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Hiring for Failure: The New Best Practice

By Victoria Plettner-Saunders

Is it possible to consider that hiring someone who failed can become a new sector best practice?

B-PlanI spoke with a friend the other day about business planning. He’s thinking about working with nonprofits to create business plans (vs strategic plans which we’re more familiar with in the sector).

His comment was that organizations need to allow themselves to fail and their failure to do that is … well… a failure.

My response was that organizations don’t live in a culture that allows for failure because there is the perception (real or not) that funders want evidence of positive (successful) outcomes and they have a responsibility to use donor funds responsibly. Right or wrong, responsibility is more often equated with success, not failure.

Finding Comfort in Failure

Innovation and the entrepreneurial spirit of say, the Silicon Valley, demand comfort in failure. It’s just the way they find solutions, test concepts and learn from experimentation. To try to teach nonprofits to function more like innovative businesses is a tough sell because it requires them to work “against culture”.

Today I was reading an article in Entrepreneur by Walter Chen, Founder and CEO of IDoneThis titled Why You Should Hire People Toughened by Failure, Not Those Coddled by Success and it got me thinking about the intersection of the culture of failure and hiring practices in nonprofits.

Chen suggests that the way to ensure innovation is to surround yourself with people who are adept and comfortable with working through failure as they are the ones who had to personally deal with the reality of the “what if factor”.

Chen identifies several successful entrepreneurs who hire those who have experienced failure including Jeff Bezos and Google. Bezos noted that when you’re innovating failure isn’t just an option, it’s a requirement of trying something no one has done before. For Bezos, hiring for failure is a best practice.

So if you’re hiring people to help you innovate, or even I would think to help you think beyond your current modus operandi, you need to consider hiring the one who has experienced failure, learned something from it and can speak comfortably about how they were able to navigate through it to a better place.

“Hire Someone Who’s Failed at Doing Something Bold”

Chen states clearly that “Conventionally successful people are often those who’ve played it safe and haven’t tried to innovate. Hire people who’ve failed at doing something bold, becausehiring for failure they’re the only ones who’ll succeed at something bold.”

So back to my thoughts about trying to change our culture of failure fear… we who have been raised in the nonprofit sector can’t just flip a switch and decide all of the sudden that failure is an option. We need to change our cultural requirement for success or the impression of success.

Hiring those who have navigated failure and can speak to how it has strengthened their ability to lead, build or manage an organization is a strong step in that direction.