Management Guidance

When leaders get it wrong: Three steps for coping with mistakes in business

Mistakes are a part of life and of running a business.  Despite processes and strategies, it is important to remember that there will always be a risk of human error. When the inevitable happens, what really counts is not the mistake itself but the way in which the subsequent fall out is dealt with.

Good leaders resist the urge to assign blame when things go wrong, as it’s very rare that a mistake can be attributed wholly to the slip-up of an individual. The vast majority of errors can come as a result of a series of small mistakes, or the breakdown of procedures and communication.

See below for our three-step guide on how to deal with mistakes:

  •   Own your mistakes

It’s not the mistake that matters it’s the covering up of it that will cost you dearly. Politicians often learn this the hard way – think Chris Huhne and speeding points fiasco. Whether it is a mistake that you have made personally or a wider mistake within your organisation it is important to admit the error as fast as possible. Many leaders waste time and energy by either trying to brush the mistake under the carpet or in attempting to lay the blame at someone else’s door. Dealing with errors promptly helps to reassure both customers and the internal team that the management are fully engaged in the running of the business. It also works to demonstrate that the senior team are empowered to put things right.

  • Analyse the cause of the error

Looking back at what happened and why often starts out as practical exercise however, this can quickly turn into a witch-hunt as people become defensive about being made responsible for the blunder. Making a conscious effort to take a truly constructive look back at what happened and building a clear understanding of what went wrong, can help to reassure staff that they work in a fair and open environment with a focus on progression as opposed to recrimination.

  • Follow through with changes

Once you have got to the heart of the problem and ascertained the series of events that caused it – take immediate steps to prevent a repeat performance. If there were specific individuals involved who failed to uphold their responsibilities, administer training or coaching to help equip them with both the skills and confidence to move on in a positive way. Find a way to share what you’ve learned with the wider team. Naturally, avoid specific details and finger-pointing but take the opportunity to communicate a positive message to the rest of your organisation.


When working with NACCO, I released a product to market without fully understanding the implications on the distribution department. It was a decision I questioned and had to hold my hands up and admit I was wrong. Having a network of people around you whose opinion you respect – whether they are employees, customers or even competitors – is crucial, as is listening to the opinions of that network.

Empowerment is crucial in the quest to motivate, engage and retain employees

In my experience, empowerment has been the single key element in affecting culture change within an organisation. Once people feel empowered to make decisions, take responsibility for them and have the hierarchy removed which can dent their confidence and courage to come forward with new ideas, they can be a real asset to the business.

Employees that feel valued and feel that their actions can positively impact the business become incredibly motivated, gathering pace and flourishing into great ambassadors for the business, both internally and externally. This positivity can far outweigh negativity being emitted by others and can become infectious.

I have found that quite often, providing a nurturing environment where employees can see a clear progression route and are allowed to fulfil their potential, that this can be far more effective at employee motivation and engagement than financial remuneration. Financial incentives have their place, for sure, but must not be the sole or primary route to getting employees on side.

Moreover, there are additional benefits to be reaped from employee empowerment; not only do they need less management thus saving on management costs, but a more engaged employee will have less absences from work, be more productive, increase the pace of the business and help customer retention.

There’s a three-step programme that should be followed to ensure employees are kept happy:


Get them to believe in you (and what the top team and company stands for):

  • Sort the top team – it goes without saying that the right ethos has to come from the top
  • Remove obstructors and middle management concrete
  • Be open and honest – always!


Staff must feel valued:

  • Help encourage the development of positive relationships with team/line managers
  • Create a nurturing and challenging environment
  • Ensure financial remuneration, where appropriate


The key question: do staff enjoy coming to work?

  • Is it fun?
  • Are they fulfilled?
  • Can they see a fulfilling future with the company?

Real bottom line business benefits will result from employee empowerment – it isn’t just an idealistic notion or a fluffy phrase, but a real business growth tactic yielding real financial benefit.

Knowing your bankers from your obstructors

Know your banks from your obstructors

Through the business turnarounds I have instigated and been involved in, there have been some key concerns that crop up time and time again. Although every business is different in terms of the problems it faces, there are certain issues which are constant and my approach to turnaround in the first few days is quite formulaic.

An immediate requirement for me is to ascertain obstructors and bankers. In any organisation, there are people who embrace change and are willing to do what they can to aid the turnaround process – otherwise known as your bankers. Alternatively, there are your obstructors – those who are resistant to change which is vital to the turnaround and will hinder the process greatly. This task needs tackling in the first few days of a business turnaround plan; in other words, finding out who is with you and who is against you. By doing this, you can quickly establish the top team who will be sitting around the boardroom table.

With the right company at your side, priorities become clearer and the implementation of solutions are often more effective. Whether it’s the business running out of cash, customers fleeing, bad management or low staff morale, all of these issues are easier to handle when a trusted team is on board.

The identification of obstructors needs to extend beyond the board room and top team, as they also come in the form of ‘middle management concrete’. This group typically consists of managers who have been established in post for a while and may be resistant to change. It is important to identify these and filter them out; culture change can also assist in this process. If you take time to meet all the staff and source allies, in whatever role they may be doing, they will be invaluable should you need to crack the ‘middle management concrete’. ‘Attacking’ from the bottom is also as important as managing from the top. Getting shop floor staff on your side by encouraging and empowering them will really make the managers work.

This process can take a few months but is an essential step in ensuring the right staff base is formed to take the business forward.
Further practical tips on tackling middle management concrete head on are included on this blog.

The ultimate checklist to crack middle management concrete

Cracking middle management

It may come under different terms, but most people in the corporate world will recognise the group I dub as ‘middle management concrete’. These are people in middle management who are resistant to change in an organisation, perhaps for the reason that it disrupts their routines or because they’re approaching retirement and just want to ride out the last term. Reluctant to embrace new ideas or procedures, they can be a real hindrance to culture change, business progression and growth within the company, and therefore should not be underestimated.

Middle management concrete can be made up of active or passive obstructors. At worst, some are actively looking to interfere with progression, however there are some whose roles are of no real value to the business. Despite this, such individuals are still able to carve out a position for themselves in which they can operate on a level that suits them, and not necessarily the business.

I have a story to illustrate this, entitled ‘Get rid of Brian’. Brian is not the actual name of the subject; his name has been changed for the purposes of the tale. In my role as operations director for a large car retail business, I once visited a sales office of a car dealership. Whilst sitting in the waiting area, I overheard a young sales assistant on a call with a customer. The customer asked for the cost of a car repair to be covered by the dealership, which due to it being a grey area was left on hold as the sales assistant checked with her boss. When she hung up, I enquired about the amount she was authorised to sign off, and she stated that costs exceeding £250 had to be authorised by her manager, Brian. I asked her whether Brian had ever not signed off a cost, and she said no. It seemed Brian’s job was to sit in a back office, non-customer facing, and make decisions that the sales assistant was capable of making. As far as I could see, there was a simple solution here: get rid of Brian. His role was of no value. The sales assistant was subsequently empowered to make the decisions and Brian departed the business.

Though it may seem a harsh outcome, Brian’s role was a clear example of middle management concrete, albeit in a passive capacity. Businesses cannot thrive and grow with the presence of people like Brian.

The quest to crack this layer isn’t easy, but there are some must-do tasks for the checklist:

Walk the walk – taking the time to walk the ‘shop floor’ and get staff on your side will help your cause. Staff appreciate senior management taking the time to connect with them and hear their thoughts, and they can be your greatest ally in the battle.

Empower people – empowering employees to make decisions they mightn’t normally gives them confidence to rise to the challenge and take responsibility for their decisions. This also negates layers of management which can prove a drain on resources.

Keep on top of them – challenge the methods, decisions and processes of those you deem to be middle management concrete to ensure they answer for their actions. If you keep the pressure going from above (and from the bottom with your allies on the shop floor), they’ll either decide it’s not for them or move on to pastures new. Either of those options will be beneficial for the business!

Don’t lose heart; this phase can take many months and as part of the culture change that is so often necessary in business turnaround.