“Entrepreneurs should become experts at learning from mistakes” Laurence Weinzimmer, co-author, The Wisdom of Failure


Laurence Weinzimmer is the co-author of the bestselling book, “The Wisdom of Failure: How to Learn the Tough Leadership Lessons Without Paying the Price” (see my book review). He is a business advisor to numerous Fortune 100 companies, professor at BradleyUniversity, and author of three books (including ‘Fast Growth’). His work has been translated into over fifteen languages. Laurence joins us in this exclusive interview on cultural factors in dealing with failure, making such learning a lifelong activity, and the importance for startup founders to become experts in learning from failure.YS: How was your book received?

A: The book was received very well. It was ranked #1 on the Barnes and Noble Best Sellers List, #3 on the Wall Street Journal Best Sellers List and # 23 in Publishers Weekly Best Sellers List. I believe it was received so positively because everyone knows that learning from mistakes is valuable. It is difficult to talk about, however, so there has been little discussion up to this point.

YS: Most of the case studies in your book feature US/European companies. What are your findings with regard to failures in other parts of the world like Asia?

A: While I do not have research on Asian countries and mistake tolerance, anecdotally, I would imagine that in some Asian countries, where "saving face" is an important cultural attribute, admission of mistakes could be more difficult compared to Western countries.

YS: What is the connection between culture and acceptance of failure? Is the US culture more suited to such open learnings from failure, as compared to taboos and unacceptability perhaps in Europe and Asia?

A: Yes, US culture is more open to admission of mistakes than some other countries. In some parts of Northern Europe and many parts of Asia, the taboos of failure are more prevalent. However, in other parts of the world, such as parts of South America, as well as certain Mediterranean countries, the cultures are more open to discussing mistakes compared to the US.

YS: What are the typical failures entrepreneurs and startup founders make as they scale up their company from a small unit to a large firm? How can these challenges be addressed?

A: There has been a lot of research that indicates entrepreneurs face two big challenges as they transition from small-to-large companies. The first is the inability to delegate responsibility. When a company was small, an entrepreneur can do everything and control everything. But as a company starts to grow, the entrepreneur needs a different set of skills to manage the company. Many entrepreneurs do not have this skill sets and instead continue to try to do everything themselves. We refer to this in our chapter on Hoarding.

The second common issue with entrepreneurs is that they lose strategic direction. They became successful for one activity and then spread resources too thin and start to have liquidity problems. We address this issue in our chapter on Saying Yes to No.

YS: How should leaders strike that delicate balance between ‘Stick to your vision’ and ‘Adapt to a changed world’?

A: As long as leaders focus on the needs or solutions that they are fulfilling in the market rather focusing on the products or services they offer, they can strike a balance between vision and change. Will it seems like a very subtle difference. However in reality it is a very different way of looking at your markets.

YS: Is there such a thing as the ‘ideal age’ to learn from failure? How should people keep themselves open for such ‘failure fables’ later in life?

A: There is never an ideal age to learn from failures. In some of our interviews, leaders indicated they are always looking for ways to learn from Failure. Jerry Shaheen, former Group President at Caterpillar Inc and board member of Ford Motor Company, told us that great leaders learn from their own mistakes, as well as from others’ mistakes, for their entire career, not just at the beginning of their careers.

YS: What is your current field of research? How role do academics play in working with industry in documenting such lessons from failure?

A: My current field of research investigates the efficacy to which cultures impact financial performance. The foundation for this book came from this research, when I was testing the impact of cultures that were mistake tolerant on firm performance. After interviewing almost 1,000 leaders across 21 industries, I found a direct correlation between this cultural attribute and firm-level performance.

Generally academics publish research findings in academic journals. Then the best way to communicate findings to industry is to write a book to a general audience.

YS: What is your next book going to be about?

A: I have not decided yet, but it will be related to effective organisational culture and its impact on financial performance.

YS: What is your parting message to the startups and aspiring entrepreneurs in our audience?

A: Many of the mistakes made in large businesses are good sources of information for entrepreneurs. However, it becomes more important for entrepreneurs to learn from mistakes because a mistake for a large business may provide a setback, but the same mistake for a small business can destroy the entire business. So entrepreneurs should become experts at learning from mistakes, not only from other small businesses, but also from leaders in big businesses as well.

[ Follow YourStory.in’s research director Madanmohan Rao at http://twitter.com/MadanRao ]


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