By: Diane M. Block, CFO, Ed.S., MSBO Board Member, Assistant Superintendent, Alpena Public Schools
No one likes to make a mistake. This is especially true for our profession. We’re trained to seek ways to ensure accuracy, completeness, balance. For many of us, it’s part of our personality, too. (Think “Type A”.) So why should we talk about how to make a mistake?
When I was a practicing CPA, one of our firm’s school clients fired its business manager for making a mistake at the bargaining table that cost the district $100,000. This was perhaps 25 years ago but even then, for a Class A district, this price tag on its face would not automatically be a fatal error. So why was the business manager fired? I believe it was because of everything that happened before the error. There was a pattern of errors, of small missteps, of lack of attention to detail. The $100,000 error was the tipping point. They were looking for an excuse, and this was it.
The lesson is that even a large mistake is survivable if it is not part of a pattern, or the excuse to cut ties. How do you make it so? A pattern of excellence is a great defense. If you are known for your accuracy, your timeliness and completeness, an occasional gaff is generally pretty forgivable. Seek out ways to help ensure that you are almost always reliable.
Think about checks and balances. Think internal control. Systems and structures that are designed to catch errors can be applied to your work habits as well as your work. Take steps to arrange your work so that you work on tasks that require a high degree of accuracy when you are sharpest. I try to build in time to put thorny problems on ‘simmer’ overnight or over a weekend. A countless number of times I have had solutions come to me on my early morning walk or while showering before work. Find what works for you.
Be willing to check your ego at the door. Asking others to fact check your work, or check your formulas, or proofread your writing, is not a character flaw. Work on preventing mistakes, but accept that they are inevitable.
So, what if you make a doozy of a mistake? We’ve all done it and felt the fear. You want to cut and run, hide the mistake (or yourself), or find someone else to blame, or rationalize it away. You feel the fear, and worry.
My advice for mastering fear is taking action. Allowing yourself to wallow in fear, stymied, and reduced to a puddle of indecisiveness, is counterproductive. That is not to say that you should immediately spring into action simply to avoid feeling the full weight of your error. I think it is okay to wallow a bit, as long as you are able to pick yourself back up, forgive yourself, and then work to solve the problem. Don’t phone it in, letting others pick up the pieces. Do your best work. Sometimes, your ‘mistake’ will create a better overall process or solution than before.
In the movie Apollo 13, Flight Director Gene Kranz overhears two NASA directors discussing the low survival chances for the crippled spacecraft. “I know what the problems are, Henry,” one of them says. “This could be the worst disaster NASA has ever experienced.” “With all due respect Sir,” Kranz intervenes, “I believe this is going to be our finest hour.” This is one of my top 5 favorite movies, in part because of this line, and all that it exemplifies. How you take responsibility after a mistake is often how it will be remembered. Make your best mistakes by redeeming yourself in addressing them. Own the problem, and work to find the solution. This is what will allow your employer to forgive even a doozy of a mistake, rather than use it as the excuse to fire you.
Perspective is important also. My staff will tell you I am fond of saying, “It’s not brain surgery: no one is dying – no one is bleeding” in response to someone’s fears and stresses around failures on the job. The point is not to belittle the reality. Being a school business official is much more stressful than the general public probably imagines. (Just think of being late with payroll to feel the fear. Been there, done that.) But no one died because payroll was late, so a little perspective can help. The point is to understand that owning your mistakes and working on solving them is the better path. So, make those mistakes, but make them work for you.