by Jennifer Miller on May 23, 2010

in Leadership, Learning

Have you ever led a high-visibility project that has crashed and burned? I have and it taught me a powerful leadership lesson. Read on . . .

The Back Story

Many years ago, shortly after I joined a Fortune 500 company, I was assigned to manage a project called the “Institute”. The Institute was an annual, week-long conference that the company offered to the sales force of its distribution channel. Planning the Institute was an intensive, 10-month project. In addition to coordinating the week’s curriculum with 7 product managers, the project also required full conference logistics planning (meals, facility tours, lodging, etc.) on the part of the Project Manager. It was a huge undertaking.

Lessons Learned— the Hard Way

So, why did the project go so badly? In a word: expectations. I didn’t fully understand the expectations of my customers (the conference participants), and as a result, there were some very angry, disappointed (and vocal!) people in attendance. It was a nightmarish week as I struggled mightily to appease demanding customers and keep the conference logistics on track.  Not everything was a train wreck, but the aspects deemed “unacceptable” by many of the group were enough to cast a negative vibe on the entire conference. At the end of working an 80-hour week, I drove home, exhausted and demoralized. I wondered what the following Monday would bring . . . reprimands from my boss? A demotion?

Astonishingly, my boss did not reprimand me.  She had managed a few Institutes herself and was therefore able to take the incident in stride. So, I took inventory of the very difficult lessons learned and then did my best to put the assignment in the past.  I also breathed a sigh of relief—the Institute project was a grueling assignment, and therefore it was rotated amongst the four Project Managers on my team. It would be someone else’s problem next time around.

A Second Chance

Fast forward two months. . .  

It’s time to start planning for the next Institute and the team is discussing who will be the project lead.  My boss Mary tells me I will be the project lead for the next Institute. Wait— no! That’s not how it’s supposed to work. I’m panicked.

In private, I pleaded with Mary to assign someone else to the project. I told her I didn’t have it in me to endure the intensity of that project for a second time in a row. Mary looked me straight in the eye and said, “Jennifer, you need to manage this project again, because you need to prove to yourself that you can do it—and do it amazingly well. I know that the next Institute that you manage is going to be a success.”

At the time, being told I had to manage the Institute for a second time in a row seemed like a huge punishment. In retrospect, I now see if for what it truly was: a gift. It was a chance to redeem myself. Mary gave me the opportunity to prove to myself that I had what it took to manage a complex, demanding project. And, I’m proud to say that seven months later, I hosted a highly successful, well-attended Institute. It wasn’t easy getting to that point, but without Mary’s decisive leadership action, I wouldn’t even have had the chance to do so.

A Leader’s Choice

When projects go awry on a team, a leader has several choices: coach, reprimand, or remove. In my case, it would have been easy for Mary to “remove” me by assigning the Institute project to someone else. After all, that was the standard procedure and I was clearly not interested in jumping in again. However, Mary knew that if I didn’t get “back on that horse” immediately, I would forever doubt my ability to handle such a large scale project.

How leaders respond to mistakes or failures on their team shapes the way team members will respond to challenges. Team members who know that there will be “hell to pay” if something goes wrong will play it safe. I was trying to “play it safe” by not managing the Institute again. Luckily for me, Mary didn’t buy into that mindset. Mistakes happen and savvy leaders know that in order to get the best out of their people they need to create a culture that allows a bit of room for the occasional slip-up.

A little bit of redemption goes a long way.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Deirdre May 23, 2010 at 5:20 am

Love it! And I love the story. Mary sounds like a wise leader.

Your site looks mahvelous!

Victorio May 23, 2010 at 5:27 am

Hi Jennifer,

This is a great post that I can personally relate to. I’ve also been in a position where I crashed and burned on a job assignment. I had everyone angry at me and truth be told, I deserved their anger. It was my mistake and it was a costly one. My boss was angry, yet she made it clear that since it was my 1st major mistake it was okay-so long as I learned from it.

The company’s culture and leadership is so important. If it doesn’t allow room for error people are not going to put forth the ideas or effort that’s going to make an organization better.

Jennifer May 23, 2010 at 6:20 am

@Dee– yes, Mary was a fantastic work team leader and mentor. To this day, she remains one of my “go to” advisors for leadership.

@Victorio– thanks for sharing my pain, my friend! 🙂 It was the first time I failed so publicly (but, not the last!) and it took me a long time to realize the value of the experience. Sounds like you had a wise boss t00– it’s key to *learn* something from one’s mistakes, otherwise, the forgiveness doesn’t help us grow.

Jessica Miller-Merrell May 23, 2010 at 6:36 am


A great blog post about a great leader and mentor helping you with a great lesson. I’ve always said that the best things for us aren’t easy or often things we want to do. That’s exactly how i ended up in Human Resources.

How did your second institute go?


Franke James May 23, 2010 at 6:41 am


Thanks for sharing your story of redemption. Wonderful! I love when you talk about it as a unexpected “gift.” Mary’s statement to you is a real gem that all coaches and leaders should emulate:

“Jennifer, you need to manage this project again, because you need to prove to yourself that you can do it—and do it amazingly well. I know that the next Institute that you manage is going to be a success.”

Congratulations on proving to yourself that you could do it — and amazingly well!



Kevin W. Grossman May 23, 2010 at 7:07 am

Right on, Jennifer. Redemption is predicated on failure, and without failure we cannot learn and grow and be better.

Nancy May 23, 2010 at 7:10 am

Jennifer, fabulous posting! Out of curiosity, what were the lessons that you learned that enabled you to turn your second Institute experience into a smashing success?

Anne Perschel May 23, 2010 at 7:14 am

Jenn – Nicely done but I think you’ve gone well beyond demonstrating how to build employee morale. You’ve described how to lead a learning organization. What a loss it would have been not only for you but for the organization if someone else had been assigned to round 2. They would have to go through their own learning curve. Having been through one already, you manager decided to get the return on the learning investment. Kudos to her and to you.

Jennifer May 23, 2010 at 7:50 am

@Jessica: So true— often, it’s what’s most difficult to do that yields us the strongest output.

@Franke: It was indeed a gift, but one that took me a few years to “open” 

@Anne: Wow, thanks for expanding this. . .hadn’t really thought of it as a “learning organization” application, but you are spot-on.

@Nancy: Look for a post in a few days about how I didn’t “waste a good crisis” (to borrow from Laurie Reuttiman, @PunkRockHR) and what I learned from it.

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