Preparing to succeed

I used to drive my kids crazy by frequently quoting the legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, who said, "Failing to prepare is preparing to fail."

I used to drive my kids crazy by frequently quoting the legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, who said, "Failing to prepare is preparing to fail."

I would dredge up this quote whenever they put off studying for an exam or when they waited till Sunday night to do their weekend homework. Which basically happened every week.

For teenage boys, the quote merely served as verification of my utter lameness. But for most working adults, it's a truth that was learned the hard way.

Early in my tenure at Korn/Ferry, we hired a new CEO to help us navigate the wreckage of the dot-com bust. It was a challenging economic time and business was in free-fall. Our new leader had a grand vision to re-energize the firm and he wanted to roll it out globally, with maximum impact.

At the time, we had 90 offices in 44 countries. My department was in charge of the rollout, and we boldly recommended that he host the company's first global webcast. This was a risky bet in 2002, as the technology was still young.

The boss loved the idea - it was state of the art, cost effective, and logistically simple. It also sent a message that we would no longer conduct business as usual. So we set about making it happen.

We spent two intensive weeks drafting scripts and creating presentations. We interviewed vendors and worked with the IT team to implement the global webcast. We planned to produce three live airings: the first in Asia, the next in Europe, and the last one in North America.

Once the presentations were finalized, we began conducting dress rehearsals with senior management. Our point man on the project was my most senior and valued staff member. He's the one who conceived the idea of a webcast and had been our most ardent champion for the event.

After one day of rehearsals, he came to me and said, "I think we ought to videotape these presentations just in case the live webcasts don't work."

I blanched. It had not occurred to me once that the technology might fail. And the backup plan seemed extreme. We would have to videotape four presentations, then create 90 VHS tapes to be sent worldwide. We would also have to contact each office to make sure they had a VCR available to play the tape.

I was inches from telling him to forget it, but then thought "what the hell" and decided it would be best to have a backup.

The day of the event finally arrived. We were broadcasting live from London, and since our first airing was set for Asia, we had to begin at 2am London time, which was 9am in Singapore, and 10am in Tokyo. We huddled in a London conference room at 1:30am where my deputy donned his headphones and began coordinating the launch. At 1:35am, all Asian offices were live and connected, and everything was functioning properly.

By 1:45am, the servers had crashed and it was clear that this webcast was not going to work. So we went with the backup plan and used the videotapes.

Our CEO introduced the tapes via conference call, and aside from a few delays in getting some VCRs to work, the plan went off without a hitch. I did not get fired.

Nor did my deputy and to this day, I credit him for having the sense to prepare for the worst.

The launch failure was nerve racking, but ultimately I learned a very good lesson.

And it reminded me in the deepest way that John Wooden really knew what he was talking about with his famous quote.

Don Spetner has served as CCO for Nissan North America, Sun-America, and Korn/Ferry International. He can be reached at donspetner@gmail.com.

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