In my career I’ve had the benefit of observing the working style and behaviors of hundreds of business executives, community leaders and professionals. Each of them brought differing personalities, temperaments, skills, and experiences to our shared work. Many of them provided important or interesting teaching moments. Yesterday’s disclosure that Treasury Secretary Nominee Timothy F. Geithnerhad failed to pay overdue federal back taxes and penalties brought one of them immediately to mind. The details of Geithner’s tax troubles are ably reported in today’s New York Times so I won’t tread over this well worn ground. There are several solid lessons to be had. One of them is about “RM’s”, which leads me back to an earlier teaching moment with a venture capitalist.
Judging from his curmudgeonly ways, he had seen more than his fair share of bad ideas, poorly executed business plans, sloppy strategies, and less than stellar executive performance. He had also seen oodles of what he called “RM’s”—a not entirely positive short-hand for “rookie mistakes”. He had a knack for throwing “RM’s” at you, whenever he thought you’d overlooked the obvious, failed to think through your approach to an issue, or simply fell short of his expectations. “That’s an RM”, he’d say. His judgement omnipresent. “You need to look at this differently. You need to re-think your strategy here. Have you given any serious thought to the long-term impact of what you’re planning to do?” Invariably, the questions would come fast and furious without sarcasm or rancor. But the “RM” judgment was as crisp as a sub-zero winter morning. It had the feel of the character Gordon Gekko from the movie Wall Street (played by Michael Douglas) or perhaps Fox television’s 24 Agent Jack Bauer (played by Keifer Sutherland) up close and in your face. It was discomforting to be sure. Many a budding entrepreneur and even some senior level executives withered under the imprimatur of numerous call-outs for “RM’s”.
To be clear, if you’re interested in achieving any level of personal and professional growth you’ll likely collect your own set of “RM’s”. I’ve got mine and am still adding to the set from time to time. The trick is not to have a matching collection. If you do, it means you’re probably repeating the same “RM’s” over and over again. That’s a mistake of a different type. Rookie mistakes come with the territory. In the process of learning something new, exploring a fresh frontier or discovering a new interest, the odds are something will go astray. Dealing with a rookie mistake is easier than it looks. When you make a mistake, own up to it. Apologize directly, clearly, and quickly to those affected. The “I” message, as in “I made a mistake and want to apologize” works best. If there’s a means to remedy the situation, do so as quickly as possible. Among the largest “RM” is the temptation to cover up, gloss over or deny your culpability. That’s a far greater danger and much bigger risk to your career, reputation and self-esteem than you might ever imagine. Don’t do it. Making rookie mistakes is human. Learning from them and managing them effectively is a leadership imperative.