So many people ask me how I made the leap from engineering to organizational and leadership development—from applied science to the human sciences. Well, it can partly be traced back to a massive failure.
I graduated from college with a degree in industrial and systems engineering and went to work as a logistics engineer in a pharmaceutical company in Columbus, Ohio right after graduation. My very first project was to manage the design, build and implementation of an inventory control system for the warehouse that stocked and distributed educational literature that accompanied this company’s health products.
This first project entailed me working with the senior leaders of the major departments (Sales, Marketing, Warehouse Operations, etc.) to determine their needs for the system and develop the specs for this system. Here I was a 22-year-old Black woman facilitating spec meetings with senior white men who yelled at each other to get their point across and ensure their system needs were a priority. I remember at one point just sitting in one of the meetings feeling like I had landed into the twilight zone. Then I woke up and raised my voice over the men to get their attention and bring some order to the process. What they didn’t know: for two summers right out of high school I worked for my father as a summer safety engineering intern in a refractories plant. I had to go into the plant 3-4 times a day and climb onto the big stamping machines to get clay samples. Any time we were in the plant, we had to yell over the huge machines to be heard. I wasn’t afraid of a little yelling.
This project also entailed me writing code to develop the system. I had done fine in my inventory control class and had learned to solve the complex problems. But programming computers? Not only was I not a good coder, I would lose my focus and get so drowsy sitting at that computer poring over code. I’d have to get up and take a break and go talk to a few colleagues I had met in another department. Compared to sitting in my cubicle trying to figure out code, facilitating the boisterous meetings with the senior leaders actually became the highlight of the project!
Eventually, my manager realized I could not code that system. He arranged to hire a contract programmer. I’m not sure if the contract programmer was supposed to be mentoring me in coding or if I was supervising him, but each day we sat side by side in my cubicle while I watched him write and test code. I remember feeling embarrassed that we had to bring someone in to do what I “should have” known how to do. I began to quietly map out my exit strategy.
The system got built and then it was up to me to train the users on the system. I remember my first training class. I went out to the warehouse and set up training classes for the warehouse workers in charge of managing and picking product inventory. Eureka! This felt so right. I had found my calling. Or at least one dimension of it.
What felt like such a failure, an obstacle to success, turned into an opportunity to follow a path that became my lifelong calling. Here’s what I learned from that and other “failures” in my life.
Perseverance. Determination and grit are keys to turning “failures” around. As embarrassed as I was that I couldn’t code worth a dime, I stuck with the project, accepted help and focused, instead, on what I did well. I continued to manage the project and brought the project to completion. I did ultimately leave that position and went back to graduate school but not before we brought closure to that project and I recognized my gift for training others. Whatever you are working on right now that seems difficult, keep at it. Seek help if need be. Ask for some guidance.
Perspective. I’ve come to recognize at this stage of my life, that we don’t have to see any “failure” as final but as a learning opportunity. I recently spoke with a senior leader in a technology company who teaches his people that “failure is not fatal.” But he expects his people to learn from the failure and put a process in place that will keep others from making the same mistake. Don’t let your mistakes define you. You may have failed at a task, but you are not a failure. The task you failed can be a source of data. Discover what it is that you have done well and build on that. Discover what it is that you feel called to. Follow that calling.
Performance. Hard work is key to much of our successes. Though I couldn’t code worth a dime, I poured all my effort into what I could do well—manage the process, facilitate meetings with internal customers and train. I grew up in Western Penn/Eastern Ohio in Steel Mill country. Everybody I knew worked hard in steel mills, brick yards or potteries. Both of my parents passed along to me a hard work ethic. I’ve come to realize, for most of us, we’ve got to perform—work at what we want. So, work at what you want. Practice. Prepare. Stay abreast of your field of knowledge.
Prayer. For me, praying through these failures or obstacles was absolutely vital and life-giving. The learning curve in any new endeavor can be grueling and stressful. It can be frustrating and too many people are tempted to give up before they get to the turning point of the learning curve. Prayer allowed me to seek guidance on next steps, on strategies, without which I may have felt like an abysmal failure. Prayer counteracts our self-talk that bellows out, “You should have known that!” “Why did you think you could do this?” “What’s wrong with you that you can’t get this?” The still small voice that you hear in prayer, the Spirit guiding you to the truth that is yours, is necessary to quiet the voice of guilt and condemnation. Carve out time to pray. To meditate, To journal.
Patience. Patience is an inner quality that develops within us as we learn to keep working at our goals. Success for most of us doesn’t happen overnight. In fact, once I went back to graduate school, I had three more years of graduate level classes that laid a great foundation for organizational consulting and training. Slowly but surely my career path, my calling became clearer. Be patient on your path. You are going somewhere. So much of your life is about the journey itself. Believe it will work out and you will become what you believe.
Purpose. Any success is integrally related to purpose. Purpose is the reason each of us has been placed here to serve and equip others to serve. The path to success must be filtered through purpose. As we become clearer on the “why” of our existence, the more able we are to learn from failures and reframe obstacles into opportunities.
In retrospect, I am very thankful for that first career failure! That first obstacle became a major opportunity for me to discover my calling and career. I invite you to take a moment to think about an obstacle you are facing right now and look and listen for the opportunity that is surely there.
© Jeanne Porter King