How To Turn Your Failures Into Your Biggest Advantage


“I don’t see a future for you with us,” the CEO said to me.

And with that simple statement, I was fired.

I didn’t want to admit it, but I failed. Instead, I saw rage. And the rage didn’t end quickly.

I immediately started looking for another job. I met with everyone in my network and quickly arranged a bunch of interviews.

I couldn’t admit that I had been fired. Instead, I kept coming up crazy story after crazy story:

Brett the victim had been wronged by this horrible CEO and company:

Interviewer: “Tell me what happened at your last company.”

Brett: “I was brought in as VP/Marketing by the prior CEO. The company was a complete mess, so I tried to save the company (Brett the hero, hurrah!)."

The company was built like a house of cards. There was problem after problem that I kept finding including X, Y, Z, and W."

“I kept telling the CEO about the problems, but he didn’t want to listen to me. He was fired in August."

“I put my hat in the ring to become the next CEO. The board chose an outside candidate."

“The new CEO didn’t like me, so he fired me.”

Would you hire me?

I wouldn’t hire me!


There are so many mistakes I made and probably as many that I have forgotten.


Let’s dissect this a little.

Mistake number one: I didn’t take responsibility for my actions.

Mistake number two: I told a story instead of just admitting I was fired.

Mistake number three: I bad-mouthed the old company and two CEOs.

Mistake number four: I painted myself as the victim and no one likes being around victims.

Here’s the thing:

  • We are high achievers, and…
  • Most high achievers have never failed before, so…
  • We’ve never been trained how to explain our failures, so…
  • We make up elaborate stories to explain away our failures, and…

Explaining away your failures is exactly the wrong thing to do!


Instead, you need to embrace and own your failures!

It’s that simple.

Let’s go back to my interview. Here’s a much better way to handle the interview:

Interviewer: “Tell me what happened at your last company.”

Brett: “I was fired.”

Interviewer: “What happened?”

Brett: “We changed CEOs about six months into my tenure. The new CEO wanted his own people, so he fired me.”

Simple, accurate, and to the point.

Aren’t they going to ask the other side what happened to you?


Of course they are. This is easy to handle too.

Interviewer: “Brett, what do you think the CEO would say about you?”

Brett: “I would think he would be negative.”

I’ve actually been posed that exact question from a recruiter, and I gave him the same response as above. The recruiter answered:

“Yeah, he’s negative about everyone.”


Here are the golden rules of how to handle failure:


  1. Admit you screwed up.
  2. Don’t make up any stories.
  3. Explain how you would handle it differently (if asked). 


Admitting you screwed up:


I ran into an old colleague of mine in downtown Los Altos the other day. We hadn’t seen each other in years.

I really enjoyed working with him back in the day. Seeing my old friend also brought to mind one of the most painful experiences I have ever witnessed.

We were in a business review meeting with several other senior executives and the CEO. We were reviewing past performance versus our forecasts.

The forecasts of many people in the room were way off target. The CEO was merciless in his criticism.

My friend dug his heals in when it was his turn.

My friend refused to admit he screwed up.

The CEO kept saying, “It’s okay to admit you were incompetent at the time. That’s a perfectly acceptable answer.”

My friend wouldn’t budge.


It was uncomfortable for everyone in the room. A lot people were examining their shoes in great detail.

After several more rounds my friend finally broke down and relented.

The CEO’s tactics were extreme, but his message was on target:


Just admit you made a mistake.


That whole episode would have never taken place if my friend had just admitted his mistake.

I’m not condoning abusive behavior. I’m not saying anyone has a right to treat another person that way.

I am saying that admitting you made a mistake is the right way to go:

  • You build credibility when you admit you’ve made a mistake, and…
  • You build trust when you admit you’ve made a mistake and, most importantly…
  • You allow yourself to learn when you admit your mistakes.

What if you are in a hostile environment and you could get fired for admitting a mistake?


You’re right.

That’s a different set of issues. You might not be able to admit your mistake publicly.

Your integrity will suffer in that type of environment. Then you have to make a decision what is more important to you: your integrity or the job.


But you're scared to do this.


I know.

Admitting you screwed up is a difficult thing to do. I can tell you admitting mistakes is part of growing.

Do you want to be a senior manager, or maybe even CEO one day?

Well, you’d better learn how to admit you’ve screwed up.

The golden rule as CEO of working with your board of directors is, “Never surprise the board.”

In other words, tell them about any problems they need to know about.

I believe you will be happily surprised if you take the “I will never surprise my manager” thought process to heart.

Be prepared for the logical follow up question, “What would you do differently?”

Be thoughtful in your approach to this answer.

Don’t answer, “There was nothing I could do.” That indicates you haven’t learned from the experience.


There is always something you can do differently.


I was involved in a business deal that went horribly wrong.

The company was doing extremely well, but one of the investors pressured the company to sell.

The company was worth a reasonable amount of money at the time. The company would have been a lot more money if it kept going.

We fought the investor and tried raising more funding.

We produced new term sheet after new term sheet. We had the money and the new investors lined up.

The existing investor blocked every new financing we had.

Finally, we had no choice except selling the company.

We didn’t get the high price we would have received earlier. Instead we got a very low price.


No one was a winner in this deal.


The existing investors, the employees, and the vendors all were losers.

Recently someone asked me what I would do differently in the same situation.

My answer was simple, “We should have sold the company.”

I clinched another deal with that simple admission.


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