As Freddie Mercury once sang, “And bad mistakes, I’ve made a few”. The trick, of course, is not to repeat them. Growing up, my father would often impart his wisdom with me with the words “People won’t always remember the mistakes you made, but they will always remember how you handled the impact.” Like any teenager, I didn’t pay much heed to his insights, until those words finally resonated the day I brought down an international law firm.
It was London in the early ’90s. I had just left my teenage years behind and was trying to kick-start a career in IT. I didn’t get the opportunity to finish school or go to university, so I was more than thrilled to be working, particularly in an office and not on a building site where my teachers thought I’d end up. Each morning I would dutifully follow the daily procedures on the company’s core system, a Data General minicomputer. The system ran the financial and communication systems for the entire company and was the size of a modern-day fridge.
On that ill-fated morning, I remember going into the computer room to change the reel-to-reel tapes as I had done many times before. After entering the command to shut-down the tape drive and waiting for the reels to stop, I reached down and flicked-off the power switch. As usual, everything seemed to be going smoothly. Keen to complete my tasks I glanced up at the main console to check the system status. It was blank.
It wasn’t supposed to be blank. Comically I remember banging the side of the screen. It seemed to work in movies but it didn’t work for me. I glanced down to the on/off switch again. There were two of them. The left one was on the mini-computer which had a sticker ‘DO NOT TOUCH’ in red. The other switch was on the tape drive. The light beside it was still green. It wasn’t supposed to be. Waves of panic swept through my body.
Quickly and with a sleight of hand, I switched the minicomputer back on. Surely no one would have noticed I thought. The master console jumped back into life. But not as we know it.
Pages upon pages of “CRITICAL ERROR” and “FATAL SYSTEM CRASH” messages zoomed up the screen. I had obviously caused a major system malfunction. I was very insightful back then! My stomach lurched to the ground as I contemplated the impact this was going to have. No-one will be able to access their documents, financials or email system. It didn’t help that the Partners at the law firm were feared, intimidating and non-forgiving. I weighed up these thoughts for a moment, dreading every second that went past. “Perhaps they won’t figure out it was me” was my closing thought as I walked out of the computer room. I was young, driven and impulsive but by now I was at an all-time low.
The reality was that I knew there was only one path I could take. I immediately told my colleagues about the terrible mistake I had made. Time stood still as they looked at me in disbelief. A senior colleague broke the silence by rushing into the computer room to evaluate the issue for himself. After a few minutes, he returned, not looking too good. “It’s a meltdown” he gasped. Discussing the issue with the other team members, they concluded that someone would need to update, the CIO. The CIO at the time was an ex-naval officer who was incredibly formal and she was quite direct in the limited previous interactions I had with her. The senior colleague, now glaring at me, made his way to the phone. “This isn’t going to be a pleasant call,” he said, “I wouldn’t want to be in your shoes!” he continued.
Dealing with Adversity
The situation didn’t sit well with me. It was at this point that I made the decision to ‘own the story’ and insisted that I would deliver the news to our CIO. I was adamant that I would be the author of my own story and not allow anyone else to potentially embellish the narration with their own opinions, thoughts or actions. It was important to take ownership and be in control.
I plucked up any courage I had and dialled her office number. At the time I probably would have preferred facing a ferocious scrum on the rugby pitch. The phone rang for what seemed like a lifetime and I was silently hoping it would go to her voicemail. It didn’t. Anne answered and after a moment of hesitation, I revealed that we had a significant issue and explained what I had done to cause it. I apologised and offered no excuses. It remained quiet on the other side of the phone until Anne asked if there was anything else she should be aware of. I explained the team was now determining the impact and steps required to restore the system and we would know soon how long that would take. Without breaking her formal tone Anne thanked me for calling her and also for my honesty. Anne remained calm and provided me with instructions to share with the team in a composed and clear manner. I remember immediately feeling a huge surge apprehension disappear.
Whilst the call with Anne went better than what I had convinced myself it would, my nerves were still on tenterhooks. I could barely look at my colleagues, my embarrassment was at an all-time high. I was by far the youngest in the team and whilst I was eager to make a name for myself, bringing down the entire Law firm with a single flick of a switch wasn’t part of the plan. The helpdesk phone was red hot and the senior lawyers were baying for blood as they couldn’t access their documents or email system. It was going to be a long day and I certainly wasn’t going to be winning any popularity awards.
After many hours we finally identified a path to get the system back on-line and fully restored. At this point, Anne called me up to her office. This is it I concluded. Derogatory comments and idle threats from the firm’s Partners had already started to fester around the office and it was made clear there was going to be consequences awaiting the ‘person who caused this’. Like a naughty schoolkid going to see the headmaster (I was very used to that!), I made my way up to Anne’s office. By the time I got there, I had convinced myself that she was about to fire me and that the Partners were going to sue me too. They were Lawyers after all.
It was an open and frank conversation with Anne. She was disappointed, but she focused on understanding the cause of the problem and probed me so she could fully recognise the actions I had taken that led to it. Not just the physical actions, but also what mindset I was in. Anne didn’t lecture me or belittle me. She didn’t rant on about the impact and seriousness of the issue. She recognised from my demeanour that I had already determined the seriousness of the issue. Whilst the conversation continued the voices in my head kept telling me “and now she is going to fire you” after each point she made. Finally, I couldn’t wait any longer. I thanked her for seeing me privately and that I understood why she was going to fire me. She sat back looking confused.
I don’t recall the exact words she used, but I do remember she smiled and explained how she valued my immediate escalation of the issue. That behaviour, she explained, enabled the team to focus on the recovery actions and not waste time trying to find the root cause of the problem. She also appreciated that I had told her directly and not hidden behind someone else or any excuses. I’m glad she had recognised all that because at that moment I certainly didn’t!
Later that night, as we were progressing through the recovery steps, and I was doing my best to keep out of everyone’s way, Anne popped by for a progress update. She called the team together and thanked us all for the effort we were putting in. Unexpectantly she also acknowledged that she had spoken to me at length and that she had accepted my apology. Anne thanked me again for my honesty, and she made it clear that I was to lead the actions to ensure this mistake could never happen again. It was a leadership lesson I hoped I would never forget.
As time went past and I progressed my career, I had plenty of opportunities to tune my style and approach in line with the lessons I had learnt from Anne. I moved onto numerous roles and organisations but I found Anne’s measured and coaching approach was more of an anomaly rather than common practice. In a male-dominated environment, particularly in IT and Investment Banking, it seemed successful leaders were the ones that could demonstrate the fear they struck in others. Back then understanding and dealing with mental health wasn’t a topic or a leadership exercise that was ever really discussed. It was banded in with the other ‘soft skills’ that were mocked by the ‘serious’ executives. “You’re not here to make friends” I remember once being told, “That’s what HR is here to deal with”. Shame on us.
However, ten years later I finally understood the Leadership lesson that Anne had provided. I was settling into a new Leadership role for a Treasury division of a major bank in the UK. Late one night I received a call from one of the team members who explained that during a routine software update, he had wiped out a key application from the trading floor desktops. It was catastrophic.
After debriefing my management team, I jumped into my car and raced to the city to oversee the crisis. I remember waves of anger and panic running through my mind. As a major bank in the UK, the banking ecosystem was dependant on us meeting the payment cut-off times and failure was not tolerated. My fellow executives took no prisoners when it came to major foul-ups and I had seen plenty of staff being shown the door when they messed up. “Heads will roll” seemed to be a favourite phrase used by peers who had a bias for demonstrating their power at any opportunity.
Thankfully it was a long drive into the city, and my mind allowed itself to go back to the crisis I had personally caused some ten years prior. Anne was considered and calm in her approach. She had also demonstrated compassion and understanding that created a great sense of loyalty and motivation for me to always be at my best. She was a Leader I truly admired and someone I had wanted to model myself on. I realised at that point I hadn’t lived up to her standards or the aspirations I had set all those years ago. I needed to channel my inner Anne.
On arrival, Joe, the team member who had rung me earlier that night, came to meet me. He looked terrible. He immediately apologised and informed me he had identified what he had done (or in this case, the steps he missed) that had caused the crisis. Focusing on being calm and considered in my approach, after many hours, we finally rectified the problem, just in time for morning trading. I called Joe into my office.
By the look on his face, I reasoned that he was also expecting the worst-case scenario, as I had done in Anne’s office ten years prior. I didn’t fire him. I immediately recounted my story of when I had caused a major outage. “Speaking from experience, we all make mistakes,but it’s how we deal with them that is most important”. Where have I heard that before! I told him that I was impressed by his honesty and accountability as these were values I respected and were critical to helping take the organisation forward. I could see the relief in his face.
It was my time to pay it forward.