The Failure Issue

One of the few certainties in life is failure. Yet, it’s not something with which most people sit comfortably.

Attitudes to failure can vary from one national culture to another. In one culture the repeated failures of a would-be entrepreneur might be celebrated. In another it might be seen as a source of shame.

While in the moment a failure can be crushing, it’s not the failure itself that counts. It’s how we learn to grow and build personal and group resilience from it. That’s why we not only need to teach failure in business schools, but also reframe it.

Failure may be the fate not just of a single individual but of whole systems. Many experts see COVID-19 as a global systems failure – and certainly a failure to foresee and prepare for an eventuality of this magnitude.

Every government, business, industry and individual has responded differently to the pandemic, with some turning to national or international counterparts for advice. And as such, all is not lost if, in the midst of failure, there are attempts to learn.

There is a subtle but vital difference between criticizing and critiquing failure. It’s the very process of analyzing and assessing what went wrong that we learn resilience, agility and adaptability. There is something paradoxical here: it’s only through the experience of failure that we can begin to comprehend the roots of success.

My own view is that we can be critical of failure if it stems from inaction, but we should celebrate it if it’s the outcome of trying to do something positive and new.

We need to create a future where failure is accepted as a normal part of life, education and business. It’s time to stop shying away from failure and start leaning into it.

Whether it’s a global pandemic or climate change, the CEMS community is uniquely positioned to tackle these real-world problems. The expertise of faculty and researchers combined with the sheer determination of our students creates a force with which to be reckoned. Instilling the bravery in each and every graduate that’s required to look failure in the eye is critical.

This issue is designed to spark that debate by showcasing some of the experiences, insights and ideas that come from within our community about how to grapple with failure and emerge the stronger for it. It includes:

• Powerful stories from CEMS graduates in Salesforce and other organisations who have grappled with mistakes and burnout, learned from the experience and shared that learning.

• An account from Corporate Partner Skoda on how their graduate programme is reshaping the narrative on failure and creating psychologically safe spaces to learn, experiment and grow.

• First-hand narratives from three CEMS entrepreneurs who are disrupting the worlds of fashion and recruitment, embracing the process of “failing forward”.

• Pieces from three consultancies – CEMS corporate partners – who are variously changing mindsets around failure and resilience, agility and pivoting in response to systems failure, and making the shift from competition to collaboration to re-invent trade.

• A thoughtful interview with Bianca Wong of Hilti exploring how business schools may have a role to play in “normalising failure” for young leaders at the very start of their professional lives and careers.

This issue is also a call to action to rethink failure conceptually and to think about how this might apply to each of us. Only then will we truly be able to sit comfortably with failure as a friend rather than foe.

Greg Whitwell, CEMS Chairman and Dean of the University of Sydney Business School