The Failure Wall

Last week I told you about D&B Credibility and its uncommon approach to talent. I got a few raised eyebrows when I mentioned the company takes up to nine months to pull the trigger on a hire. CEO Jeff Stibel says it’s a good way to know that the employee is a perfect fit, and there’s a better chance of retention.

In the post-2008 economy, that can be good and bad. Good for an employer to resist the temptation to pluck the next adequate candidate from an overflowing talent pool. Bad for a job seeker who can’t afford to wait nine months while an employer is looking under the hood.

That said, there’s a lot to admire about this company and its culture – and most importantly, how effective communication is at the heart of employee engagement.

One unique feature of the D&B culture is the Failure Wall – a giant whiteboard on which employees are encouraged to write down an experience where they felt they came up short and what they learned from it.

The Failure Wall has been widely chronicled and celebrated. The LA Times wrote about it and Jeff blogged about it for Harvard Business Review. Naturally, both went viral, making this an overnight phenomenon.

A business leader I admired once told me “You learn the most from the job you didn’t get.” Most of us would admit that despite the sting of failure (or failing to meet expectations), we pick ourselves up off the floor and gain fresh insight and self-awareness.

Indeed, when I asked Jeff “What’s the D&B Credibility success story?” he simply replied “People. Admitting our failures and learning from them.”

He continued: “You learn the most from your failures. We encourage people to disclose their failures and discuss them. “

There’s something cathartic about admitting failure – or even admitting you’re having a bad day – and doing something about it. If a customer service rep has a negative experience with a customer, Jeff may tell that person to take the rest of the day off and come back refreshed tomorrow.

How many times have you said to a colleague: “That’s on me.” Or “My bad?” It felt good, didn’t it? Even better when you say, “Here’s what I can do to fix it.” Or “Here’s what we’ll do next time.”

Stibel has several degrees, one of which is brain science –  the interdisciplinary study of psychology, philosophy, artificial intelligence and neuroscience. So I suspect he’s applying what he learned at Brown University. Of course he leads by example and will admit his own failures. How many CEOs do you know or have heard of do that?


Note: I came across this phrase several times: “Mistakes are the predecessors to both innovation and success.” Curious to know where it came from, I Googled it. The result was 5,790 matches. I don’t know who first said it, but Jeff has done a nice job of making it one of his key messages.

- Company blog about the Failure Wall
- Jeff describes the Failure Wall (video)

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