I Screwed Up Today

© Pete Longworth

© Pete Longworth

It’s after 2 a.m. I can’t sleep.

I had a super long (and awesome) day at work with my executive team. But when it was over, I realized I’d screwed up. Big time. I set my team up for complete and utter failure.

Allow me to explain.

Every month we get together to work on the business instead of in it. We take a whole week away from our desks to develop strategies and work through obstacles, dream up future projects and ideas, set milestones and reflect on our progress, and strengthen the relationship between us as the leaders of the company. It’s a huge time investment, but it impacts our people and our business beyond measure, so that’s why we do it.

For the last two days, we’ve been focusing on the financial side of Student Maid—my least favorite part of the company to focus on. Working on the financial side of the business means we’re analyzing our long- and short-term revenue goals and we’re creating action plans to get back on track in the places we’re falling short.

It’s not that I think the financial side is unimportant. I know it’s so important. It’s just that I’m naturally a culture person. Making sure my people are happy at work has been my top priority since starting my business more than a decade ago. I can talk about boosting engagement nonstop all day long—but boosting the bottom line? I need lots and lots of breaks. And coffee.

I’ve learned to tolerate financial discussions out of necessity, and I’m slowly starting to love them. If you’ve read my book Permission to Screw Up, you already know this, but avoiding the numbers for many years got me in a lot of trouble. I gave my people anything and everything they wanted to keep them happy, even if it meant sacrificing the financial security of the company, and that’s a no-no. I learned that if I really want to take care of my people and keep them happy, the business has to make money. If it doesn’t, how can I truly protect or support them? I can’t. And that’s the reason I now focus on the financial side of Student Maid just as much as I do the culture side. It’s what responsible CEOs do.

Back to today.

We revised our short-term revenue goals for the upcoming quarter. We’ve brought on eight new people to help us with the day-to-day operations at our headquarters, so now that we have more time freed up to focus on big-impact work, I thought we could boost the goals a little. Everyone agreed with me. We certainly have the capacity. However, as we decided on the higher revenue targets today, I could sense hesitation from a few on the team.

After realizing the new goals would kick in next week, one said, “I’m not sure where I’ll find the time to prepare us for success next week, given that this entire week is shot because of our executive meeting.” She was right. And she happened to be the one who’d bear most of the weight of these new targets. I told her not to worry—that we’d all just do the best we could and that if we didn’t hit the numbers next week, we’d make up for it in future weeks.

I could sense that my comment didn’t appease her, but I thought I was doing the right thing. From all that I’ve read and been taught about goal-setting, you should find the attainable goal and then aim for a little higher. That way, if you don’t actually hit the goal, you’ll probably still be further along than you would have been had you kept the original, attainable number. So that’s what I did today, knowing that we probably wouldn’t hit next week’s target or the one after that. Or even the one after that. But hey, we might get close. Right?

Well, when I got home this evening, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I knew I was setting the team up for failure. I knew that at our next weekly team meeting, I’d be hearing that we hadn’t hit our goal. So I’ve decided—after a couple hours of crunching numbers and then crunching them some more—that I’m going back in tomorrow morning and I’m changing everything. I’m going to admit that I set everyone up for disappointment, that it’s completely my fault, and then I’m going to present the numbers we can absolutely hit and make it clear that that’s what we’ll be shooting for from here on out. (These new goals are still tough. They'll still require our hard work to achieve them. But the difference is that they're absolutely possible.)

Why my sudden change of heart? It has a lot to do with my recent trip to the Natural History Museum in Houston, Texas. To be more precise, the “Death By Natural Causes” exhibit. (I know, you’re thinking, Umm…where is this going?)

If you know me, it’s no surprise I ended up at this exhibit the moment I stepped foot in the museum. I’m obsessed with true-crime documentaries and murder mysteries, and if I could have any other job in the world, I’d want to be a detective. And so here I was, wandering through displays of people who had died from eating poisonous fruits and by being exposed to toxic house plants, when I found the haunting story of the United States Radium Corporation.

Now, I must warn you—I am the furthest thing from a history buff, so if you already know the story of the Radium Girls, please bear with me. If you aren’t familiar, here’s the abridged version of what happened.

The U.S. Radium Corporation was founded in 1914 and became known for its production of Undark, a luminescent paint. During World War I, the demand for luminescent watches and aircraft instruments surged, so the company capitalized on that opportunity and hired tons of people—most of them young women—to paint tiny watch faces and dials with Undark. The factory workers were told to “Lip, Dip, and Paint,” meaning they had to constantly lick their paintbrush tips to keep them nice and pointy so they could reach small spaces. The problem was that Undark contained radium. The health dangers of radium weren’t understood at the time, so as you can imagine, many people got sick and several of those people died.

But here’s where an already sad story gets even sadder.

As the health hazards of radium allegedly became known to factory leaders—and as it became apparent that more and more workers were falling incredibly ill—the company continued to produce Undark for more than twenty years. Management wore masks and gloves and used protective screens and tongs as they walked around the factory, but they instructed their people to continue lipping, dipping, and painting. They knowingly misled these young women and told them that their working environment was safe, when in reality it was poisoning them.

The only small sliver of good that came out of this unthinkable tragedy is that the Radium Girls—as they are called—changed history. Many brought suits against the U.S. Radium Corporation, which eventually led to regulations governing labor safety standards. But as I walked away from that display and onto the one around the corner about deadly spider bites, I couldn’t stop thinking about what this company did to its people. “How could they?” I thought to myself. “How could they intentionally hurt those women? How could any company knowingly mislead their people?”

And so tonight—while I realize I am certainly not guilty of physically hurting anyone in my company—I am guilty of knowingly misleading my people. 100%. And I’m guilty of causing them some degree of psychological pain too. My decision to make our goals unattainable would no doubt cause stress and anxiety down the road. It probably already has. So here I am shaming the U.S. Radium Corporation, but how could I do this to my people?

I know I’m not the only one. In fact, I was just at a conference with a friend who was venting to me about a situation in his company. He’s the sales manager of a pretty big corporation and he was asked to set realistic growth goals for his sales team. After analyzing boatloads of data and historical sales numbers, he suggested a 10% growth rate. He told me that 10% was pushing it—it was attainable, but only with a lot of hard work and effort. But what did the company do? They thanked him and turned around and made the goal 18%. Why? Because they’re thinking the same thing I thought today: If they made the goal 18%, the team might not hit it. But even if they hit 14% or 15%, still better than 10%.

So yes, we do it all the time. But at what cost?

We set goals that are unrealistic and we ask our people to achieve them. People who work hard and who will do whatever it takes to help the company succeed. And we give those people tight deadlines because we’re hoping for quick results, even though we know those deadlines probably aren’t realistic either. We certainly don’t intend to cause harm or pain, but going about it this way absolutely causes anxiety and stress. It absolutely causes our people to lose sleep. And yes, it causes them to bring work home with them in the evenings and to work on the weekends. Just like it causes them to vent to family and friends about their jobs. And just like it causes them to miss their kids’ soccer games.

If we want to mean it when we say that our people are important to us, then let’s set goals like we mean it. Plus, when our people feel good about the goals we’ve set, they’ll give us their best work and their best selves. And when our people are at their best, the company has the best chance of being at its best. Both culturally and financially.

So, what are the takeaways?

  • Make decisions about goals together, and especially with those who’ll actually be responsible for hitting the targets you’re setting. If there’s a decision being made about goals that will impact you and you’re not included in the conversation, ask to be included.

  • When you sense apprehension about goals, lean into that and don’t decide on a target until everyone seems at ease. If you are the one who is being affected by the goal and you think it will cause you psychological harm, speak up.

  • Check in with people along the way. Ask how they are doing. Do they seem anxious? Short? Stressed? Do they have big, dark circles under their eyes? Are they working late often? If so, something ain’t right. It might not be work-related, but talk until you can safely rule that out. If it is work-related, fix it.

  • Should you screw up like I did today, just admit it. Swallow your pride. Walk right back into that conference room and make it right. Don’t hurt your people just to protect your ego. And on the flip side, if you notice that a goal is too easy, speak up and say that it could be higher. Admit that you under-estimated yourself. Don’t hurt the company to protect your ego.

  • And go to museums. You never know what you may learn.

Okay folks, that’s all I’ve got for you tonight. Now that I’ve figured out a way to make it right with my team, I’m going to sleep like a baby.

Wish me luck tomorrow.

Big Hugs,