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I'm Getting Naked--Mistakes with Clients

Mistake Michelle Murrain will be hosting the Carnival of Nonprofit Consultants this week and in a strange coincidence, she's looking for posts on mistakes we've made with clients. Given my earlier post on transparency, it seems like now is the time for me to practice what I preach. 

Let me start by saying that by nature I'm a perfectionist, so I really do try to keep mistakes to a minimum. But I'm also human, so I'm not without sin here. Some of my mistakes have been relatively small--errors in addition on bills, submitting the wrong versions of a document. Most of the time these are not a big deal--easily rectified and generally accepted as just one of those things. But not all can be said to fall into the category of "oops."

As I look back over my career, I've definitely made some "big" mistakes, things like:

  • Under-preparing for important meetings and having to "wing it."
  • Agreeing to do something that I know won't work because that's what the client wanted.
  • Paying too much attention to producing "deliverables" and not enough attention to the people and the process for arriving at those deliverables. Then getting annoyed with people because they weren't able to make the changes.
  • Related to the above, giving in to my introverted nature and favoring communication practices like email over phone calls and meetings, even in those cases where I really needed to be more "face-to-face."
  • Blaming clients for not understanding something rather than working with them to see what I could do to make things more comprehensible.
  • Acting like I knew what I was doing instead of admitting that I was unsure and working WITH the client to arrive at a better solution.
  • Letting difficult people get to me in meetings and then responding in anger or dismissing what they had to say because of personality issues.
  • Not paying enough attention to details.

Fortunately I'm not in a business where these kinds of errors are somehow life-threatening, but I'm sure there have been times when I left clients a little worse off than before. That's something that sometimes keeps me awake at night, I can tell you.

Each time I've made a mistake, I've tried to learn from it. Some I've never made again. Some--like getting too product-focused and letting people get to me--are ongoing battles I have to fight.

Over the years I have found a few things that help me to avoid some of the bigger landmines.

  • I know my strengths and limitations and where ever possible, I try to structure projects to play to my strengths and de-emphasize the areas that are harder for me. For example, I'm bad with details. Up to a certain level, I'm fine--great even. But when we get down into the weeds and the "nit and grit," that's just not my thing. That's where I tend to start making mistakes. So I try to avoid projects that require a level of detail that doesn't come naturally to me. Or I find trusted partners who do have that detail orientation.
  • When I start to feel myself floundering, I try to take a step back and figure out what's going on so that I can try to fix things before they go too far. Several years ago I was in the middle of a major, career-changing training session. We had two intense weeks of face-to-face and several weeks at home of working on team projects. About 4 days into the first week, the group started to get really hostile. I was pushing them to change their way of thinking and they didn't like it.

It was 3 p.m. and we were supposed to go until 5, but I could tell that sticking with our planned agenda just wasn't going to do it. I also had no clue what to do in place of that agenda. So I took a deep breath and said to the group, "I can tell that people are starting to feel really uncomfortable with where we're at right now. I honestly am not sure how to handle this and I need time to think about where to go next. So we're ending the class for today and we'll pick up tomorrow."

It was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do. It was also the best thing I could have done. It opened the doors wide for us to problem-solve together. The person who had given me the hardest time told me the next day that he had a huge amount of respect for my willingness to stand in front of everyone and say I didn't have the answer. And the rest of the group was totally on my side after that. Since that event, every time I've found myself in a sort of panic over what's going on with a project, I remember how I handled that and take the time to step back and say "what do I need to do differently here?"

  • Rather than being paralyzed by my mistakes, I try to reflect on them to ask myself "What will I learn from this?" As a perfectionist, I don't really like to admit when I make a mistake. That might mean I'm not perfect. I've tried to get better at this over the years and to use my mistakes as my biggest teachers. (Usually they're the best teachers, actually). So when I screw something up, I try to really examine what happened and what I can do the next time to avoid being in the same situation. I try to see my mistakes as "opportunities for improvement" although sometimes that's easier said than done.

I think that one of the hardest things I've had to come to grips with in being a consultant is getting comfortable with making mistakes. By its very nature, consulting is a practice that puts me in the position of being the "expert." In that role, somehow we're not supposed to make mistakes--we're supposed to have all the answers and know exactly how to handle every situation. That can't happen of course. No matter how expert I am, I'm only human. So rather than trying to eradicate my errors, I'm trying instead to be honest and open about them and to use them as the gifts that they are. As with all things, some days are easier than others, though.

What mistakes have you made? How have you handled them?

Photo via doobybrain


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How long a list would you like?

When I think back, so many of the mistakes were those I made because I didn't know better. I thought I was making good choices, but YIKES. For the first fifteen years of my training and facilitation career I was flying by the seat of my pants. I had no formal training, and I relied on my 'natural abilities'. I can't tell you how many times I was sitting in a class in graduate school thinking 'So that's how I messed that up' looking back over some of my less than stellar sessions of the past. Lessons learned: there is a huge amount of value in getting trained yourself first, and in belonging to professional associations in your field. Many of my mistakes could have been avoided.

I have made people sit through lectures where I have thought I knew more than they did. On the other end of the spectrum I have overly encouraged (almost forced)people to participate in experiential training . One of the only things I haven't done is read powerpoint slides to people.

I did a diversity session on respect the other day. I walked in and said I have studied this stuff, but you know as much as I do. Let's share what we know. It was one of the most powerful sessions I've facilitated in a long time. I find myself providing less and less content and more and more setting up opportunities for people to discover what they know and share with others.

Christine, I think that you summed up for me where I've been trying to go with my training sessions for awhile--sort of a "build it and they will come" approach of trying to create the right space, questions and supports for learning and then sort of standing back and letting it happen. It's a little like conducting music when it's going really well. It reminds me of that experience of being in a choir where different voices are leading at different times, blending, etc. And you're all working together as a team. It's really powerful when you can get it to happen. In a few cases, it's actually been transformative for me.

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