Overcoming the Fear of Failure as a Senior Executive

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In any executive’s career, there will be a series of both wins and losses. The key to longevity is to figure out a strategy for accepting and dealing with those losses quickly so you can move rapidly to the next milestone.

Overcoming the Fear of Failure

I have seen corporate executives become crippled by the fear of failure. When they face a big obstacle or a tenacious competitor, all they can think is, “What if I lose? Will I still have a job?” These executives become so worried about losing that they can’t focus on what they should be doing —executing. In a sense, they end up defeating themselves.

Over the course of my career, I’ve had the same thoughts and worries. When your entire year comes down to one huge deal or project, it is human nature to worry. But you must dismiss those thoughts and execute your plan. Some of the most successful companies and individuals are worth billions because they took risks and executed. Without risk there is no reward.

In times like these, I think of the curtains of smoke caused by the crash of a Formula One car race. The smoke is so thick that the other drivers can’t see beyond it. That is terrifying when you’re driving 180 miles per hour. The drivers who win are the ones who trust that everything will be fine on the other side of that smoke. They step on the gas, not the brake. Yes, it’s a risk, but with that risk comes tremendous reward.

Drive fearlessly through the curtain of smoke on life’s racetrack, and victory awaits you! That sums up my philosophy when it comes to fear in the corporate setting. Step on the gas! Go bigger and bolder. Embrace the risk involved. That’s the way to win. If you take your foot off the accelerator and coast when things get scary, you’ll never win.

It may not seem like it at the time, but failure is not always a terrible thing. Failure helps us develop grit. I believe my failures have given me the fortitude and courage to go forward. Having experienced failure, I know what it feels like, and I know I can bounce back and get through it. I see all failures as nothing more than temporary setbacks, speed bumps on the road to success.

Fear of failure often limits an executive’s ability to act decisively and take action. Getting over that fear of failing and instead embracing risk is the antidote to inaction.

Fail Fast

I’ve heard people in the startup community say, “The best thing is to succeed, but the second-best thing is to fail fast.” I agree with that, and I strongly believe it applies to the corporate world as well.

Unfortunately, when corporate leaders commit to a project, they tend to stick with it long after it is obvious to everyone that the project is going to fail. This is largely because no one wants to admit they made the wrong decision, so they stick with it, hoping things will turn around.

The irony is that admitting the mistake and correcting course quickly is often the best way to proceed. It prevents more money from being wasted; allows the team to consider new solutions, pivot, and recalibrate; and frees up resources and staff for deployment in other parts of the company. I’m a big believer in cutting my losses if it looks like the ROI is never going to be there.

A quick and merciful end to a failing program is more humane than letting it limp on endlessly for years, draining resources and causing undue stress. Someone once said to me, “I would rather commit career suicide than suicide by career.” I totally agree. By admitting my project was a misfire, I might eventually find myself out of a job — but I would prefer that to managing a failing program that causes extreme stress, team infighting, and endless sleepless nights.

Vishal Agarwal is the bestselling author of Give to Get.

By Vishal Agarwal