Take Risks, Make Mistakes, Be Bold

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Kevin Jones November 26, 2019 Growing up in the High Country of my native North Carolina, I’ve always loved to ski. For a mountain boy like me, being on a snowy slope with friends or family is truly my happy place.

I can remember the first time I went skiing with a few good friends, included among them was Travis Mash, my best friend to this day. My first trip to the local slopes was a big one—we skied for three days straight. The first day, we all fell down A LOT, and we laughed about it together that night. The next day, Travis and I continued to fall quite a bit, while one of our friends fell a little, and two guys in our party of five didn’t fall once!

On the final day, Travis and I still fell down a ton, one guy fell a few times, and those same two guys didn’t fall at all.  You’d be accused of being reasonable if you thought that the two guys who quit falling after day one were the smart ones in our group. And maybe they were, in the eyes of some.  But only two of us were skiing the most difficult slopes—known in ski parlance as black diamonds. And while I don’t know about those other three, I’m still skiing those black diamonds.

There are a few good lessons here. First, you need to set high goals for yourself, and everyone knows this to be true. But the second lesson is just as important, if not more so:  to succeed, you have to be willing to fall down to progress. Third, it’s always easier to push yourself to take risks and succeed when you see others around you doing the same. Thanks, Travis, for inspiring me way back then and even today. 

As we continue to talk about building a high-performance culture, I’m often asked what the driving ethos of a company should be, in order to reach this aim. Many people mistakenly think that it’s simply down to setting big goals and holding people accountable to them. While pushing people to achieve big things is certainly a fundamental behavior to success, every behavior stems from a mentality or philosophical approach.

Not all of these mentalities or approaches are good. Many are as simple as giving big rewards to those who close business and firing those who don’t—think of it as the Glengarry Glen Ross philosophy (“Coffee is for closers!”). While that makes for a fun movie experience, it’s not a recipe for leading people to big, sustainable success. Neither is the “getting people to buy in” approach—leading people to achieve new heights isn’t about persuasion.

So, what’s it all about? If you think about it, building a business successfully, whether you’re performing a role here at Celero or working in a small business, is about freedom.  It’s about the freedom to think, the freedom to create, and the freedom to necessarily reinvent yourself and your strategy on a daily basis. To achieve sustained growth, you can’t just repeat what made you successful yesterday. Every business in America has competition, and those who rest on yesterday’s ideas get their lunch eaten today and tomorrow.

So how do we get this freedom we’re talking about, if we’re not the CEO or business owner. In the case of Celero, it’s about granting every person here that freedom. And it’s not just saying, “Be free and have success!”  That’s as silly as it sounds when you read it aloud. Rather, it’s the opposite—we have to free each other of fear. We can’t be afraid to take risks, make mistakes, and be bold.

I say those three things—taking risks, making mistakes, and being bold—in a certain order for a reason. My team has set some pretty high goals for themselves by which we measure our performance. In fact, like most good teams, we’re constantly raising our standards, based on where our competition lies and especially on customer needs. In order to maintain this commitment to continuous improvement, we don’t need buy-in. We need for people to take risks. It’s only when we take risks that we can better what we did yesterday.

When you take risks in business, as Travis and I did on those black diamonds, you sometimes make mistakes and fail. I happen to believe and know that we hire really intelligent people at Celero—people like Deidra Parsons make sure of that. One thing I’ve observed through the years is that intelligent people aren’t submissive, and they don’t shrink from the challenges they face simply because they’ve failed or made a mistake. They come back harder and stronger—they’re emboldened by their failure to produce and what they’ve learned from it. While nobody likes failure in the moment, the kind of people I’m describing—those true high performers and leaders—begin relishing the challenge all over again even before the wounds have healed.

The best people, who are leaders no matter where they function within an organizational chart, are what I like to call “battle-hardened,” and you can’t be battle-hardened without losing a few along the way. Losing breeds resilience, and resilience is what fuels us for the long haul in life and in business.

Every day, I approach my teams and individuals, listening to their approaches—to see if they’re thinking big enough—and watching how they go about achieving their goals—to see if they are taking those necessary risks to achieve more than they did yesterday. If they’re not thinking big enough and risking enough to sometimes make mistakes, it’s my job to give them that freedom all over again.

And while for each of them it’s about that freedom, for me, it’s simply about cashing that check that I’ve written. The way you give freedom often has less to do with encouraging risk than it does to do with punishing failure. While we can’t tolerate recklessness, we have to give grace to those who abide by these principles of taking risks, making mistakes, and being bold. I find that when you give people even just a little room to see their ideas through, their wild successes far outweigh any temporary setbacks.