I didn’t see it coming.
Friday morning, I greeted the barista, picked up my usual latte, made my way into the office. Just one more day until the weekend — I was feeling pretty darn good.
The first clue was the whispers as I entered the office. “Is she here?”, “Does she know?”
Hmm, someone’s in trouble, I thought, I wonder who it could be…
I carried on with my day. One of the field managers stopped by to talk to me, told me the crews were all pretty “grumpy”. She didn’t say why and the penny didn’t drop. Until it did. Within 30 minutes of my arrival at the office my blood ran as cold as my abandoned latte as I realized what had happened.
I’d made a mistake.
Not just any mistake — a whopper, a titanic, doozy of a mistake.
You see, in my role as Chief Operating Officer, I had a whole load of responsibilities, but none were more important than this one: approving our field personnel’s expense reimbursements through our online banking portal.
It was a time-sensitive task that needed my approval every Thursday no later than 4pm. Every week I was diligent about ensuring this task was completed on time. I did this while on vacation. I did it sick in bed at home. We had field personnel in multiple states that relied on me to complete this one weekly task in order to reimburse them for their field expenses the prior week. These expense reimbursements would range from a few dollars to several thousand.
It was important. And I’d screwed it up.
The previous day had been a slow one and I’d forgotten to process the reimbursements. I had no excuse. I wasn’t particularly busy nor was I caught in meetings. I just forgot. The crews weren’t so much grumpy as they were livid. And who could blame them? Especially since Monday was a holiday!
I’d let them down and I feared that my one mistake negated every other Thursday that I’d put everything through on time, every effort to build good relationships with my staff ruined in one fell swoop.
The importance of damage control.
So I spent the next 8 hours on damage control. After contacting the bank to figure out my options I called each of the 50-something field staff to seek their input on how they wanted to proceed: a) coordinate the delivery of a check by the end of the day; b) wire transfer the funds by 1 p.m. (and reimburse them for the wire fees); or c) process the reimbursement which would have the money in their accounts on Tuesday.
What transpired next was nothing short of a tremendous opportunity.
I truly connected with my employees. These were people I didn’t see every day. Employees that felt abandoned in a remote location, working for a company that didn’t know them very well or the specific field challenges they faced in their work. I talked to almost all of our field employees and heard incredible stories about the impact they were making with our clients and the projects we were working on.
The most frequent comment I heard that day?
It wasn’t complaints about my screw up. It was amazement that not only had a member of the senior leadership team called them personally, but that same leader was openly admitting to having made a mistake!
But to me, this is what true leadership looks like: leading by doing right and placing value on honesty and transparency. It’s leading by example. This was the ideal moment to show our employees the qualities that define our organization. Side note: I did have other senior leaders who disagreed with my approach cautioning me I would be perceived as a weak leader.
I’m not proud of my brief moment of forgetfulness — but I can’t entirely say that I regret it either. Not only did it help me strengthen my relationship with my field staff and allow them to be heard in a way that they hadn’t been before, but it taught me a valuable leadership lesson. It showed me and my team that leaders can be vulnerable and authentic. That leaders should be willing to share their mistakes. And those are the moments in which real connection can occur.
We’ve all made mistakes and I guarantee we’ve all had times when we’ve wanted to run, lie, or hide to cover up what we’ve done. But hiding a mistake prevents true reflection and opportunity for learning. Owning your mistakes and taking steps to put things right — that’s what true leaders do and that’s how you’ll earn the respect and loyalty of your team.
Knowing whether you’re doing the right thing as a leader for you, your organization, and for your team isn’t easy. If you think your team could benefit from guidance or coaching, reach out!