For social impact organizations to scale in the same way entrepreneurial tech companies do, investors need to increase their tolerance for non-moral failure. They need to foster a culture of innovation and risk-taking. … Most importantly we have to stop pumping support into struggling ventures because we are afraid to see them fail and be prepared to back again those who have learned from their failures. Smart people are more willing to attempt disruptive change when they know their value will not be destroyed if it doesn’t pan out.
– Sir Ronald Cohen and William A. Sahlman in HBR blogs on the importance of building a tolerance for failure and risk-taking in social enterprise. Two related thoughts:
- The corollary piece of advice is to start small – venture capital has ample homerun cushion to pay for all those strike outs and singles. Small, iterative projects that succeed or fail advance learning in the organization and promote risk-taking without betting the store.
- Being willing to stop doing something marginal is far more difficult to do than walking away from an absolute failure. The former is an important skill to cultivate – smart people with high aspirations and a lack of tolerance for “just OK” in an area where “great” is well within reach.
Do Women Need to Realize that Work Isn’t School? Whitney Johnson and Tara Mohr point out in HBR that behaviors that enable young women to excel in school may serve them less well in the workplace. Johnson and Mohr argue, and I agree, that all employees and particularly women need to become more comfortable with behaviors like questioning authority, embracing improvisation, and engaging in self-promotion. (N.B. Approach the last of these far more carefully than your male peers.)
I’d add another important item to their list — learn how to disagree, and how to get over it. Engaging in conflict in the workplace and managing it toward resolution is part of the job, particularly in the fluid modern workplace where the need for constant adaptation can cause friction.
While school doesn’t always prepare us for that conflict, athletics may. Anecdotally, I’ve observed that many women who can tolerate workplace conflict well have participated in team sports. We know athletics correlate with career success; a 2002 study found that 82% of women in executive-level jobs had played organized sports in middle, high or post-secondary school. Discipline and focus are two obvious benefits, but I’d argue that team sports in particular offer participants experience in managing conflict and achieving resolution.
Image credit: U.S. National Archives: Department of Labor poster 1941-1945