In every person’s career, there are pivotal moments that stand out. These experiences can range from landing your dream internship to being made partner at a firm, and each holds its own set of lessons. However, I’d argue that the setbacks and failures we experience shape us equally as much as our successes. We are defined by our failures, the lessons we choose to learn, and how close we stay to the pulse of change in order to keep up with market transitions. I’d like to share a few are key lessons I’ve learned: Make your weaknesses your strengths.
I was diagnosed with dyslexia at a young age, and in third and fourth grade, it was so severe that my teachers doubted that I would even go to college. However, with the help of special teachers and mentors, I learned how to think differently, enabling me to not only overcome the challenge of dyslexia, but to turn it into a strength in business. I can jump quickly from A to B to Z, making it easy to see the bigger picture even faster, identify opportunities and problems, and see how business propositions will play out from start to finish.
In part because of my dyslexia, I faced challenges early in my career, like throwing up before speeches and losing my place when reading from scripts. I knew that I needed to take a different approach if I wanted to become an effective communicator and come up with a solution that worked for me like creating a mental outline. By doing this, I was able to develop public speaking into one of my strongest skills. Now I am as comfortable speaking to 10,000 people as I am in a one-on-one conversation. These experiences have truly made me stronger and shaped the leader that I am today.
We are products of our setbacks.
Some of my most challenging moments stand out in my memory as lessons that created the opportunities for growth. For example, after IBM I took a position at Wang Laboratories and worked with the founder, An Wang. It was tough to see a technology icon like Wang close shop in 1992, but they missed the critical shift from mini-computers to PCs and software and never recovered. This experience taught me the importance of creating an environment that looks for inflection points in the industry, not just at what competitors are doing. I realized that in order to lead market transitions, a company must act fast, accept the reality that risk could potentially mean failure, and think like a teenager. This lesson stuck with me throughout my career and was essential to Cisco’s success; catching market transitions and having the courage to change from doing “the right thing too long” to “the next big thing.”
Setbacks have taught me that if you don’t disrupt yourself and your business, you’ll get left behind. The technology industry has no hierarchy and no room for entitlement; the big fish have failed before and new disruptors have risen to not only beat out competitors, but change the direction of the market altogether. Overall, failure and lessons learned are an important part of success and how you win in the future.
When you inevitably miss, course correct quickly.
A failure that I often recall when discussing market transitions is our acquisition of Flip in 2009. Our mistake was that we fell in love with the product, not the architecture. We were outmaneuvered by Apple, and although it was difficult to accept, we knew that we had to listen to the market and cut the product.
The reason we were able to remain a successful company is that we course correct quickly. While Flip is pointed to as one of our biggest failures in the grand scheme of things, this acquisition wasn’t in the top 20 in terms of cost. Without setbacks like this, while painful but necessary, we wouldn’t have learned to quickly shift strategies and stay close to trends in order to anticipate change.
Insignificant moments have the potential to be big breaks.
In my career, I’ve found moments that seemed at the time to be too small to be pivotal. For example, after receiving my MBA at Indiana University I was ready to hit the ground running in either finance or law and a friend suggested I work in sales at IBM, which didn’t appeal to me. After being enticed with tickets to a basketball game, I agreed to a conversation that shifted my perception of IBM from a geeky, tech company to a business helping customers transform for the next generation. At the time, the decision to join the sales team and my subsequent growth within the company didn’t feel significant, but ended up being what sparked my love for technology and were the “big breaks” that led me to Cisco.
Big breaks can happen when you least expect them, and more frequently they will stem from your setbacks rather than your successes. In today’s environment, if you aren’t being challenged constantly, you won’t survive, making the ability to learn from failures and quickly adapt more important than ever before. Change takes risk, and you have to be willing and ready for when opportunity presents itself.