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Leadership - Supporting Through Failure

Last weekend, we visited our son who is a sophomore Bioengineering major at Clemson University. Our trip reminded me of a common discussion in leadership circles about supporting employees through failure.


Clemson Football and 2023 Expectations


Clemson has had one of the most successful college football programs over the last decade plus. Coming into the 2023 season, Clemson had a record of 142 - 24, with two National Championships, four title game appearances, six College Football playoff appearances and eight Atlantic Coast Championships. Clemson has not achieved the same level of success in 2023 and it has been well publicized:

Social media commentary has not been as kind as the articles linked above.


Clemson's head football coach, Dabo Swinney, has received the most criticism for this year's challenges (putting things in perspective Clemson is currently 6-4 and has won their last 2 games). Mr. Swinney has been criticized for his recruiting, choice in coaches, play calling and numerous other things. Why am I equating Clemson's "struggling" football program with leadership? I'll explain.


I have now been to two Clemson football games - both have been great experiences. You can feel the sense of pride in the program and the University. Clemson allows spectators to walk on the field after the game - a cool experience, especially for kids. Clemson also has some members of the team on the field signing autographs and taking pictures. My youngest son was fortunate to have his picture taken with a Clemson football player (a moment I'm sure he'll never forget).





The moment I will not ever forget is that I heard multiple Clemson players (including the gentleman in the above photo) tell every fan they took a picture with or signed an autograph that they "Appreciated the fans". I did not go to Clemson but I felt a sense of pride seeing and hearing how Clemson's athletes conducted themselves and represented the University. I walked away thinking that Mr. Swinney may be having a tough year record wise, but he is teaching, leading and holding his team to a higher standard amidst the challenges on the field. Leadership - Mr. Swinney is leading his team through "failure" and not only has them focused on improving and winning football games, but also holding them to high standards of behavior as well. Mr. Swinney has not given up on his team and based on their performance last weekend (a 42 - 21 win over Georgia Tech), neither has his team.


Personal Experience


I experienced a situation where hard working, well meaning employees had a challenge with clinical trial information. I was at an industry conference and received a call from my internal business unit leader and a very upset client. I researched the issue and determined that we (the company) put our employees in a situation where they would be at risk of failing. They were utilizing old technology that required a good deal of manual human intervention and a high risk of an error. We were putting a new technology platform in place but not fast enough for this particular project. The involved employees were apologetic and remorseful. I felt bad they were put into this particular situation. I thanked them for quickly communicating the issue and apologized for the position the company put them in. I could have yelled, taken my frustration out on them or even fired them. What good would all of that done? It would have been bad. I would have sent a message throughout the company that I don't tolerate mistakes and built a culture of fear. Hard working, thoughtful employees need to be supported through failure not punished. Drug development is based on failure, I want employees to take well thought out calculated risks - that how creative solutions arise.


Here is how the Society of Human Resource Management states a leader should deal with an employee that recently failed, "With research into the mistake, empathy, an open mind and a team mentality, say workplace experts. And without jumping to conclusions, yelling or imposing inordinately harsh discipline." Harvard Business Journal defines "failure-tolerant leaders" as "executives who, through their words and actions, help people overcome their fear of failure and, in the process, create a culture of intelligent risk taking that leads to sustained innovation. These leaders don’t just accept failure; they encourage it." These articles are not suggesting that poor performance be tolerated, failure related to not showing up, poor work ethic, carelessness, etc... are not to be supported. Especially in drug development where there could be an adverse impact to patients.


Fixed vs Growth Mindset


"The concept of growth and fixed mindsets was coined by psychologist Carol Dweck in her 2006 book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (great book that I recently purchased for my son). Someone with a growth mindset views intelligence, abilities, and talents as learnable and capable of improvement through effort. On the other hand, someone with a fixed mindset views those same traits as inherently stable and unchangeable over time. According to Dweck, challenging situations can be catastrophic for those with fixed mindsets because of the implication that if they don’t already have the skills or intelligence to complete a task, there’s no chance of improvement. When you have a growth mindset, you believe you can gain the knowledge and skills necessary to succeed, which makes every challenge a learning opportunity." Supporting employees through failure could ultimately lead to a stronger overall workforce as the lessons learned from overcoming failure can be invaluable.


Wrapping Up


Our world has become incredibly focused on winners and losers. Winners get all the accolades and losers, get analyzed to death over why they lost. Alabama football, another successful program currently has an 8-1 record. Here are a few headlines from earlier in the year:

I find it pretty amazing how quickly we like to jump on successful people, companies or programs once they have a bit of adversity. All humans struggle, all humans fail - it is a fact of life. Leaders expecting perfection from their employees, players or even children will be disappointed and potentially set up a culture of being afraid to fail. People, teams, companies, etc... can be two things at once. They can currently be challenged and be winners at the same time. I know I walked away with that impression after last week's visit to Clemson. Go Tigers - beat UNC! Also, support your employees, you probably have more winners than you realize.


Jason Monteleone joined Ancillare as President in October 2022, bringing extensive expertise in the clinical trial pharmaceutical outsourcing services sector. A recognized health care and life science leader with 25+ years experience, most recently as CEO of Clinipace (now Caidya), a global mid-size Clinical Research Organization (CRO). Under Jason's leadership, Clinipace merged with dMed, an Asia-Pac based CRO, creating at the time, the mid-size CRO with the largest Asia-Pacific presence. Jason is also on the Board of Directors for the Drug Information Association (DIA), a global association that mobilizes life science professionals from across all areas of expertise to engage with patients, peers and thought leaders in a neutral environment on the issues of today and the possibilities for tomorrow. Prior to Clinipace, Monteleone founded Pivotal Financial Consulting LLC, was Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer of Theorem Clinical Research, was Chief Financial Officer of Omnicare Clinical Research and held executive finance positions at MDS Pharma Services and VIASYS Healthcare. Jason can be reached at jason.monteleone@ancillare.com & jmonteleone@pvtfinance.com. Follow me on X @JMPivotal and sign up for Jason's latest blogs and updates at www.pivotalfinancialconsulting.com.


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