Craig Springer on How to Navigate Failures


“As leaders, our responses to mistakes will shape the futures of our teams,” said Craig Springer, executive director at Alpha USA, at Leadercast Live 2019. “A healthy culture rises or falls on how we handle our mistakes.” 

The good news, according to Craig, is that mistakes can result in stronger teams. How do we harness our blunders in ways that propel us forward and result in growth?

Craig's 3 Culture-Building Steps for Managing Mistakes:

1. Create a culture of radical responsibility. Take ownership of the areas in which you went wrong instead of deflecting or transferring blame. When failures occur, ask yourself, “What’s mine to own first?” Often, this has a domino effect where team members own their contributions as well.

2. Create a culture of relational repair. Learn to say “I am sorry” without adding a “but” after it. Instead, add a “for” and be specific. Then go beyond the apology and ask what you can do to make it right. See if the decision can be reversed or figure out how you can contribute to the solution.

3. Create a culture of rigorous reviews. Use mistakes as opportunities to evaluate your process and get at the “how” to determine what happened. Build a rigorous review of what was achieved and where things went wrong. Confront when needed—don’t hold a blind eye to team members who engaged in bad behavior for the sake of performance. 


Let's jump in and talk about making mistakes and it's partly because I needed a topic where I'm a proven expert, so making mistakes. Naturally, here's a quick sampling from my life—10 year old kid riding bikes with my neighborhood buddies. We pass this sign, it says, "Electric fence. Do not touch." Of course we get off our bikes and stand right in front of that fence. We get in the line, all of us together stick out our hands and start counting, one, two. We looked at each other kind of nervous like, "Are you seriously going to do this?" Three and we grabbed the fence. Do you know what happened? Electricity happened. It worked and it was a huge mistake. 

And my wife, Sarah says this could explain a whole lot about me these days. And she is not talking about super powers either or the time that I had to dismantle our kids' sandbox in our backyard. We had to put the house in the market for sale, one week left before it was going to hit the market. Where do you put all that sand? I had absolutely no idea until I found the window well frames around my basement windows and I thought, "Oh, I can just dump all this sand down these window wells." I got the job done, went inside. It rained for about a week. 

One day before the house went on the market, I go downstairs into our finished carpeted basement to three inches of flooding. I had clogged the drains of our basement foundation with sand. That was a big mistake, a huge mistake. My wife, Sarah says this can explain a lot about me these days.

Or just getting a little bit deeper, sometimes they struggle with raising my voice with my kids when they drive me nuts. Or sometimes they struggle with subtly powering up over those I lead when they drive me nuts. Or when I'm at one of those difficult leadership moments, sometimes they freeze. I just have absolutely no idea which way to go. And I might seem a little bit fit, but I'm telling you I am inches away from spending the afternoon on the couch with a bowl of nachos covered in Rotel cheese. Any other Rotel fans here? Yes, of course. 

Well, I share this because I make mistakes and we are after a healthy team culture and listen to this. Healthy culture rises or falls not on whether we make mistakes but on how we handle the mistakes we make, it's pure and simple. And as leaders, our response to the mistakes that are within our organizations will create a critical crossroads that will shape the future of our teams. 

A mistake mishandled in our team can be become toppling to a towering giant. Just look at Enron, just look at Lehman Brothers. Or the flip side is true as well. Mistakes handled with care, it can become like oil in the engine of our team's growth and forward momentum and progress. It can become like a fractured bone but it heals with more strength than before the injury. 

But here's a universal problem. Admitting we make mistakes is fibrously opposed to who we are. And I am not talking about generic, fluffy, you know, mistakes were made. I'm talking about specific clear acknowledgement that there was a wrong turn or a wrong behavior that is just tough to do. 

There is a scientific term for a person who has unique difficulty admitting they make mistakes. You know what it is? Leader. That's right. I mean, leaders we're supposed to be clear on the vision and resilient in tough times and strong in communication and discipline and crisp on judgment and all the rest. And mistakes, I mean those are problems. We don't introduce problems, right? We bring solutions.

And so everything in our leadership bones just cringes at this whole concept of making and then admitting that we make mistakes, but we cannot hide from reality. I make mistakes. You make mistakes. We all make mistakes. And if we pretend otherwise, well, nothing healthy and strong ever grows in the dark except for truffles and mushrooms. But besides those things, organic health and strength requires the light. And so if we keep mistakes hidden in the proverbial darkness, so to speak, of our organizations, they're only going to have more power over us to perpetuate problems and do unintended damage on our teams and our team cultures. And so we are after the health and the strength and the growth that comes from handling mistakes well. How do we do it? 

So let's jump into the three keys of mastering mistakes. Here's the first key. Coach Sean McVay of the LA Rams walked into his defeated team's locker room after handing over to the title of Super Bowl 53 to the Patriots. Some Patriot's fans here. Might be some Rams fans too. And he was probably thinking to himself, I would've been at least, "I don't want the general manager to pin this on me," right? This was a critical crossroads moment that was going to shape the future of his team. I don't want people to think it's my fault. I only have two seasons under my belt. The youngest head coach in the NFL. I don't want the general public to put this on me. I want to uphold my reputation. 

And so he had every option available at his fingertips. He could've said, you know, this was the offense's fault. They didn't capitalize on every opportunity. Actually, no, no. It was the defense. They didn't predict the Patriots' strategy. Actually, it was the assistant coaches. They didn't prepare the special teams well. You know, actually the refs made some bad calls. And you know what? The guys just let the morale fizzle on the team. He could have sown perpetual blame and deflection and avoidance into the culture of his teams at this moment. 

And then you play out what would have happened. The teams would have gotten back together. Next season would have been watching a game films and just play it out. The offense will be pointing at the defense who mess up. The defense at the assistant coaches, the assistant coaches at the refs, and who knows what the refs would be saying. That would have been a house divided, stuck in mediocrity with no power to overcome their let down. 

But that is not what happened. Instead, at that critical crossroads moment, Coach McVay said these words. He said, you know, "I got out coached. I didn't do nearly good enough for our football team." And instead of blame cascading through the layers of his organization, ownership began to take root. Ndamukong Suh the defensive star of team said, ''Actually, no, no, no, no. It wasn't the coach.'' He said, ''Defense are supposed to win championships. We didn't do enough.'' Suh said, "There's no question." The offense said, ''No, no, no. This is on us.'' And Dante Fowler, another one of the key players on the team said of Coach McVay. "He told us honestly, it felt like he could have done better," but Fowler said, "I felt like I could have done better.''

Now I'm not making any predictions here, but at that critical mistake making crossroads moment that would shape the future of his team, Coach McVay implemented the first key to mastering mistakes. He was creating a culture of radical responsibility, radical responsibility. Blaming, blame shifting, avoidance, covering up, deflecting, you name it, these will become the innate culture of every teammate at every level of the organization unless and until a leader does differently. Why? Because as leaders, we set the cue for the culture we want to create, you know this. 

Think about the very simple act of timeliness. We want our teams to show up on time and we know that we have to set the example and show up on time ourselves. What happens though when a leader shows up a few minutes late to a meeting with a direct report? I mean, do we begin living by a different set of superiority rules? I know it seems small, but this is actually a culture-shaping moment for the team. And it's why I've made an agreement with my team where I say, ''Listen, if you show up late to a meeting, then you have to own it, apologize to the team.'' And I've shown late to meetings with the whole team or even a direct report and I've had to stand in front of the team and say, ''Listen, I'm sorry. I said I'd be here at 1:00. I wasted some of your time. Forgive me.'' 

And I know I'm not trying to get militant about this. It's just that these little moments begin to shape the culture of our team. I had a teammate recently who missed it big on this kind of widespread project, you know, missed some goals, missed some deadlines. And at first, embarrassingly I was stewing. Thankfully privately though, I'm thinking, "Oh, they're not good enough." You know, "They don't care enough. They're not talented enough, I'm going to have to reset the situation or reset this person." And thankfully, before I held their feet to the fire, I caught myself and I asked this question. I said, ''If I'm going to create a culture of radical responsibility, I have to ask what's mine to own first?'' That's the question, what's mine to own? Because that person was the point leader of the project, yes. But I was over that person as a leader over the entire operation. And so I must've contributed something. 

And so I met with some of the departments and debriefed a little bit and I began to find out, you know, there weren't crystal clear expectations at every step along the way of this project. There wasn't a clear set of project management systems that we'd agreed on that we were going to implement for this project. That employee who was point leading had some training gaps in what they knew and what they didn't know. And there were times when I was just too distant as a leader to provide any real feedback or midcourse re-direction. 

I'm thinking, you know, expectations and training and successful project management systems. These are my responsibility as a leader. And so I sat down with that teammate and I said, ''Listen, we missed it big on this project and you were the point leader. But I've recognized, you know, I have some things to own in this. You know, I didn't set clear expectations. I didn't provide some training that you needed. And I realized you didn't know it through that list,'' you know, on and on and on. 

And instead of that defensiveness that comes from sort of a confrontational conversation, I got willingness. He said to me, "Oh, Craig, let me thank you so much for acknowledging that. I was feeling some of that tension along the way. I didn't really know how to bring it up, but even so, I still was the point leader.'' He said, ''You know, I didn't hit the goal. I didn't follow through in the deadlines. I should have come back to you to get clarification, etc.'' And see now, because of radical responsibility is sewn into the culture of this conversation, we're on a seriously strengthened path to greater performance together.

And if we want our teams to take ownership, we have to take ownership. This, by the way, is fantastic marriage and parenting advice. I don't know if you've ever known this. I learned the hard way. You know, I want to point out other people's faults before I acknowledge my own failures, if there's a tense conversation at home. But it frees others to identify their own faults if I begin doing that myself. And it's not that I wanted to take all the blame on myself. I'll still have to hold people accountable. But if, again, if we want others to take ownership as leaders, we have to begin by taking ownership. That's the first key to mastering mistakes, creating culture of radical responsibility. 

Here's the second key. Nations have declared war, couples have gone to divorce court. Friends have ended decades of comradery and business units have siloed and stunted their growth for lack of sharing three simple words—I am sorry. Right? These could be the three most powerful words we could ever learn to communicate. I mean maybe, but maybe not. 

You've received an empty apology. You know how that feels, how vacuous it is. My kids do it. Your kids might do it like, "I'm sorry." And all they really want is to get back to watching their show and do whatever it takes to appease overbearing dad. 

Adults give empty apologies too. We're just way more sophisticated in how we do it. You've probably heard, you know, "I'm sorry you felt that way," right? "I'm sorry that bothered you." Really all I'm saying is, "Oh, come on, get over it. Don't be so small minded. Like move on already." Or again, mistakes were made. I don't even know what that means. If we're going to master mistakes and recover stronger from them, we're going to have to create this culture of relational repair, radical responsibility and relational repair.

This means, and forgive me for being so simple, knowing how to give a good old fashioned effective apology. And I'm guessing that most of us from kindergarten all the way maybe through an MBA program or even a doctoral program, have never taken a single course in what it looks like to how to apologize effectively. We've just picked up that skill or more likely deficiency along the way and how we've been treated maybe by another boss or by a spouse or by a parent. 

But in leadership with the absence of effective apologies within our teams, resentments will grow, culture will begin deteriorate, suspicions will build, work performance will suffer. We cannot achieve our mission without real time relational repair happening all along the way because we're just relationally scraping against one another every single day. 

So humor me as I give a quick apology training crash course for leaders in just these next few moments. We have to learn to add to those three simple words, "I am sorry," three additional letters F-O-R. "I'm sorry for" and we get specific about what happened and in that we're taking ownership for what happened and the upsetting impact that it likely had on the other person. 

So here's some examples. I'm sorry for showing up late. I said I'd be here at 1:00. I realized that costs you some time and effort and it was kind of insensitive to you. Like that's a good apology. I acknowledged the experience the other person had, validate it, and I own the upsetting effect about it. "I'm sorry for belittling your idea to the team yesterday. I shut down a constructive dialogue that you wanted to have and it was kind of disrespectful to you." Or, "I'm sorry for not listening to you intently. I made that conversation all about myself and my own opinions and it wasn't able to fully hear where you're coming from." Always add the for. It validates the other's experience. It leads to the relational repair that we're aiming at. It softens the tension and it brings ownership into the apology. 

Now we can still cause an empty apology at this point by adding three additional letters, B-U-T, right? I'm sorry for getting back to you late, but you got back to me late last week. I'm sorry for not listening to you. Well, but I mean you were kind of talking for a long time and I had some other important stuff I had to really get to. I'm sorry for missing that deadline, but you did set it unreasonably to begin with. So there wasn't really possibility to hit it. 

Adding the B-U-T it destroys an apology. You are trying to make a repair attempt and instead it's just making excuses. It's deflecting blame onto the other person or onto another circumstance or another person. I want to make this so simple to remember. Okay, you ready for this? Never show your "but" when apologizing. You won't forget that. Words in all are helpful however, until a tangible course correction occurs, it can still be an empty apology. We have to take a next step. 

And so I remember an apology I had to make with one of our regional teams. I was consolidating some of our finances, centralizing our budget. It really did make great business sense. I just made a rookie move, didn't involve those who are most impacted by the decision in the decision-making process. Now I've learned from that. I do better now, but it was going to cost me a lot of trust, a lot of morale and ultimately sort of the performance of our team. 

So I had to go back and make an effective apology. And it was going to include, "I'm sorry for." But the next step I needed to address is, what can I do to make it right? This is where the tangible course correction had to come in. And so I met with those teams and I just said, ''Listen, I'm sorry for not including you in the decision-making process. I made a mistake. You had so much experience and important feedback and I didn't bring it to the table. I devalued you and I realize this had a great impact on your job." And that's the, "I'm sorry for.'' I didn't add any buts. And then I said, ''Listen, I'd like to make it right. Can we rewind this decision? We'll go back to the discussion table together and we'll try to form a conclusion with consensus. Now I might not be able to involve all your input, but we'll do our best and we'll build the decision together.'' And that had a great impact on our team culture. Again, instead of defensiveness, I got willingness and openness. 

And some years back, the organization I led, we were unfortunately at sort of this critical cultural moment. We take what we call a staff engagement survey every single year. We're trying to get under the hood of our culture and then we build an action plan on cultural improvement from that. Some years back were critical lower trust, lower morale, lower impact of our teams. Just this year by embedding these concepts of responsibility, relational repair, and then this third one, which I'll mention in a second. We have now been categorically assigned a flourishing team culture. We use this organization called the Best Christian Workplace and I'm so thankful for that. We don't always get it right. 

Third key to mastering mistakes is to build a rigorous review, radical responsibility, relational repair, rigorous review. In our drivenness to hit the bottom line of growth you know, we know that we have to review performance against goals, against what was achieved. We all do this. We all know how to do this effectively. 

Maybe you've seen where this begins to break down. A teammate is driven after these goals and they just get steam roller arms or sharp elbows along with every other teammate along the way and we hold a blind eye to them because they're hitting the sales target. Or another teammate is holding rigid to the policies or the inflexible timelines and they're brash and rude and insensitive to others and you just think, who wants to be a part of these teams? Who wants to go to work with those teammates every single day? They're infusing tension into the system. You see, if we sacrifice the right culture on the altar of performance gains, in the end we achieve neither. We just know too much these days about the impact that the right culture has on the performance and the bottom line of our teams. 

And so if we want to build a healthy team culture that has the wherewithal to recover from mistakes and relational friction, we'll have to build a rigorous review of both the what was achieved and then the how it was achieved, what and how, what and how. We're great at measuring the what. We need to know how the behaviors impacted those around them. How did this person leave awake or not in our culture? And this can be tough to do.

So we've been very explicit about this in the organization I lead. We've created what I call these staff operating values. This is just getting at the how, their behavioral values. We expect our teammates not only to achieve the what the performance goals, but we expect them as well to achieve the how, the behavioral goals and values. 

So twice a year on their performance reviews, we do the what and then we add these prewritten how values. They all know what they are. I'm only going to share one example with you. The value is humility, and we're very explicit. I pulled this straight off of our performance form. This is the value we're holding people accountable to. We are appropriately confident, yet free of pride or arrogance when things go well. Appropriate credit is given to others. When things go wrong, responsibility is taken. We do not seek to blame circumstances or other people for setbacks and failures. We remain open to constructive feedback and new ideas and regularly self-evaluate to improve both our work and ourselves. What and how, what and how. We need rigorous reviews if you want to build a healthy team culture. 

And as I close, our Leadercast friend Dr. Henry Cloud said it perfectly of building team culture. He said, ''We get what we create or what we allow.'' And so if we allow mistakes to rewrite our team's culture and infuse blame and tension into the mix, our teams will limp. But if we learn how to master mistakes and create a culture of radical responsibility where leaders own what we need to own first and where we set the bar for relational repair, where we say, "I'm sorry for," no buts, "What can I do to make it right?" And where we build rigorous reviews, where we're not just measuring the what was achieved, but we're getting at the how, the behavioral values, then we'll be part of teams that we long to be a part of, teams that can weather this storm of any mistake, teams that will thrive on the backside of any setback, teams that can find new strength and new growth because we'll have learned how to master mistakes. So thank you very much.
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Craig Springer

Alpha USA runs on the simple idea of providing a great meal, a short talk and a meaningful discussion about life and faith over the course of 10 weeks. As executive director, Craig oversees operations in more than 6,000 churches and 4...

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