Failure is almost always spoken about in the past tense. That creates an artificial safety net. There isn’t true vulnerability in that. Love this article (“Opening Up About Startup Failures and Vulnerability”) in “First Round” that goes into it. Read on.
Leaders, entrepreneurs, founders and others many times open up and share their failures ONLY after they are successful. But does that really help others who are in the midst of struggling? Founder Jeff Wald shares what it means to get raw and vulnerable about failure in the “present tense.“
“CHALLENGE #1: GETTING VULNERABLE BY MAKING IT PERSONAL”
“Failure’s become trendy. We live in a culture of innovation and pushing envelopes, which requires failure,” Wald says. “But I’d draw a distinction between failure and vulnerability. We’ve confused the idea of putting failure out into the market as making yourself vulnerable, when it isn’t. Talking about how your startup didn’t work or how your product fell flat isn’t the same as digging into how that made you feel or how you failed specifically as a leader — there’s a degree of separation there. You actually need to put yourself out there.”
Here’s the difference between talking about failure and getting truly vulnerable: Vulnerability is necessarily personal while failure is not. Don’t conflate the two.
Sharing tales of startup failures, market defeats and company losses is not necessarily an exercise in true vulnerability, especially when there’s a safety net of follow-on success to fall back on. “I only got comfortable mentioning Spinback after there was a successful end to that story, when there was no downside for me,” he says. “Given where I am now, everyone automatically views the failure as a stepping stone to that success. So even though I’m more forthcoming about it, talking about the company going under doesn’t really make me vulnerable. It’s an abstract layer, a discussion in which I’m still shielded. Talking about the depression that went along with it and the inability to cope with the failure — that’s a little bit more down the road of vulnerability.”
FAILURE AS A TEACHER: TACTICS FOR EXTRACTING THE LESSONS
Failure has been an invaluable teacher for Wald, but only because he put in the time to excavate its lessons. “Failure can be something that happens to you, or it can be something you learn from. But that doesn’t happen through osmosis, it takes a lot of concentrated effort and dedication to unearth the takeaways,” he says.
For Wald, moving past the notion that his failure defined him ultimately required professional help. And something he’d once scoffed at — working with a coach. When first approached with the idea, he wasn’t too receptive. “One of the WorkMarket board members took me on a walk and said, ‘We think you need to get a coach’ and I said, ‘I think you need a coach,’” Wald says. The board member, however, made it clear that the suggestion wasn’t optional.
“At the time I was more focused on proving that I was right as opposed to being effective. I was very emotional and volatile. There were board meetings where I would sit in the corner with my arms crossed, hoodie up, and not say anything,” he says. “There were other times where I threw things — sometimes tables and chairs. I was an asshole. I wasn’t giving off the impression that I could provide the leadership that a growing and transforming company needs.”
Wald reluctantly went through the process of finding a coach, determined to do the bare minimum to satisfy his board and nothing more. “I certainly planned to blow it off,” he says. But just as Wald needed to connect with fellow founders to get a better context for his work, it took a coach who had a similar career path, and thus more relevant context, to realize how helpful an outside perspective could be. “I met with people that had clinical backgrounds in coaching, but I knew from my own makeup that I needed somebody that had sat in my chair before. I was introduced to someone who had been incredibly successful in the startup world first and then went back to become a coach.”