My Best Mistake by Sian Lockwood OBE

| Anna Eaton

You don’t learn to walk by following rules. You learn by doing, and by falling over. Don’t be embarrassed by your failures, learn from them and start again.

Richard Branson

All entrepreneurs make mistakes – all the time. If you are developing something new you need to be prepared to test, fail, change and try again. Those types of mistakes are part of the entrepreneurial process but a ‘best’ mistake seems to me to be something different. For me a ‘best’ mistake is the one from which I learned most – and (in retrospect only!) am most thankful for.

Geoff Mulgan from NESTA introduced me at a recent event as a ‘serial entrepreneur’. It was an alarming introduction but it is certainly true that over my working life I have started up a number of different organisations and initiatives to address different social and health challenges. When I look back then I see a path littered with mistakes – but my best…

The mistake part 1, 2 and 3

The mistake I learned from most was when I took a small service out of a local authority and established it as an independent charity. I had the support of the local authority and a solid contract, but I had never led anything before or managed anyone. I was used to being part of a team, with all the camaraderie that comes with that and thought that I could continue that team spirit and camaraderie into my new organisation.  I had taken two members of staff with me but our contract required rapid expansion and so within a few months my ‘team’ was ten people strong. I adopted a rigorous selection process but felt under pressure from my local authority customer to get people in post and so took some people on who were not quite as strong or as committed to our work. Part 1 of my best mistake.

One of the two members of staff that I brought across was an administrator and I promoted her to administrative manager. It was a well-intentioned move and meant to show how much I valued her but she didn’t have the skills or capability to do the job. Part 2 of my best mistake.

I was learning as I went along and instinctively shared my learning with my team. I did this as much for me as them and had no idea of the impact this would have on morale. Part 3 of my best mistake.

By the end of our first year I had reaped a whirlwind. I had an administrative manager on long term sick leave with stress and a demoralised team. The effective team members strongly resented the less effective ones. The less effective ones were angry and setting team members against each other and all of them against me. The team had lost trust in my leadership ability and felt unsafe in their jobs.

This was the most personally unpleasant time of my working life. While our work continued to deliver good outcomes for people there was a real danger that standards would drop as team members warred with each other and me. We were certainly less effective than we could have been with all that energy taken up in inter-personal politics.

I learnt to be a leader

I found my inner grit, a mentor to talk things through with and got a grip. I stopped trying to be a mate and began to be the leader the team wanted. That didn’t stop communication and democratic decision making, but I kept day-to-day concerns and anxieties to myself. I tackled the poor performance of the less able team members and re-organised to reduce the influence of the member of staff who was engineering clashes between team members. I sadly let the administrator go and appointed a business manager with the background and knowledge to do the job well. Our ship slowly stabilised and we were finally able to focus our energies on growing our business so that we could deliver great outcomes for more people.

This was the organisation where I learnt to be a leader. I also learnt how cruel it is to put someone into a job they can’t do – and that it is never worth making a poor appointment just because of pressure from a customer. I have carried this learning into all my future organisations and I know they have been much the better for it!

Sian Lockwood OBE, CEO Community Catalysts CIC

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