How Did You Learn ...?

I have had quite a few junior employees come to me recently asking the question, “How did you learn (fill in blank here)?”. That blank could be anything: to negotiate, to manage, to make croissants, and the list goes on. They are often surprised to find that a lot of what I learned wasn’t done in a classroom or in a formal setting, but rather by me watching others fail or succeed at any given task. It’s not just learning by doing. It’s learning by watching, then doing. Let’s take a look!

1. Define and find success

First and foremost, you cannot know what success means until you define it. This definition will be different for most every task you complete. Once you have defined it [realistically], find someone you know who has been able to achieve it. If the task is negotiations, have that individual do a mock negotiation with you and provide you with feedback on where they believe your weak points to be. They can also give you tips and tricks on what has worked best for them in the past. For this particular example, I did have classroom knowledge, but it was the application of that knowledge combined with real life experiences that allowed me to grow. I’ll give you the short version:

I was lucky enough to participate in a negations class throughout my MBA. Throughout the course, the professor picked certain students to prepare a case study and perform a negation in front of the entire class. We were there to analyze and provide feedback at the end of the sessions. Our class was comprised of roughly 13 different nationalities, 27 different personalities, 7 women, and 20 men (we were a diverse group, you get the picture!). This was a perfect way for us to see how different cultures, genders, and personalities can affect a negotiation - and learn from it! I had the critique of 25 peers and a few years of business experience to reflect on. By reflecting, I was able to see where I had made mistakes in the past. So I took the learnings from my previous business experience, as well as from this course, and moved forward, trying them out in real business settings to see what worked best for me.

Just as important as it is to define success, it’s also crucial to understand where failure happens.

2. Seek out the failures and prepare

Did you know that car manufacturers subject their engines to extensive testing, hoping to see engine failures? They have identified various tests that push the individual components to their limits. They want to know how far they can go, how durable a part is, and at what point this stress will cause the engine to fail. The goal is to spot common points of failure and design flaws before the vehicle ever enters into production. This ensures they provide you with a reliable vehicle and that you aren’t spending copious amounts of time at the mechanic after purchase. What does this have to do with anything? 

You need to understand what failure looks like and make changes to your strategy if you are to avoid it. When you understand what works and what does not, then you don’t waste time overanalyzing every single one of your actions. While you most likely cannot or will not learn every point of failure in advance, it is helpful to identify key areas. In the example of negotiations, I like to research my counterpart and understand what their weak points are and where my colleagues have failed in their attempts to get what they are asking for. This helps me prepare and ensure I don’t make the same mistakes as my colleagues (don’t let history repeat itself!).

For example, if I have a colleague who has previously negotiated with an individual, I ask questions to understand what went well and what went wrong for them. Throughout this exact process, I once had someone tell me, “Jack hates confrontation, so if you walk in there with a laundry list of accomplishments and firmly insist on a reasonable salary increase, then he will cave.” Well, that piece of information is gold. Because of his response I knew that I needed to prepare a slide of accomplishments and do market research to identify what a realistic salary increase would be. And it worked.

I have also had individuals tell me not to be discouraged that with John, for example, you will go through multiple rounds of negotiations before he will start to cave. I have also been told for other managers that I will need to switch teams if I ever want to see a pay increase because certain managers refuse to give increase salaries. When you know how big the bear is and how to attack, then you don’t need to be big because your knowledge is your power. You also won’t waste your time developing strategies others know will fail. Just keep in mind that what has worked for one person, may not work for you. Let’s see what I mean...

3. Reflect on experiences and figure out what works for you

Early on in my career, I worked together with our CEO and Head of Sales to help identify business opportunities for our company. I will be honest and say that I absolutely despised working together with the Head of Sales. This had nothing to do with him as a person, because he had such a fun personality, was enjoyable to work with, and proved to be successful in his position. This had more to do with his approach to acquiring new business, because it always felt like a cold call or as if we were Girl Scouts trying to sell cookies to the Boy Scouts. When I watched and tried his approach I felt like I had bugs crawling all over my skin. I came across as very uncomfortable and awkward, and that’s exactly how I felt. Who in their right mind wants to purchase something from someone who isn’t confident about what and how they are selling? Not many people. I was amazed that what was so uncomfortable and unsuccessful for me worked for someone else.

When I worked together with the CEO, I noticed he had a more laid back approach. He spoke to people with such ease. He first developed a relationship with them via small talk before he got to the business side of things. He planted the seeds but didn’t force a relationship. He knew when to back down. He was genuine. You could see that the people liked and trusted him, which seemed so much more natural of an approach for me. I noticed that when I adapted elements of his style, people were more receptive to my sales pitch.

Each time I prepared a sales pitch I walked through the steps listed above. In the beginning, a successful sales pitch was defined as one where I could effectively communicate our product offerings, discuss problems of the client, and build a relationship with the individual. Failure was defined as the inability to connect with a potential client (you might equate this to a door slammed in your face). After each attempt, I forced myself to reflect on the areas where I was successful, as well as identify areas for improvement. I asked for feedback, both positive and constructive. I worked on myself.

The point here is: You can’t stop after you have identified what success and failure means. You also need to take the next step and reflect on real life experiences. The reason for this is that you cannot improve if you don’t know what you need to do better - this is where feedback is crucial. Then, through trial and error, understand what is comfortable for you and apply those learnings, because what works for someone else may not work for you. 

Learning is a process - don’t let the fear of failure keep you from trying. Successful companies only got to where they are because they failed and learned from those mistakes. Let yourself become successful by allowing yourself to get back up and learn from your failures.

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