You made a mistake - admit it

I've made a lot of dumb mistakes over the course of my career and I accept responsibility for all of them. Well, most of them.

I've made a lot of dumb mistakes over the course of my career and I accept responsibility for all of them. Well, most of them.

In 1985 I sent out a media alert for a factory opening with the wrong date on it.

I printed photos for a press conference with Mr. Nakamura's name under Mr. Yamamoto's photo, and vice versa.

I scheduled a breakfast with a Wall Street Journal reporter to give him an exclusive, and then put the story on the wire later that day. After the reporter screamed at me for 20 minutes on the phone, I learned the rules of how to offer an exclusive.

In a speech I'd written for a CEO, I referenced Merce Cunningham and referred to him as a woman. In fairness to me, this was before the Internet, so it wasn't so easy to look him up.

I produced a corporate brochure for Hitachi America in which the chairman's photo was framed in black, which apparently represents a funeral photo in Japan. (What am I, a cultural anthropologist?)

I made an offer to a candidate at an agency I worked for, but panicked after his negative and aggressive response to the salary. So I asked him to hand me back the offer letter, then told him this wasn't going to work out.

Within 48 hours of hiring a certain AE, I knew it was an awful fit. However, I waited about six agonizing weeks before I let him go.

Then there are the times I've gotten in trouble simply because the boss was an egomaniac. One time I scheduled a photo shoot with Fortune for a CEO. When the shoot was over, he angrily called me and said, "Never schedule a photo shoot in the afternoon." When I asked why, he told me that his shirts were wrinkled by the afternoon. The funny thing is that he was right. (Here's a tip - they always are.) When the article appeared, his shirt was indeed wrinkled right around his belt where a few extra pounds were bulging out.

I had a client who insisted I buy a portable fax machine to take to all media events in case of emergency. This was in 1988 and the only portable fax machines I could find - there was no Google then - seemed to belong to the US Army. The same guy insisted that I buy a piece of project management software that NASA used, which cost about $12,000. I'll admit it right here: I never followed through on either request, betting that he'd lose his job before I had to buy the items. I guessed right.

When I interview candidates, I often ask them to discuss a mistake they made and what they learned from it. I also in-quire as to what critics might say about them. The answers I hate the most are "I guess I work too hard" or "I care too much." I like to hear about real mistakes because we all make them. The ability to own up to them and move forward is actually a critical element of success.

When I was 18, I begged my dad for contact lenses. He was reluctant because it was expensive and not covered by insurance. I persisted. He finally relented. Two weeks after buying them, I went canoeing with friends, jumped in the water, and promptly lost a lens. When I came home that night, I told my dad I lost the lens in the bathroom sink while removing it from my eye. As I expected, he wasn't happy. But then he did something I hadn't counted on.

"Let's get the wrench, go up-stairs, and unscrew the elbow pipe to see if it got caught in the trap," he said. I pictured my dad under the sink taking apart pipes to look for a nonexistent contact lens and I finally fessed up. He was beyond pissed.

So now when I screw up, the first person I tell is the boss.

Don Spetner is EVP of corporate affairs at executive recruitment firm Korn/Ferry International.

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