Beyond the Build

Customer Relationships

Mistakes: Business’ Cleansing Fire

As 2009 comes to a close, I have thought about what I could have done better, the mistakes I made, and the wins we achieved. To me, we always learn more from our failures than from our wins. Winning makes us think we are smarter than we might really be.

Never confuse success with a rising tide.

Two months ago, I ended an initiative I launched for our company in 2007. It will cost me somewhere in the neighborhood of $175,000—hopefully a little less depending on any residual benefits. I thought I covered all the bases, asked the right questions and set things up for success. In the end, it was a bust. Fortunately, I took action to correct things and have moved on to other trails. I must say that earlier in my business life, I didn’t have the courage to end this kind of initiative and admit I’d made a mistake. That makes failure even more costly.

The good news is that I have made some better choices during this same time to balance out the bad judgment. I still wish I had the money back, but not nearly as bad as I did from a hit in the late 80s.

That’s right. I’m a member of the Million Dollar Loss Club. That was really stupid. You know the saying, “Pride comes before the fall?” Well I certainly went with my ego on that call. I came away with firsthand evidence that age and wisdom will sometimes outperform youth and energy. With that said, I’m of the opinion that it’s not a matter of what you lose, if you can come back. The lessons taken away are more important. To grow from a negative experience, you have to be brutally honest with yourself. Otherwise, you’re at great risk of repeating the pattern.

Back when I was a member of the Million Dollar Loss Club, I was in denial. It was like gangrene. First it was in my foot; then it spread to my ankle and leg. Fortunately I had the courage (or maybe I’d be more accurate to say that others “encouraged” me) to cut the loss and save the heart and mind to fight another day. It took an enormous amount of energy to come back, but only in the face of adversity do we grow.

Because of my experience, I hope I’m mature enough to view the mistakes others make in my company as an opportunity for learning. I hope that after they admit fault and take responsibility for their own decisions, they will tell me what they learned and the “workout.” Thanks to the people around here, we will always be looking for better ways to do things. Turning mistakes into growth is just another way to improve as individuals and as a company.

Merrill Stewart Jr.

Merrill Stewart is Founder and CEO of The Stewart/Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham.