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Insurance IT Leaders Struggle to Admit When They Are Wrong

Frank Petersmark | August 31, 2015

One of the most difficult things for any executive to do, but particularly CIOs, is to admit that a mistake has been made. For some reason, saying the words “I was wrong” is more difficult for CIOs than almost anything else, up to and including the ever popular proclamation that the project is “on time and on budget.” 

Why should it be so hard to utter a technology Mea Culpa when one is required? In fact, with the still consistently high percentage of technology initiative failures you would think CIOs would have a lot of practice in this area. Such is not the case though, and here is the problem with that.  While such an unwillingness to admit a mistake likely won’t result in a permanent state of perdition in the afterlife, it certainly makes this life more difficult than it needs to be if you’re a CIO. So, whether you imagine yourself on the road to career perdition or not, here’s a couple of suggestions that might be useful along the way.     

Let’s start with the basics. None of us are perfect so there’s no reason to pretend to be. Doing so only delays the inevitable when a mistake or misjudgment finally occurs, and even worse, it magnifies the fallout. In this era of accelerated technology advances, implementation schedules, and customer expectations it is nearly impossible not to make a whopper of a mistake or two along the way.

If you’re a CIO who has not made that whopper, then I’d like to suggest that you’re not pushing hard enough as a CIO at your organization. From a long term career perspective, it’s not that you’ve made a few mistakes along the way, but rather it’s how you react and behave after you’ve made those mistakes. 

We’ve all made mistakes along the way in our personal and professional lives, but as your career matures along with your responsibilities the stakes seem to get higher. Of course nobody wants to be the CIO or IT leader who costs their company thousands or even millions of dollars in misspent time, resources, and money, but it happens, as I can attest from personal experience.  

So when it does happen, don’t panic, even if that feels like a good first instinct. Instead, don’t do anything—at least not right away. That might sound counter-intuitive but the first thing you need to do is give yourself some time to rationally think through what has happened, why it has happened, and what the implications are for the company. This is the part where you have to be brutally self-critical and honest, setting aside all of the convenient rationalizations that we’re all so familiar with. If it happened on your watch then none of those matter—you’re responsible and accountable, and admitting and exhibiting that is a sign of a mature leader.

Once you’ve taken stock of the situation, it’s time to formulate the appropriate course of action.  That course may or may not be what you’d prefer to do, but no matter what, it needs to be what’s in the best interest of the organization. This is where it can get tough. Speaking once again from experience, it’s all too easy to choose a corrective course that is less politically or economically perilous, or that somehow masks what the real problems were and are. While it might bring some short term relief, in the long run it’s a losing strategy.

It’s only after the above is accomplished that it’s time to create a communication approach for all of the stakeholders involved and impacted. The approach should consider the potential and real impact on those stakeholders, so while the conversation should be fact-based, it should also have an empathetic element to it, along with whatever kind of accountability ownership is required from you.

No hand wringing allowed though, just an honest and pragmatic assessment of what occurred, where that leaves things, and what the going forward course or courses of action should be. That last part is important. While it might be tempting to throw one’s self upon the mercy of the court and engage in group-think solutioning, you should always come to the table with your own well thought recommendations. Among other things, that demonstrates executive maturity and leadership. 

Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that mistakes can and will happen across the arc of one’s career. When they do, be sure to handle them with candor and integrity. That way, no matter what happens, you’ll have done the right thing. And while it may seem like it should go without saying, let’s say it anyway—whatever you do, never make the same mistake twice.                                 


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