The College Admissions Scandal And March Madness: Similar Lesson, Different Results

As a father of three, who has led companies with teams ranging from 25 people to more than 100,000, the recent college scandal has been on my mind. I’ve found myself questioning: “When did people stop expecting to have to earn things?” When did parents, or CEOs for that matter, think they were doing anyone any favors by serving up un-earned victories on a silver platter — have we forgotten the value of failure?

Prepare your team for the path, not the path for your team! (The original quote is “prepare the child for the path, not the path for the child,” but it applies as aptly to your business team)

According to a college counselor quoted in a recent issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, “People used to talk about helicopter parents. These days, the term is ‘curling parents,’ a reference to the Olympic sport. Parenting, in other words, is no longer about hovering over one’s children. It’s about sweeping problems out of their way.”

I’ve often wrestled with how to support my team without shielding them from necessary failures, or, becoming what I now think of as a “curling executive.” Like these parents, the CEO’s job is to help their team of people to succeed. So right off the bat, you are heading into curling territory. That is your job after all, to empower all of these people to be successful so your company can hit its targets and grow. But there is a danger in making things too easy for your team; shielding them from the sting of failure. If you are sweeping every problem out of their way, your team will never have an opportunity to step up. Often, the best way to learn is by failing.  As CEO, you have to let go of the reigns and let your team make mistakes and experience failures to grow. If you can’t do this as the CEO, you are in the wrong job.

Cavaliers Rising from the Ashes

Virginia’s March Madness victory perfectly exemplifies the success one can achieve by failing with dignity, learning from that failure, and applying hard work to attain future success. Last year the Cavaliers became the first No. 1 seed in NCAA Tournament history to lose to a 16-seed, but this year in an unparalleled turnaround they won the tournament with an 85-77 overtime win over Texas Tech. Ever since last year’s painful loss, Coach Tony Bennett never ran from the failure and he didn’t sweep in front of his team. He never showed his frustration when reporters asked about it and he never shielded his players; allowing them to take media interviews themselves about the defeat. The entire team embraced the failure and learned from it, and a year later they are national champions.

Failure, the Secret Ingredient to Success

As a business leader how do you achieve the right balance?  Sure, you should prepare your team for the path, but to grow, your team is going to have to experience some failures. If you aren’t innovating and pushing the limits so far that you fail from time-to-time, your business will not scale or grow. As Mario Andretti said, “If everything seems under control, you’re not going fast enough.”

We all learn a lot more, a lot faster, from our failures than our successes. In the organizations I ran, we had a 90/10 rule.  We could deliver on 90% of our business initiatives, but 10% was unknown and that was what drove the business forward and helped us innovate and learn, largely through trying something different and not being afraid to fail.

What you don’t ever want to do is to smooth the path so much that a bump in the road will completely derail your team emotionally and professionally. So what do you do as a business leader to help support your team’s growth without becoming a curling executive who is making things too easy for them?

Fail Forward. Force employees to get out of their comfort zone and encourage them to take risks. Reinforce this by rewarding failed attempts. Never punish someone for making a well thought through, calculated mistake. I’ll never forget when my team literally lost a client’s seven figure bonus. Luckily, I had a great boss who never rubbed our noses in it or suggested he lost confidence in the team. He just focused on the corrective action and moved forward, never mentioning it again. It was an incredible trust building experience. He could have completely undermined our self-confidence, destroyed our motivation, and left the entire team second-guessing their every move. Instead, he reinforced the admiration we all had for him and earned the team’s loyalty.

Everything in Moderation. Teach your people how to behave in victory and defeat. In business, there will be wins and losses. No one should ever act like they’ve never done this before. Celebrate, but do it in moderation. When you lose a deal, quickly figure out why, take the lessons learned, and then forget about it. Watching March Madness this year, I’ve seen winners act like fools and losers cry on national television, covering their heads in shame or running to the locker room because they lack the emotional maturity and perspective to line up and congratulate the opposing team. A little emotion can be part of a passionate outlook, but your team needs to understand that they should never allow the highs to be too high or the lows too low.  Remember this, even after winning his school’s first championship the year following a humiliating defeat, Bennett told his team in the locker room, “promise me you’ll remain humble, don’t let this change you.”

Pay for Performance, Not Reputation. Make sure your people know that their professional reputation and college degrees might have gotten them the interview, but all that matters now is performance. They need to understand that in business it’s about the impact they are making TODAY for the company. Resting on their laurels will only end with them getting a very disappointing bonus, or no bonus at all.

Be like Bennett and the Cavaliers 

Failure is a universal experience that most people can only appreciate in hindsight. It is human nature to try to avoid it at all costs. But what is interesting, is that everyone seems to have a story about a failure that was a turning point in their life. We eventually all come to appreciate that all of those failures were stepping stones to eventual success. We’ll never know if the Cavaliers would have gone as far if they’d had a more respectable showing in 2018. But we do know that Bennett showed his team how to handle a devastating set back with dignity and that they exhibited the character and grit to rise from the ashes and win the 2019 National championship.

So don’t help your team take the easy path to unearned victories. Give your people the independence to make their own mistakes and encourage them to handle failure with dignity, learn from it, and work hard to get through it.  Doing this will ensure that the failures are never permanent!

Read more: Which School Has Most Fortune 500 CEOs?: Not Harvard – It’s Wisconsin