Why your mistakes are even more important than your successes

Published on

July 14, 2021

Written by

Alison Humphries


I interviewed with a client last week to recruit internal staff for her recruitment business. I listened to four interviewees talk us through their successes.

Every one of them, unsurprisingly, glossed over their biography as if the whole thing had been planned in detail from the day they joined the workforce. Rational decisions, a string of successes and a steady, consistent path towards the position they were applying for.

I insisted on two steps that the business owner had not taken previously; the first was taking detailed references. I reckon I have enough experience to make a judgement about the person who gives the reference – and anyway, there’s always something a bit disturbing about someone who hasn’t had any positive contact with their former employer. 

The other was one of my favourite questions. I asked “What big behavioural mistakes did you make, and how have you learned from those mistakes?”

It’s not as easy to gloss over this as answering “What are your weaknesses?” with the cheesy “I work too hard” or “I’m a perfectionist”.

I’m looking for someone who has reflected on their behaviour, and gone on to amend it if appropriate. The reference can back that up.

So let me share with you my five big career learnings.


Moon-shot goals without a plan


This was in my earliest management positions. I painted a picture to my growing team of market domination, riches and respect. In those days I was ready to swallow any slogan like “If you can conceive it, you can achieve it” and that “Managers do things right; Leaders do the right thing”. Certainly, I thought that I could adopt Leader behaviours and just “inspire people to get on with it”. It took me a while to realise that without a plan, follow-up, systems and reward, the dream would remain a dream. 

Boy, have I changed.


Not writing stuff down


Yep, I believed that if someone nodded and agreed in a meeting, then they had completely understood me and could implement it all themselves. I had a couple of embarrassing moments explaining that to my boss at the time. I was obsessed with starting stuff, rather than finishing it, and would rather move on than do the detail.

So initiatives that could have transformed our fortunes seemed to struggle to get off the ground. My clients will tell you that I certainly don’t let that happen now.


The world on my shoulders


I loved it when people called me a “superwoman”. I was extremely driven, working very long hours and doing up to 1000 business miles a week. I was making pots of money for my company. 

And I had four children under 5 at home (actually that was pretty superwomanish, especially when you consider that mat leave was a maximum of 6 months in those days).

Eventually I got taken to A&E with a suspected heart attack. My employer could not believe my work rate – he hadn’t even noticed. I ended up leaving. But, if I had prioritised self-care a bit more, I would be a major shareholder in that company now.


It’s all about the money


Recruiters expect a lot now. Like many people, they expect their work place to offer fun, interesting work, flexible working, a social life, structured development… the list goes on. Back in the 1990s, I thought that if people just earned enough money, they’d put up with stuff (recruiters and candidates alike). 

They won’t. And you will find your business very difficult to scale if you keep giving away more of your profits and can’t keep people.


Living in a bubble


I started my career in a listed company, and it afforded me great opportunities. At a very young age I was managing an office, then a whole company, then national and international teams. I was very successful, but I lived in a bubble.

It was only when I moved that I began to see that things could be done differently, and better. I made a point ever since of always getting my periscope up – reading market data, interviewing competitors, attending networking groups. I even ran one. 

There’s a balance here. Don’t obsess about competitors or try to match everything they do. 

But it does make sense to track a couple of close competitors – their performance and tactics, and read some reputable market data. Don’t be like one of my clients who thought that an average performance of £7k per consultant was fantastic, and had never heard of the Conduct Regulations, IR35 (or the Equality Act, judging by his actions).   

Could your business benefit from some of that learning? Alison provides hands-on, structured and up-to-date business advice on how to build a profitable and authentic business, from start-ups to exit events.     

For specific, actionable business advice and training that gets you results, contact Alison Humphries: alison@recruitmentleadership.co.uk. 

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