The greatest predictor of success is failure. That’s true whether you are quitting smoking, shooting free throws or taking on a new function at work. Competence and reliable performance are born from learning why one route is a mistake and finding which micro changes of action and thought or macro alternatives of mindset and presence manifest achievement.

Using new reliable choices looks like mastery. Wow – you can do this in your sleep! Ugh – you can do this in your sleep!

Embrace failure

With any luck, pretty soon after you master your function, you get or create a stretch goal that plunges you back into mistake-making. We call this the gift of lifelong learning. If you don’t keep learning, you’ll eventually feel miserable, experience burnout, and become guilty of over-posting on Facebook.

Smart bosses, managers and business owners embrace failure among themselves, and their subordinates, peers, superiors, vendors, partners and customers.  It may not seem like it as we stare dumbfounded or shout: “You did what?” but we do expect occasional failure. After all, most of us learned on other people’s dimes, and we live today to remember our worst mistakes and how they got fixed or endured.

In my third week as an account coordinator at the second largest ad agency in the US, I placed a full-page ad for a client, in the Sunday Los Angeles Times…with the wrong phone number.  I won’t give you details of the fix, but it wasn’t simple or cheap.

Here’s the key to my success. I apologized and worked on the fix. I did not have a litany of why I made the mistake, where I got the wrong phone number, why I didn’t proofread it before it was sent to publish, and who above me should have caught it, and so on. I said I was sorry and asked what could I do right now. If I’d had any suggestions, I would have offered them. I did get in my car and go to the office to help work out the phone transfer.

Hopefully new mistakes

One year later, having been promoted in the same company to account manager, I lived through my coordinator doing exactly the same thing, just in a different publication.  Something like it has happened with every person I’ve ever worked for and with, or who has worked for me. Mistakes happen. Hopefully each mistake is a new one. We succeed when we apologize, do our part in the fix and often move on to do great work, which includes making new mistakes.

What happens if you don’t apologize and work on the fix?

What if you lie, bluster, woodenly recite all the events that led to it including your breech birth and the last time you saw that request, or get angry (with yourself or me) or sit and stare at me? I will fire you. I might not do it today because I still need your body and the parts of your brain that have history on the account, but I will look forward to your leaving from today forward. Because you leave me no recourse. I can only correct your mistakes. I cannot rehabilitate your character.

Mistakes are a double-edged sword

So mistakes are at once part of your potential to build a reputation for being an honest, hardworking and helpful employee or a defensive, dodgy and damned one. It’s your choice. It’s your career. It’s your personal brand.

Here’s what you should do. Immediately embrace your failure – in fact, if you are lucky you can bring attention to the mistake before anyone else finds it. Apologize. Participate in the fix.

Don’t make your boss or company the victim of your embarrassment, shame, anger, rage, unease, self-loathing and really stupid behavior, or whatever you do when you get a call on Sunday because you missed a really, really crucial part of the project and there’s a huge mess because of it.

Personal brands, take every opportunity to be the person we want to promote, recommend, refer and evangelize for. When you make a mistake, it’s your golden opportunity to take a huge leap forward toward being the brand we want to buy under any circumstances.