August 21, 2020

The Real Lesson Of My Ultimate Failure

This is a story I've told before. It's a story of failure. Now though, the story has taken on an entirely new meaning.

The Real Lesson Of My Ultimate Failure

Picture the scene - it’s 2006 and I’m a rookie Software Product Manager at NCR. It’s all a bit overwhelming. Typically, Product Managers come from the ranks of experienced engineers. I’m a bit of an experiment. I’m the answer to the question, “What if we pluck a recent computing graduate that has prior commercial experience in a totally non-related field?”

Each day my brain melts with the ‘new stuff’ that I need to learn. I smile and nod. Pretending that I am far more intelligent than I actually am. I give the best impression of being a human sponge.

Only a few weeks into my new adventure I get asked if I’d help out by manning a stand at a trade show. Then I’m told the event is in Las Vegas. I count to ten, play it cool and try to look like I could take it or leave it. But, inside, I’m saying ‘woo-hoo’, you know, because, Vegas.

My job at the event is to demonstrate the capabilities of one NCR’s premier software products. All I have to do is work an ATM, say some words and be prepared to answer some questions. I mean, how hard can it be? I’ve used an ATM a lot. I have the product documentation and knowledge that I need. I’ve got this.

I write a script. I rehearse. Then I rehearse some more.

Before I know it. It’s show time.

The day before the event opens the entire leadership team of NCR descend on their stand. They’re here to get a sneak preview of their team of professionals in action. They are a sea of suits with serious faces. I tell myself that it’s OK. I’ve prepared well. And, I’m ready. As they moved from one demonstration station to the next, my heart started to beat faster. I reassure myself that all I needed to do was to remember that first line. From there everything would magically flow.

Then, it’s my time to shine. Unfortunately the battery in my torch died.

This human froze. This human couldn’t remember ANYTHING. This human faked a coughing fit to buy himself time. Time didn’t help. This human failed. If it had gone on any longer, I think I’d have been forced to fake a full blown seizure just to free me from humiliation.

I remember the cocktail of looks from the assembled suits. Shock. Horror. Pity. Concern. One chap just glowered at me with the deepest furrowed brow I’d ever seen. But the look I remember most is the one from my peripheral vision. My colleague, Andrew, who was stationed at the demo next to me did the classic thing of pretending not to look. Yet a gravitational force compelled him to witness my failure. All that was missing was his popcorn.

I’ve told this story before. When I’ve done so, the ending has been a carefully constructed ‘and the lesson is’. That lesson is a simple one - don’t try to remember a script. It doesn’t work. It never does, unless of course you have a photographic memory. In one version of the story I made the point that it’s easier to remember a story than facts and figures. In another version I even connected it to some deeper philosophical exploration around the notion that ‘real life doesn’t follow a script’.

The real lesson though is less calculated and less tied to my professional status as a storyteller and writer. The real lesson, the ultimate lesson is one of kindness.

That night I had to attend the companies pre-launch party at a golf and country club. Imagine how I’m feeling? I’ve bombed publicly in front of the people that employ me. My fatalistic brain takes over. My NCR career is finished. I am a fraud. I am a failure. How will I tell Gill that I’ve not even made it past my probation period? Right now, in this moment, I want to be any place but here.

I rationalise that all I have to do is drink a lot and avoid eye contact with anyone that witnessed my matinee performance. Then I see them. A cluster of four members of the leadership team. I seek an escape route from their line of vision, but, it’s too late. The most senior of them glanced away from the group and caught my eye. He excused himself and made his way over. My initial instinct - was ‘Shit… he’s going to fire me here? Really?’.

We chatted for a few minutes. It was a pleasant conversation that avoided any mention of the afternoon. Then, just before he returns to his colleagues, he leans in and says. “Don’t worry about today, it happens. You’ll be fine tomorrow.” And with a pat on my back he’s gone.

I can guarantee that he doesn’t remember that moment. I do and I always will.

Today we’re living in a moment where kindness is a switch that is flicked on and off with just frequency that we risk blowing a collective fuse. Kindness is a reaction to public outcry, anger and sadness - fuelled by a hashtag.

14 years ago the act of kindness I experienced was born of absolute empathy. He knew how I was feeling, so he made me feel better. That for me is one of the most essential qualities of a leader and for that matter of a human.