Errorless Leadership: Helping Others Be Successful

“People learn more from their mistakes” is an old saying that should be put out to pasture. Not only is this statement untrue from a learning standpoint, but relying on people to make mistakes to create learning situations is haphazard and reactive when it comes to developing the skills required in an organization. To illustrate why this statement is not the case, imagine you decide to take up a new sport—golf. Being someone who wants to find success and development in the game quickly, before even swinging the clubs for the first time, you hire a golf coach. This coach claims to be a training expert in the art of “learning from your mistakes.” After having you watch a 20-minute PowerPoint on how to play the game, he takes you onto a course and states, “I see my role as telling you when you’ve screwed up. That way you’ll learn.” Pulling up to the first hole, you nervously grab a club out of the bag to hear the coach say, “Nope, wrong club.” Placing that club back, you grab another and hear a similar statement, “Not that one either, guess again.” When a third reach of a different club gets no reaction, you head to one of four tee boxes only to hear, “Wrong one.” After two more guesses, you again get no reaction, so you place the ball down and ask, “How do I swing the club?” The coach says, “I am not here to tell you how to do it,  but only to point out your mistakes when you make them so you can learn from them.”

How long would you proceed to play the game under these conditions? My guess is not long. You’d likely fire that coach and find someone who focuses on teaching you to do something right the first time—someone who helps you be successful. What might this look like? In the beginning, instead of taking you to a course, they are likely to take you to a driving range where they can teach you the fundamentals of club selection, body positioning and weight transfer, swinging a club, etc. They would give you ample practice and feedback at each step.   

If this sounds like a preferred method for learning a new sport, why would organizations (or leaders) not use this process to teach critical organizational behaviors? Why are organizations providing subpar training or coaching to set people up to fail instead of setting their employees up for success? To help move away from this organizational failure point, below are four components necessary to set people up for success:

Planning — Planning requires selecting an objective or key business result(s) to focus on and then identifying the critical behaviors at every organizational level to drive those results. Once the behaviors are identified, it’s time to assess if the organization is providing and creating alignment between the necessary metrics, direction, tools, and resources to set people up for success. If not, the organization should work toward closing those gaps.

Training — Training is how the organization is going to purposefully develop the critical behaviors identified in the planning phase. Just like teaching someone to play golf, many of these behaviors need to be broken down into learnable component skills and practiced until they can be done at a level of quality and consistency. Practicing something “right” the first time prevents bad habits from forming, which then must be unlearned in the future. Anyone who has attempted to break a bad club swing can attest to that. Breaking down the skills allows the learner to experience success faster and more often than expecting someone to learn the complex behavior as a whole.

Coaching — Coaching is the purposeful transfer of knowledge and skills into the real world. Even with high-fidelity training, coaching is needed to ensure someone has the skills to produce a desired outcome. We define coaching as, “The systematic providing of instruction and resources, building in repetition, and delivering helpful feedback and positive reinforcement to build effective behaviors.” This is often a poorly managed or underutilized process in organizations. Many times, on-the-job training is performed by whoever is available rather than by a subject matter expert. This leads to drift in the behavior almost immediately. Organizations often set leaders up to fail in their coaching as well, by not developing the skills to coach or not giving them the time to effectively coach others. The environments people work within are complex. Without coaching, performers are often set up to fail.

Connecting — Connecting is about ensuring performers see the benefit or natural positive reinforcers for doing the critical behaviors. As someone’s skills develop, those behaviors will produce consequences and outcomes that are desired both for the individual and the organization. Leaders should help ensure performers see the connection between what they do and how it helps. This advanced coaching ensures continual refinement of skills to help performers go from good to great as they experience the natural reinforcement produced by their behaviors.

Errorless leadership does not mean that leaders will not make mistakes. It’s about helping performers be as successful as possible, in as little amount of time as possible. While we might learn from our mistakes, doing so is a slow and punishing process for the performer and an ineffective strategy from an organizational perspective. Give people the right tools, train them effectively on how to do things right, coach them to develop their skills on the job, and connect their behaviors to the natural reinforcers that exist for doing the critical behaviors with high quality. This process will not only develop skills faster, it will create performers who see a benefit when doing the necessary behaviors that lead to organizational success.

Posted by Bryan Shelton

Bryan applies his knowledge and expertise in strategic planning to help organizations align employee performance with company goals. Bryan helps clients create improvement across a variety of business metrics including company growth, profitability, customer service, vision alignment, leadership development, and culture change. He also helps clients implement process improvement initiatives, improve sales results and using performance-pay systems to help drive company results. His behavior-based approaches and applications have supported clients’ improvement initiatives, leadership development, and the design and implementation of performance pay systems.