Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Author challenges you to change the way you look at failure

I usually carry a book with me to appointments so I have something to read other than stale copies of "Highlights" magazine.

But when I took out my copy of Ralph Heath’s book "Celebrating Failure: The Power of Taking Risks, Making Mistakes and Thinking Big," I got a funny look from my hairstylist … and in the waiting room at the doctor’s office.

While the title does sound a bit self-helpy, this book is geared toward anyone who has to take creative risks. The author is promoting the idea that not only is it OK to fail, making mistakes in business should be applauded.

"Celebrating Failure" (Career Press, 2009, $14.99, 189 pp.) gives kudos to corporate risk-takers and fearless generators of "the big idea."

Heath’s not exactly giving carte blanche to go out there and screw up in the work place. He is suggesting that people are empowered by leadership, and that taking "big idea"-type risks is part of the process.

Funny thing is (or maybe not so surprising at all, considering this chap’s can-do attitude), the failures he mentions in the book seem wildly insignificant to the successes.

One of Heath’s big ideas is described in a chapter called "Anaerobic Activity." He talks about how employees at his former company, Ovation Marketing in La Crosse, Wisc., were encouraged to work out. The company even paid for their health club memberships and encouraged employees to work out before or after work, during lunch or anytime they could fit it into their schedules. The only "rule" was the employees were asked to put in an honest day’s work.

After a time, the company stepped up the effort by encouraging employees to do a "stretch" event, such as a road race, and actually paid those employees $250 for the successful completion of that event.

"Providing a physical outlet for stress is the best dollar-for-dollar investment a leader can make in his or her company. Rip off a successful program such as the one I mentioned, or invent one of your own," Heath writes.

Another kind of "out there" idea he championed is to help employees who wanted to leave the firm find a new job.

"In one instance, an associate wanted to work in an area that we could not offer. Providing a job reference for him during his search made an outstanding impression on the new company’s human resources department. It also demonstrated to the new company that this was an above-board, open and honest person who had such a great relationship with his current employers that, when he told them he was looking for a different career, they wanted him to succeed to the extend that they helped him in the search and gave him a stunning job recommendation."

The premise for this was pretty basic: Heath didn’t want someone working for his company who would be happier elsewhere. Although Ovation had very low turnover, there was some.

"There are too many opposing forces to keep everyone 100 percent happy, year in and year out," Heath writes. "Sometimes it’s just time to move on."

Every chapter includes "insights" at the end — things to work on; tips for success.

Former president of Ovation Marketing, an ad agency, Heath writes, "In some ways, analyzing failure is even tougher than stepping up and taking risks, but if you can master analyzing your failures as easily as you roll out of bed, you can make huge improvements in the way you execute your work."

Heath, in addition to being an author is currently managing partner of Synergy Leadership Group, also based in La Crosse, Wisc.

I was not surprised — even in this short book — to find a "postmortem" chapter in which Heath asked for readers’ help as to how to improve "Celebrating Failure." He wants to incorporate the feedback into the writing of his second book, which he’s tentatively named "Thoughtful Leadership."

"One of the basic premises of this book is to encourage you, the reader, to analyze whatever you do in life to continuously improve," he writes.

I’ll leave you with a quote from basketball star Michael Jordan that Heath includes in his book:

"I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times, I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed."

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