Fail Fast, Learn Faster

Many of today’s best organizations have cultures that embrace failure as the most effective path to learning, says Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison.

Gary Burnison is the CEO of Korn Ferry and author of "The Leadership Journey: How to Master the Four Critical Areas of Being a Great Leader."

“Life is pretty stressful around here. It’s one failure after another.”

It’s not the kind of text a parent wants to get, especially from a freshman who’s on the opposite coast. But it’s the kind of exchange I’ve been having with my son, Jack, since I dropped him off in late August for his plebe (freshman) year at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. As a parent and, quite frankly, as a CEO, I know it’s all part of the process: failing fast—and learning faster.

Like other new cadets, Jack has been going through the academic and physical wringer. Just the other day, he was on duty until 1 a.m., had to report for a physical test at 4 a.m., and then took a test a few hours later, which he failed.

“It’s a little tough,” Jack texted after that one.

“I know. If it’s not, you won’t be growing. Trust me,” I responded.

“Well then, I must be growing!”

The best learning comes from failure. The sheer emotionality of it drives the lessons home in a way that can’t be replicated by a textbook or lecture. At the same time, you need to shake off those emotions so you can absorb the learning and try again, only this time with the benefit of the wisdom that comes from a painful experience. It’s like the baseball player who strikes out and then needs to clear his mind before the next time he’s at bat.

The advice I gave my son is no different from what I would tell any other leader-in-training or new CEO: Fail often. Fail early. Fail fast. Embracing failure is a means to a successful end. Instead of fearing failure, become empowered by it.

As I also reminded Jack, going to West Point was his choice—there were plenty of other schools he could have attended. West Point resonated with him for a reason.

Remember, PURPOSE,” I texted. It’s our code word—he knew exactly what I meant.

Thanks, Dad—I will.”  

In the face of failure, reconnecting with purpose is the quickest way to regroup and reenergize. The stronger the sense of purpose, the greater the agility one develops. As we see in our work at Korn Ferry, the highest-performing executives have the highest amount of agility—strategic, mental, people, change, and results agility. These leaders are curious and driven to explore, which guarantees some degree of failure.

The reason Jack is facing so many failures at West Point is because virtually every day brings yet another brand-new situation. He needs to fail now and learn the lessons as quickly as possible because in four years he will be responsible for others in life-or-death situations.

The same basic learning curve confronts every leader. No one grows by repeating the same things—only by stretching themselves to build new “muscles.” It takes a series of first-time situations and unfamiliar challenges to teach you what to do when you don’t know what to do.

Fail fast and learn faster, all the while striving toward a purpose-driven goal.