You Messed Up At Work, Now What?
At some point in your career, you will make a big mistake. Here's how to recover and get ahead
It happens to the best of us: You miss a huge deadline. You blank out during a major presentation. You leave a bad impression on an important client. There’s no way to avoid gaffes at the office. You’re human after all. The good news is, it’s not all bad. “It’s really important for us, as women, to understand that screwups are normal,” says Tiffany Dufu, chief leadership officer at Levo, a network for millennials in the workplace, and author of the new book Drop the Ball: Achieving More by Doing Less.
“I believe we’d have more women leaders if women practiced failing publicly, because it’s only public failure that can instill a sense of resilience and grit in you.” Here, four accomplished women share some of their most memorable mess-ups and how they bounced back.
THE MESS-UP: LOSING MAJOR FUNDING
TIFFANY DUFU, 43
CHIEF LEADERSHIP OFFICER AT LEVO
For many years I was a nonprofit fund-raiser. I was working at a national women’s leadership organization and we had been in conversation with UPS to receive funding from the company. We had talked a lot about how we could collaborate and what the partnership would mean, and it was pretty much a done deal. But there was one final step: We had to submit a formal proposal. My team worked really hard on it. We finished it in record time and sent it off, but then there was nothing. Complete silence. Weeks went by, and when I finally got ahold of my contact at UPS, we learned what had happened: The proposal we had sent arrived at their office via FedEx, which was really bad. Needless to say, we didn’t get the money.
THE FIX: The hardest part for me was calling my boss, who was also my mentor. I’m thinking, She’s going to fire me. You can get fired for this kind of incompetence. She was furious, asking, “How could you do this?” I felt the heat of that, and all I could do was apologize and let her know the practice I would put in place to ensure that the mistake never happened again. I also sent a letter to our contact at UPS, saying how sorry I was for the impact of my actions, not just on the partnership but potentially on her personal brand. In that moment I did not get the outcome I had wanted, which was resources for my organization. But years later I ran into the client and she remembered the way I had managed the screwup. That woman was responsible for my later doing an event for UPS—she bought nearly 400 copies of my book for the occasion.
THE LESSON: While you may not rectify the situation at the time, people will have more respect for you if you own up and handle it really well.
THE MESS-UP: FLUBBING ON LIVE TV
TAI BEAUCHAMP, 39
ON-AIR PERSONALITY AND FOUNDER OF TAI LIFE MEDIA
I had just started working with InStyle and it was my first national TV appearance for the magazine on the Today show. I had been doing television for years by then, so I was pretty seasoned. But it was my first time working with InStyle, so naturally I had jitters. On top of that, I was sick. I had taken Sudafed the night before. The call time was really early, and I had probably taken one too many trying not to sound nasally. During the segment, there was a word I just couldn’t pronounce—capsaicin. I’m standing on live TV and could not pronounce it—I stuttered at least three times to say it and was very disappointed in myself. I got through the appearance, but it wasn’t a high point for me. On a scale of one to ten, I would probably have given myself a five, and only because I didn’t run off the set.
“The hardest part for me was calling my boss, who was also my mentor. I’m thinking, She’s going to fire me. She was furious. All I could do was apologize.”
THE FIX: After the appearance I went back to the office and told my direct manager and the head of PR, “Look, I am so sorry that this happened. I’m not sure what the ramifications will be, but I want to take responsibility. There are no excuses for it—because I am obviously representing this title and I take great pride in that—but I wasn’t feeling well and I know that wasn’t my best work. If given the opportunity to continue, I won’t let it happen again.” The reality is that when you recognize a faux pas, it’s best to accept it and take responsibility for it. I didn’t wait until the next day; I didn’t send an e-mail. I went on to work with InStyle for seven more years after that.
THE LESSON: There are some things you just have to do in person, because showing up physically can be a testament to your ability to recover.
THE MESS-UP: MISSING A BIG MEETING
KILEE HUGHES, 42
FOUNDER OF PR AGENCY SIX ONE AND FORMER PR EXEC AT NIKE AND NET-A-PORTER
I had to cancel a meeting with a prominent CEO of a global company. She understood, and rescheduled through her secretary. But then I missed the second one. It was a pretty big deal, and not the kind of error you make twice. It was highly embarrassing. A family emergency prevented me from attending the first meeting. For the new date, though, I had my calendar in the wrong time zone because I travel often. It was on West Coast time even though I was on the East Coast. There was nothing I could do. Not only was she someone who heads a very large company, but she was also a former colleague. I was mortified.
THE FIX: Though I had sent her flowers, which I delivered myself, with an apologetic note, I didn’t hear back. And I wasn’t expecting to. But when I saw her at an affair, she could tell how pained I was by it, and she just said, “I know you canceled twice. Are you okay?” There was nothing I could say except try to explain that it was a mix-up on my calendar.
THE LESSON: Investing in making things right can go a long way. I know I can eventually set up another meeting with her.
THE MESS-UP: OVERLOOKING A CRITICAL DETAIL
JOVIAN ZAYNE, 34
FOUNDER OF THE ONPURPOSE MOVEMENT AND PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT CONSULTANT
Earlier in my career, I was leading a huge project for Teach for America in which we would bring notables, including CEOs, politicians and community leaders, into our classrooms for them to learn more about our mission and potentially donate. The project was a success. My political and social capital within the organization skyrocketed because of the opportunity. So by the second year, I think that overconfidence was clouding my judgment. I was taking the effort and diligence that I had put forth before for granted, and I was a little bit more lax. That led to my failing to triple-check work someone else had been doing on my behalf. And ultimately it meant that one of our most prominent leaders was scheduled to come to a classroom a day earlier than expected. We had sent them the wrong date. I didn’t realize that until the night before—like 10:45 P.M.—so it was way too late to do anything. We didn’t have any materials prepared. I thought, I’m going to be in a ton of trouble.
THE FIX: After panicking for a good hour, I took some time to pray and talk to my parents and one of my mentors. I recognized that what was in my control was owning the mistake and then finding the most immediate solution. I told my manager what had happened. I apologized—I didn’t overblow it as the worst thing I had ever done in my life—but I stated very clearly that it was an oversight on my end. I let her know the course I was taking to correct it and that I was going to communicate updates regularly. She was disappointed, of course, but luckily everything worked out.
THE LESSON: When I sat down with my manager face-to-face, I didn’t place the blame on anyone else. But I also made it a broader leadership discussion about how I was going to learn from the situation. She was really proud to see that I was using the mistake to think more about my long-term development.
HOW TO HANDLE CRINGE-WORTHY GAFFES
WE ASKED JOYEL CRAWFORD, FOUNDER OF CRAWFORD LEADERSHIP STRATEGIES, WHO HAS 15 YEARS OF EXPERIENCE IN HR AND CAREER MANAGEMENT, HOW TO QUICKLY REBOUND FROM THREE COMMON NAIL-BITING SCENARIOS
SCENARIO 1: You’re bitching about your boss by e-mail and accidentally send it to her.
Act fast. You know she’s going to see it, so go straight to her and own up to it. I think the biggest part of leadership development is showing a strong sense of character and acknowledging your mistakes. If it’s reached the point where you’re venting to a friend over e-mail, your judgment isn’t clear. There’s obviously a deeper issue that you’re having with your supervisor that you need to communicate directly in a constructive way. Coaching upward is a skill that will help you avoid future frustration. It will strengthen your relationship with your boss and keep you from putting your foot in your mouth again.
SCENARIO 2: There’s a typo in an important e-mail.
I was coaching a client the other day, and she had just been hired as an editor. She had never been one before, but she really wanted to do this job. I pushed her in the right direction and introduced her to the right people, and they gave her a chance. As she’s e-mailing her boss, she spells the word editor wrong in the subject line. The former editor calls me and says, “Why did we just hire this person?” The person who hired her didn’t give her the feedback, but he told me because I was the one who had referred her. When I told her, the first thing she said was, “Well, he didn’t tell me. He didn’t tell me I misspelled it!” In that moment she needed to take ownership of the error. You can’t undo it, but you have to take responsibility for it. Then you can repair it.
SCENARIO 3: You overpromised and underdelivered.
Figure out what just happened and ask yourself, How did I get to this point of missing a deadline? Break it down step-by-step. Was it because you didn’t use your tools properly? Do you need more calendar reminders? Did you not want to seem weak and ask for help because you were too busy trying to look like a rock star in the office? Once you’ve determined the reason, the most important thing to do is to come up with strategies for how you’re going to solve the problem before you go to your manager and explain that you’re behind. Remember: Your boss hired you to come up with the solutions.
This feature originally appeared in the September 2017 Issue of ESSENCE Magazine.