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Failure: A Routine Cost of Doing Business, Part 1


Change gives us the opportunity to grow.

Change—in the last weeks I have focused on four people, including myself, who have faced change, taken specific steps, and developed a new approach for the future. Some of the change came about as a next step in a career, some through thoughtful choices, and some because it was simply thrust upon them.


When change impacts an individual, some will say it was caused by “failures” on the part of the organization or the individual involved. I prefer to call them setbacks and, especially for an individual staff member, put these issues in their proper perspective.


How do you transform failure into success?

Examples of people who can be resilient in the workplace and life abound, you see them every day, and development officers need to learn this life-long skill and practice it daily.


Setbacks happen in a missed annual goal, a lower level secured than expected for a targeted gift, a donor who cancels a meeting at the last minute, a proposal that just didn’t hit the target, a major misstep in joining an organization where the culture just isn’t yours. I know no answer for such things except to pick yourself up and start again. And again.


Resilience is a measure of our ability to bounce back when we pick a battle to engage in and then lose. The ability to pick ourselves up after a stumble and adapt our strategies in the face of these setbacks is a crucial capability for today’s development professionals. Live to fight another day.


Cultivating this capability will go a long way towards helping YOU future-proof YOURSELF and your career. Here are five ways—with five more ways coming next week—to build resilience:


  1. Make connections: Accept help and support from friends, relatives, work colleagues and others. A great boss can help to put everything into a perspective and develop a plan with you for the future. I said a great boss. Reach out and help others who are facing challenges and setbacks in their own lives. It helps to have allies you can call on, but it also helps you to learn and figure out how to handle issues as they arise for yourself. Teamwork is so important, you have to build relationships with people who you can truly trust.

  2. Avoid seeing crises as insurmountable problems: Accept that stuff happens, but it doesn’t have to be a permanent stumbling block. Every day is a new day. Look beyond your current problems and work with others to find new solutions, then apply them strategically. I struggled with this issue many times, but once especially in mid-career. I had started a new job and creating a gala was part of the new work. Up until then the office was raising $35,000-50,000 with their event. What? When the evening came, we had raised $1 million in sponsorships and gifts and secured another $1 million to announce for a major initiative. The fundraising was hugely successful but the event itself was a disaster. Disaster, I say. Cold, long, no fun. Embarrassing. It is still a painful part of my memory, but the following year, with the help of colleagues, this event became the number one event for the community. And fundraising remained tops. We turned it around. I found the resources within myself to move on. I found them in sleepless nights and it made me realize, nothing is so important. I only got there with time.

  3. Accept that change is part of living: You can’t hold on to the anchor of the past, especially when it is sinking fast. While you are changing, so is your organization and parts of your organization and, often, not for the better when it comes to you. Focus on the things you can change, not those you cannot. Change the ones that aren’t working for you and focus for once on your own life. This is why change was so important to me in my life and career. When things weren’t working, I could change myself or the situation. When I tried and just didn’t succeed to change something that made me feel more appreciated or productive, pivoting was often the solution I used. Usually pivoting to a new position within the organization, which I loved and was very important to the city of Pittsburgh. Except when I went to Greece, where the change I made was quite life-intentional.

  4. Move every day towards your goals: Develop small, achievable goals and focus on accomplishing them; set yourself up for success. Ask yourself: What’s one thing I know I can accomplish today that helps me move in the direction I want to go? Put it on a list with other tasks and cross that one off. Done! Moving on. I use this technique often, it provides me with the sense of true progress and it gives me the momentum to tackle something else on the list that I may have been putting off. Like my taxes. Like writing a case statement.

  5. Take decisive actions: Regardless of how difficult the situation you’re in, make decisions and take actions; your problems will not just go away. Create clearly defined action plans and then execute them. Again, talk with others if this will help. Sometimes this means that you have to change organizations, change departments, change the nature of your work, start a new business, shift the focus. Whatever it takes, it is one life and should be lived your way.

In the face of adapting to change, I always draw on the strength of Katie Westbrook, a patient at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, who died, but not before she gave us the message: Never give up.


Adapted from Make Change Work for You by Scott Steinberg, 2015, A Penguin Book, Penguin Group

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