Dear Employees, Failure Is An Option

For relentless Type-A CEOs, rejection is usually just another motivator. But not all members of your team experience it that way.

We all experience it when we’re growing up; some of us accept it as part of life, others grow to be averse.


Page through your own personal history: you didn’t make the team, you got turned down at your preferred college, you didn’t get a job offer from the ‘dream’ employer that recruited you, you were passed over for a promotion.

It’s a part of life, and for some of us it’s our “normal,” even a motivator. But, for some of those on our team, it can be a source of anxiety and a potential demotivator that may lead to withdrawal. Not everyone has leather skin! This is about how we can help.

• From my own experience early on: I was chasing a game-changer-size order with a national company. I had no formal sales training, just an unmerited big ego. I called the buyer almost daily to check if the order had been released as promised and I always tried to have ‘openers’ before I got to the question—you know, local sports talk, weather, weekend activities. Clearly, I brought no skills to this interaction and one day the buyer said to me, “Fred, don’t call me no more, I’ll tell you when it’s ready.” I had been rejectedbig time! Devastated, with my oversized ego deflated, I sulked in my office hoping I hadn’t trashed the opportunity.

• In a past life, I was CEO of a great company with an extraordinary team of devoted employees. Our lender gave us trophies for our industry achievements, preferred interest rates and made sure we were part of their regional client group activities including a seat on their advisory board. We were always told that local authority was such that no approvals were ever required by “New York.” And then…New York redlined one of the primary industries we supported and the “locals” were mandated to rein us in.

Our profitable performance continued but…we had been rejected; we got that, we didn’t whine and our CFO recruited a new lender at comparable rates with as much lending capacity as before. We told the local executive we were moving the credit facility and he whined, “I don’t want to be fired; I’ll work closely with you on this”—even though we knew New York now pulled the strings. We handled rejection just fine; he never did come to grips with it.

• When faced with peers who would counterpoint or disagree with his opinions/conclusions, a particular executive would unrelentingly focus not on understanding the others’ positions but instead bore in on why they thought he was wrong. Even when the peers defensively changed subjects, he was obsessive about reverting back to acceptance of his opinions/conclusions. He could not stand the thought of being rejected by his peers and used combative mechanisms to deny them the opportunity, provoking the same fear of rejection in some of them.

Most of us have a good understanding of how the experience of rejection has shaped us.  Creating an environment where its effects can be minimized is the greater challenge. A few approaches to consider:

• Always be timely in your response to initiatives and respectful if deferring action. “Soft landings” tend to keep the door open, hard landings e.g., “no” or no response at all can eventually slam it shut.

• When you’re sending someone into a situation expected to be adversarial, prep him/her for the worse case. “They may throw our proposal in the basket,” “they’re upset with us and may use the meeting to take us behind the woodshed,” “I’ve been through that before, don’t take it personally,” “here are some things I would do.”

• Watch for the signs, especially with folks who were initially open and interactive. Some shut down, while others seem distracted. It’s important for them to verbalize their concerns and just as important for us to help them develop coping skills.

• Don’t rationalize the rejecter’s behavior—e.g., “that’s just him” or “he does that with everyone” doesn’t make anything right. Fix the behavior problem in the offender. Left unchecked, you may end up with more followers than leaders!

As seasoned CEOs, we know how it feels, that it comes with the territory, but not everyone else in our orbit feels the same. Being confronted with rejection from time to time doesn’t make us failed executives nor does it mean a team member is weak. It does, however, provide us the opportunity to help them understand its influence and to create a work environment that minimizes its negative impact.

The personal experience cited above has stayed with me to this day and I use it as a teachable moment for others.

Lesson learned.

Fred Engelfried is Director/Chair of North Coast Holdings, Inc. and its subsidiary Lewis Tree Service, Inc. He has been a member of the board of directors of Lewis for over 20 years, and for 10 years prior to that worked with the company intermittently in various consulting capacities. He also is President of Market Sense Inc., a participative management firm that has served more than 100 regional clients over 35 years.