In this blog, Toni Kent shares her thoughts and experience to explore why success doesn’t require perfection.
A challenge of our times is that social media allows us to only ever show our most polished side. And while on the one hand it’s lovely if your LinkedIn feed is full of statements that present you in your best light, it’s a false shop-front. Those in the early stage of their careers or who already put themselves under pressure to be ‘perfect’ will see only the gloss of your success rather than the hard work of getting there.
Within my family I’ve been accused of being “born lucky” and “having a magic wand”. Both hurtful yet partly understandable given I achieved the Holy Grail of social mobility which shifted my worries from affording the electricity bill to complaining there’s a cold spot in our underfloor heating. I found it was helpful to share with my siblings some of my own early career failures which included forgetting you needed a passport for a coach trip to France and sending an email that was so badly mis-judged I thought I was going to get fired. From getting names wrong in meetings to failing to stand up for myself when working for some truly unpleasant managers, it hasn’t been plain sailing.
If you never experience failure you’re never going to learn from it and my early career felt like a catalogue of minor disasters. In the corporate sphere mistakes can go unforgiven and an opportunity to learn becomes a belittling experience. Thankfully after my most outstanding faux pas in front of a senior leadership team, I was taken to one side by an enlightened director who explained my cock-up and suggested a way forward – I didn’t realise the political error I’d made until it was pointed out. His kind act and thoughtful words helped me to grow.
Happily, ‘growth mindset’ and ‘failing fast’ are becoming mainstream as business philosophies for rapid innovation and competitive advantage. We’re also taking our cues from the Agile approach to project management which encourages us to continuously refine and improve – something that’s not possible if we can’t identify and acknowledge when we’ve got something wrong. For organisations to successfully apply these approaches to their business, it needs to be encouraged at an individual level.
The most recent Global Business Ethics Survey found that employees working in businesses with weak commitment to ethical leadership report twice the instances of sexual harassment, conflict of interest and discrimination than those with a strong commitment. Organisations with leaders that role-model owning up to and learning from their mistakes create a culture of honesty which builds loyalty and trust whereas blaming others and covering up leads to fear which perpetuates unethical behaviour.
If we want to go beyond inspiration to being given the tools to succeed, we need to see more than a shiny end result. We want to hear how the people we look up to got to where they are. We need to know it’s possible to overcome adversity and that perseverance pays off – James Dyson famously created 5,127 prototypes, JK Rowling shared her rejection letters and Reshma Saujani, Founder of Girls Who Code, spent years chasing the wrong career before finding her calling. Today, she advocates for girls to be taught bravery over perfection – her resulting TEDTalk has been viewed more than 5 million times.
At a time when we’re finding it challenging to get through the workday and constant, low-level stress is undermining our ability to think straight, it’s vital to hear from people whose paths have not been smooth. And it’s important that we all play our part in breaking down the myth that being successful requires perfection. Success is born out of resilience, tenacity and determination – and these don’t come without struggle. So, the next time you’re speaking to someone you admire, ask them to share with you their biggest business mistakes – not only will you learn that there’s no such thing as ‘perfect’, you might also learn the secret to their success.
If you’re interested in reading top self-care tips for women in tech, click here.