6 December 2010

How many people can say that they never make mistakes? I occasionally joke with myself saying, “with all the errors I have made over the years, by now I should technically be the smartest person in Europe.” Of course I am not and my own ability disproves my theory.

You don’t have to make mistakes to learn. The smartest amongst us learn very quickly to avoid pitfalls. However, there is no better way to solidify in your mind, when you get that inevitable thought, “well, I never want to do that again.”

Yet even though it is a tried and tested method of learning and an important part of our evolution process, I know as a business person that we live in fear of making mistakes, both our own and others around us.

An an MD of a company depending on the severity of an error,  mistakes can cost huge sums of money and even worse. How you deal with people making mistakes, in my opinion, determines your character and your integrity as a leader or manager? I have had to question my antics at times when I reflect over my career. Nowadays, I am deliberately adopting a much more relaxed style. I believe that as your ability to deal with adversity develops, so does your character.

For me personally, 2010 has been an amazing year. Not for the financial results of UKFast; we’ve done well but we could have done a great deal better, but that’s hindsight. If I’d known even a year ago what I know now, I’d be in a much better place financially but the lessons I have learned far outweigh any financial disposition. The lessons I have learned in 2010 shaped me as a man both at home and at work.

Warren Buffet took 18 years to make his first million. Now I am not comparing myself to Buffet. He is a one of a kind genius. However, it does give us all hope. Think about it.

What went wrong for the first 18 years of Buffet’s business life? Probably a bit of everything. It’s not easy generating cash from a zero start. I know; UKFast started with just Gail and myself in a spare bedroom with a telephone and plain good old fashioned British ambition. One of the lessons I learned then was to get an office quickly, or I’d have ended up with 8 children and very little of anything else!

Back on Buffet’s journey, something inside of him must have changed. A light bulb moment. Because after those 18 years of practicing, he switched into overdrive and damn near everything from then on in turned to gold. Suddenly, he had an understanding.

This sort of magic doesn’t happen very often and sadly if it does, it is usually in people’s twilight years. I remember driving my first Ferrari thinking, why didn’t I have this when I was 20?

The simple truth is that I’d not got the experience, knowledge and confidence to take control of my life. I’d not made enough mistakes! Maybe that’s not quite true. I’d made plenty of mistakes, I just hadn’t started learning from them at this stage in my life.

Nowadays, with everything I have learnt so far from both my own experiences and those of my friends, it is so much easier. What I am learning is that we over-complicate everything. The simplest formulas often produce the greatest return on investment.

I have also identified that making money and living your life to the full are directly linked and actually most people don’t fulfill their ambition for fear of making mistakes which is ironic when you consider it’s the people who just plunge in head first that learn the quickest whether its the hard way or not.

Schools and bureaucracy discourage people from making mistakes and actually it’s the one thing that is absolutely essential if you want to reach the heights of success. By having too many rules, we inhibit growth. Rules result in punishment, punishment removes the fun and freedom to make mistakes, and this directly inhibits growth.

I have learnt that the more freedom you give people, the harder they seem to work and the faster they develop. And if they make mistakes, (because they will) what do you do?

There is only one answer to this question, give people support, give them a hug, but never criticize. The size of the cock up will be directly linked to the feeling of pain and remorse they will be experiencing regardless of whether you mention it or chastise them or not. In fact, this is something worth investing real effort in. I have seen my team develop far quicker than before and actually this is true of my 2 little girls too. A friend of mine who works in the same office commented on our team “bouncing” and that they stood out a mile from others in the building. The only thing I have consciously changed is deliberately giving people more freedom.

Now, I am not saying completely throw caution to the wind and take your eye off the ball and remove all controls. Merely encourage your team to think things through and ask for help on the tricky decisions. This will help minimise the risk of error and when people mess up, remind them of all the great stuff they have done and bite your tongue and not the hand that feeds you.

Ghandi famously said, “Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes.”

As your team develops, if you are doing a good job you will wake up one day and you will be surrounded by awesome people who genuinely care about your every need and your sense of responsibility is suddenly extended to the lives of not only colleagues but the wives, girlfriends, husbands, kids and suddenly you are rich, but not necessarily in the way you might have planned at the outset of your journey. Rich from all the experiences, you will need a lifetime to pass on. And here lies the problem. With only half my life left, I have an impossible task ahead.

So, inevitably we all have to learn a great deal of our lessons ourselves, which makes sense really. It’s nice to hear opinions, yet how many times have you gone and made the mistake anyway. It’s that freedom that Ghandi talks about that is truly inspiring. If you can have the courage to let go or rather let things go, you will ultimately get the greatest freedom of all.

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