Leverage Failure for Future Career Success

Even though I have a lot of finance and accounting experience, it’s not my favorite thing to do. I admit that I enjoyed the money that I earned in this field, but I never had a real passion for it. I’m a firm believer in working to your strengths, so when the opportunity came for me to work in Project/Program Management, I gracefully exited the world of finance. Or so I thought. In my most current role, I am responsible for the L&D budget. This means that I have to set the budget and track each income and expense item for the program. Pretty straightforward, except that I would much rather plan, facilitate, strategize and build people.

For the most part, I was on top of the budget, but a major item slipped through the cracks and caused me to report significantly more income than the program had actually made. There were actually two mistakes here. The first, and perhaps the lesser of the two, was the administrative error that caused the miscalculation. In my final reconciliation before submitting my Board report, something didn’t seem right, but I ignored that instinct. This was the major mistake. I knew enough about budgeting to know that a 30% variance from forecast shouldn’t be ignored – but the numbers were saying something else. Errors like this can be big a problem when your program is self-funded, so I should have been checking not only once, but twice and possibly three times.

I had a moment, or maybe a day of panic and frustration because of this failure. Unless you have someone’s life in your hands, no mistake is fatal. I wasn’t happy with it, but I was determined to learn from it. Here’s what I learned about failure in this instance.

I) Own the mistake

Rather than make excuses for your error, the best thing to do is to own it.

  • Acknowledge that you made the mistake.
  • Don’t shift blame.

My mistake was pretty major. The error was entirely mine and it shouldn’t have happened. Based on this incorrect information, we could have spent money that we didn’t even have. Thankfully, we caught it in time.

You may have failed at something, but that doesn’t make you a failure. Mistakes don’t have to be fatal and they don’t have to define you unless you allow them to. Admittedly, the consequences of this error were unpleasant. I had to tell my boss that we hadn’t performed as well as we had thought and the financials had to be completely amended to adjust for the missed item.

II) Lessons Learned

Lessons Learned is a Project Management Best Practice. The idea here is that knowledge can be gained from every experience – good or bad. After you’ve acknowledged your part in the mishap, now’s the time to start looking at what exactly went wrong.

  • Do you need more training in a particular area?
  • Were you lacking information to make a complete decision?
  • Did you have proper systems in place?
  • Were you overwhelmed by your workload?

After some careful examination, you should be able to get to the source of the error. For me, the error was an administrative one. I hadn’t put a system of checks and balances in place that would flag me when an item was overlooked. I relied on my memory, and we all know how that can go. By documenting your lessons learned, you can gain a deeper understanding of what happened. It also serves as a historical document for someone else doing your job.

III) Make Adjustments

Once you know why something went wrong, you can more readily work on ways to prevent it from reoccurring. As mentioned earlier, Project Managers work most effectively when we can apply Best Practices. This means that we don’t reinvent the wheel unless we absolutely have to. One of our Best Practices is the Monitor & Control of processes. There are templates and procedures in place that help to reduce the occurrence of human error.

If you use failure to leverage future success, no opportunity will ever be a wasted one.

I had become siloed in my thinking, wrongly believing that Project Management and Finance were two completely separate worlds when there is, in fact, a lot of overlap between the two. When I framed budgeting in reference to Monitoring & Controlling, a language I was more fluent in, it created a system that I more readily embraced.

IV) Move On

Don’t let one mistake define you or derail your career momentum. After the dust settled, I emailed my boss to let her know how the error happened and what I would do to prevent it from happening in the future. Even though she didn’t ask me to, I increased my level of accountability and reported back much more frequently. I created a few simple templates that would ensure no item was missed and saw my reporting accuracy improve significantly. We laugh about this mishap now that it’s in the past.

Failure isn’t fatal

Looking back, I am grateful not for the failure, but for the learning that came out of it. I learned that there were areas that I needed to develop in myself in order to become better at my job. As a result, I took a few budgeting and finance courses to ensure that I could do this part of my job to the best of my ability. I also took an SQL course that taught me how to build databases. I started applying an old time-management trick I learned early on in my career. Do the thing you like least first thing in your day. When audit time rolls around, I close my office door and set aside time each morning to focus completely on finances. This ensures that I’m fresh when I’m looking at those numbers and that I’m also free from distractions.

Success > Failure

Here’s where the success comes in. Since I took the time to re-work my finance processes so that they were much more accurate, I now have more time to focus on the aspects of my job that I really enjoy. I still have to do my projections and reconcile spreadsheets, but I have much more confidence in their accuracy. My SQL training has allowed me to build functional databases that are more accurate than what I had been using. If I hadn’t made the error, I would still be spending extra time on that part of my job.

We all make mistakes and we all fail at times. The outcome is entirely dependent on what you do with it. If you use failure to leverage future success, no opportunity will ever be a wasted one.


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