Executive Insights | April 2013 | By Brendan O’Brien

If At First You Don’t Succeed

After swallowing their mistakes, CEOs who have failed lay the groundwork for learning.

Ben and Jerry's CEO Jostein Solheim learns from the brand's mistakes.
Ben & Jerry’s CEO Jostein Solheim says the brand doesn’t hide its failures from the public. Ben & Jerry’s
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Outside the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream factory in Waterbury, Vermont, past a white picket fence, sits a group of colorful tombstones shaded by large overhanging tree branches.

“It swirled in our heads, it danced in our dreams, it proved not to be though, the best of ice creams,” the epitaph reads for Sugar Plum, a Ben & Jerry’s flavor that was short-lived from 1989 to 1990.

This Flavor Graveyard is where the ice cream concept buries its dead flavors, some of which, like Sugar Plum, were utter failures. But they weren’t entirely fruitless.

“We celebrate the failures, because that is how we learn and that is how our organization learns to take risk,” says Ben & Jerry’s CEO Jostein Solheim. He says the company is one of only a few that allow the public to revel in their failures; the Flavor Graveyard has even become a tourist attraction.

“One of the strengths of our company is that we are not scared of failure. … It’s an opportunity to push things further,” Solheim says.

While silly mistakes are frowned upon at Ben & Jerry’s, witch hunts don’t take place when a product or marketing concept fails, Solheim says. But quick-serve CEOs do have to take these failures into their own hands, learning from them and teaching team members as they go.

Solheim says one of the biggest challenges in dealing with failure as a leader is realizing that your risk profile is much different than that of an employee down the organizational chart. If a project fails, for example, a CEO may view it as a small part of the entire operation, whereas that same project may represent a product manager’s entire body of work for a period of time.

As a result, failure for that individual may be catastrophic to his or her psyche, while the CEO may be able to brush it aside. This is one reason why leaders must provide support and guidance to the entire team when a product launch is subpar or a unit must be closed, Solheim says.

“[The team] needs to know if they fail that we’ve got their back and we are going to make it work,” he says. “We work really hard to have tight processes and really good people in every job, but [we still have to] back them up when they stretch and it doesn’t work out.”

Nick Vojnovic, CEO of Little Greek, a chain of about a dozen fast-casual restaurants in Florida and Texas, says one of the keys to dealing with failure—or even avoiding it altogether—is to make sure the risk being taken is well vetted.

Before Vojnovic became involved with the brand in 2011, he looked to more than 20 restaurant industry insiders, friends, and family members for guidance. “I try to get as much advice and feedback before I make major decisions to see things that I may not be seeing because emotionally I bought in,” Vojnovic says.

He says another approach to handling the ups and downs that invariably go hand-in-hand with the quick-service industry is to concentrate on learning from every moment and to focus on the customer.

This takes a measured amount of humility, says Irv Zuckerman, CEO of PizzaRev, a pizza concept with three units in California.

“Stay humble and remember how hard it is to continue to be successful,” he says. “The idea for us as a company is to take one day at a time … because if you get ahead of yourself and start thinking you’ve got the handle on things, that is when you quickly learn [what] you didn’t know.”

Quick-service CEOs should also remember that they’re in a challenging industry, where failure is often the norm. As a result, realizing that no one is perfect can ease a wounded ego. “We all make mistakes,” Vojnovic says. “The key is to learn from that mistake and dust yourself off.”

After a misstep, leaders must be emotionally prepared to cut their losses, he says. But this is much easier when it’s a product line than when it’s an employee, especially one who works closely with the CEO, he says.

“If they are not cutting it, get rid of them immediately,” Vojnovic says. “If you make a mistake, you need not to be afraid of trying to retreat and go backward, and try to regroup as quickly as possible.”

Quick-service executives must also deal with a range of lasting impacts, depending on the type of failure that has occurred. For example, an underperforming menu item can be much less damaging than a bad real estate strategy, which may have lasting operational and financial impacts.

“The key to life is to learn from any of those setbacks,” Vojnovic says. “I think you are a failure if you don’t learn from your setbacks.”

Once mistakes are made and the cleanup is complete, leaders should move quickly to their next project or product, Solheim says.

“I don’t carry that luggage [from failure]. There is no positive energy and there is no good that comes out of it,” he says. “Spending a lot of time with self pity and failure doesn’t help.”

Ultimately, the key to dealing with failure is to have a positive attitude, Solheim says. “I do not think about failure. I think about success and learning,” he says. “You have to have the philosophy that you come to work every day to do the best for the company, for the employees, and the franchisees.”