Failing Like a Boss
I once made a Grilled Chicken Sandwich…. and forgot to put chicken in it. I was pitching in during a Grand Opening in South Florida, and the restaurant was alive with motion as team members and I worked shoulder to shoulder. A Front of House trainer on bagging noticed that one of my sandwiches felt off in weight and unwrapped the clamshell to behold my handiwork: a toasted multigrain bun with lettuce, tomato, and nothing else! Epic fail!
At the beginning of my Leadership Consultancy journey, I sought feedback from a Chick-fil-A, Inc. mentor who had spent 14 years selecting Franchise Operators and Support Center Staff. He challenged me “to meet as many Operators as possible, and to get in the restaurant”, believing that real time experience would help me execute my role with excellence. My quest to learn the quick service restaurant business has taken me to kitchens from LA to Florida, and if there's one thing I've had to get accustomed to, it's failure.
Every restaurant seems to have different systems and processes; I have no choice but to get acclimated very quickly: the location of inventory, the footprint of the restaurant, drive-thru layout and flow, even team members' names. What becomes muscle memory for chicken slayers is a constant challenge for me each time I set foot in a new restaurant. It’s the “little things” that trip me up. My lack of experience combined with constant change makes the perfect cocktail for failure, and after volunteering over 50 days in restaurants in less than 3 years, failure has been my constant companion.
At first, failing hurt my ego. Now, I expect failure and see it as a sign of my willingness to learn a new skill. I'm proud to work alongside great people who turn my large and small mistakes into amazing growth opportunities, and I'm sure I've provided them lots of free entertainment along the way. Without any further ado, here is a list of my "greatest hits":
* I created a drive-thru bottleneck for the record books because I was unfamiliar with iPOS. My talents were gently reassigned. That night, I played a million “games” of iPOS simulator in my hotel room to prepare for my next big shot.
*While working on secondary, I neglected to keep up with macaroni and cheese rotation, so we ran out during lunch. It’s like the tears of guests were audible in my head.
* BBQ is BBQ sauce, right? NOPE! I didn't realize the difference between Honey Roasted and Regular, spending half a day mixing them up on bagging before anyone realized. During my break I sampled both, ensuring that I would never make that mistake again.
* I continuously turned off the grills while working machines because of the way I was hanging the grill scrubber. It took what seemed like forever to figure out why. At first our team thought it was an electrical problem… Nope, I was the problem.
* I was kicked off bagging because I forgot a few entrees during the lunch rush. I spent the remaining shift as a runner (in the rain). I’ve never taken so much pride in running.
* I filled the fry shoot to the extremo with no guests to marvel at my handiwork, and just in time for the Corp. walkthrough. I’m pretty confident that I was nominated for additional training in the area of food cost.
*I unpacked a few bags of hash browns in preparation for the lunch rush. Oops. Thankfully my trainer caught my mistake before I dropped them.
*I forgot to slather honey butter on an entire pan of minis before serving them. This one was especially painful to me, because breakfast is my absolute favorite. A whole pan of dry minis could cause a ton of breakfast misery.
*I told two guests that we didn’t offer “Truett’s Special House Dressing” while working at a restaurant in Georgia, as I had never seen it as a menu item. Well, it is. I was wrong, and it's delicious.
I fail A LOT. It’s inevitable. To cultivate the habit of relating to my failures in an intellectual, productive, and learning-rich way, I engage in a process I call failure journaling. I started journaling early in my career and have kept a meticulous online journal since launching Leadership Consultancy as its Founder and CEO. I have hundreds of entries detailing my decisions, conversations, conflicts, commitments... and yes, my failures. They're stored in a private, password-protected journal that I’ve only shared with two Chick-fil-A, Inc. mentors that have guided me along my journey to serve Operators. It’s personal, it's real, and it's one of the best decisions I’ve made. Reading through it, I can trace my growth in the areas of agility, transparency, and self-awareness. Now that I have quite a list, it's amazing to look back on where I've been, what I have learned, and how each experience has helped me grow as a person and as a leader.
By writing this, I hope to encourage professionals, both emerging and seasoned, to develop a failure journaling method that works and make it a regular habit. My way is not the only way, or even the best way. I believe there are many ways that a leader could engage in this meaningful practice and reap the benefits. You could keep a personal website like I do (and use a stellar graphic designer to keep it organized and polished), or just keep meticulous and thorough records in an app, journaling book, Excel Spreadsheet, Word document, calendar, or scrapbook.
To get me started and keep my thoughts organized, I document what I learned from the failure by writing about it using four focus words and selecting a few applicable questions (such as the ones on this list) to ponder in my journal:
Describe the situation and failure exactly.
What would success have looked like?
What specific actions of mine contributed to the issue?
How am I feeling? (And yes, I even use an emotions chart, because one thing I FEEL in the grip of processing a failure is illiterate!!!)
Assess for the fundamental attribution error trap. Have I allowed blame-creep to color my perception of what actually happened? (Let’s reason together, failure and blame usually go hand in hand)
What was the moment I realized something, if anything, had to change?
Did any key people (mentors, colleagues, family members) call me out?
What realization took place?
Did I run my actions through my personal values test?
What changes have I made? What have I done differently since that time?
How did I make it right?
How long did it take to course correct? Was it sudden or gradual?
Did cascading messaging take place? How? When?
How did this experience teach me something about myself? What wisdom is to be learned?
How have I used this experience to help others? How do I share the failure to allow others to learn from my mistake?
What impact did my change in behavior have on my life and relationships?
Have I expressed gratitude to God for the opportunity to grow and learn from the experiences He allowed?
Now that I have my process down, I often introduce the concept of failure journaling to colleagues and clients, advising them to do the same. The most common question I get is: "Can I see some examples?" This makes sense to me; I appreciate it when practical people want to learn through observation. When I first decided to courageously record my worst entrepreneurial nightmares, I also searched for templates to help me get started. Many leaders publicly encourage others to journal failures, many give basic descriptions of their journaling methods, and almost all great leaders credit their failures with later successes and even give tangible examples. I learned all I could through my research, but it wasn't enough for me. What I wanted to see was credible leaders who were willing to pull back the curtain, share in detail their failure journaling methods, and then give concrete evidence of how they used their method to work through real failures in all the messy glory.
Here are some raw and unedited examples of entries from my failure journal. Like I said before, my entire journal is password-protected, and it wouldn't be appropriate for me to share all of it. My failure stories often involve other people, and it is not my job to process other people's experiences or call them out. I've specifically chosen these few examples because they're real, and much higher stakes than messing up someone's chicken sandwich order. Hopefully they can give you a sense of my method in action. From there, how or if you failure journal is up to you.
Regardless of how big or small, blameworthy or praiseworthy your failures are, I believe it is possible to learn and grow wiser from the experience if you're willing to put in the work. When you fail (not IF, WHEN!), muster up enthusiasm and courage to dig in and engage in an emotionally unpleasant and cognitively challenging process of gleaning insight from the experience. Then, step out of your comfort zone and share that wisdom with your team. Success stories are good, but failure stories are even better, especially when intentionally shared within the four walls of your restaurant. Great business leaders, although extremely rare, devote painstaking effort to create a failure culture–embracing failure and highlighting failure stories, using them to their advantage. Sharing failure stories with your team promotes open dialogue, increases psychological safety, and encourages a higher level of team performance. Don't be satisfied until you turn all your lemons into a lemonade enterprise. Glean insights quickly, continuously improve, and appropriately use your mistakes and failure stories as inspiration to drive vision for the future.
Throughout my career in Corporate America, the decade that I spent in the nonprofit sector, and now as the CEO of a business that serves a national brand, I've assembled quite the trophy case of failures. That's right– many people think of proudly displaying their awards and successes as proof of their business acumen. I think of my trophy case as lined with my failures, because of the unique opportunity each gives me to glean wisdom that will help me along my leadership journey. The mindset I've chosen to adopt is based on a quote by Robert Schuller: "What would you attempt, if you knew you could not fail?" I ask myself that question all the time, and then I take it one step further. I ask: "What will I attempt, knowing that although I might fail, I will certainly learn invaluable lessons that will set me up for future success?"