. I didn’t have to “recruit” anyone. I just had to stop overthinking, and act.

Ripping the training wheels off was painful. I didn’t mind the trial part, but I hated the errors. Call after call I began to realize something. I didn’t need to know everything about a prospect before I reached out to them. There were plenty of times I hit a dead end. There was a lot of rejection. But by talking to a TON of people, I began to learn how to start a conversation. How to ask questions. How to listen. Eventually, as I learned who was in charge of hiring I would get the chance to speak with them, and they would tell me more about their company, and what they needed in the future than I could have ever learned from hours of researching them online.

Even though I was putting in the effort, there weren’t a lot of job orders out there in 2008. Many of the hiring managers I connected with confided in me that they were soon having to lay off people they’d work with for years. Others would ask me to wait for a moment, and during the pause I would hear them shut their office door, come back to the phone, and explain that they would like to send me their resume.

Finally, after what felt like a million calls, on one random afternoon, the business owner I was talking to said yes! I was so shocked that I immediately and accidentally HUNG UP the phone! My team just looked at my shocked face, laughed, and gave me a pep talk before I called him back.

Fast Forward 10 Years

Now, when new people start at my company, they aren’t just handed a list of zip codes and told to start making calls. It’s my job to help them ramp quickly. Many of these people come from non-sales roles (accountants, writers, HR people, etc.) I know what it’s like to be in their shoes. I get to see them learning something completely new, and putting it to the test in real time–with all the success and failure that comes along with it. From what I’ve observed, you can break these new colleagues into two distinct groups.

  • One, is the group of people who want to move fast and break things. Give them an assignment, they’ll jump in head first without looking and figure it out as they go.
  • The other group (my people) want a road-map, they want a flow chart or conversation tree, they want to know what’s next because they want to make sure they get it right the first time. They feel like the stakes are too high to get it wrong. They’re afraid to fail.

Because of my experience, when I started this training role, I tried to develop a ton of tools and resources. A comprehensive (read: exhausting) training program that would give my new colleagues every ounce of information they would need to do their job– and pack it all into their first three days.

While my intentions were good, the jump-in-head-first friends were completely frustrated by the classroom/hypothetical “nonsense” and felt like they were wasting their time, my road-map friends simply wanted to camp out in the classroom and never leave. Trial…meet error. So I adapted.

Given Knowledge vs Earned Knowledge

No matter what, everyone needs a certain minimal effective dose of “given knowledge” from a classroom to get them going. We start with the basics. Then, everyone has to go try and earn some knowledge through applied experience–research things, plan things, reach out to people.

Within the first day or two I’ll notice my new colleagues separating themselves out into those two different groups–

  • the group that immediately starts scheduling interviews with candidates
  • the ones that are quietly sitting at their desk with a browser full of open tabs.

To the ones who are moving fast and breaking things, I get ready for the inevitable cleanup. It’s ok–we can learn. But, for my friends who are paralyzed as they analyze I typically pull them aside and tell them that we are going to try something different the next day. They need to put together a list of people to reach out to with enough information all in one spot so that they won’t need any devices (who they are calling, the number they are calling, and why they are calling), then we close our computers, take a deep breath, and go!

Based on observing the people I’ve worked with and managed over the past ten years, the ones who take risks and jump in tend to succeed faster than the more careful researchers. They give themselves more chances to fail, but also more chances to succeed. If I could go back ten years and talk to myself on my first day work, I would smile, tell myself to close the browser tabs, take a deep breath and go for it. It’s ok to fail, that’s how you earn knowledge and learn.

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