How to Recover From Your Worst Mistake

There are a few absolutes in corporate life. You will feel from time-to-time that things would run so much smoother if you were the boss of everyone. You will pour your soul into a particular project that either gets shelved or doesn’t make the impact you thought it would And one experience will stand out as the worst of your professional life. How you respond to it and learn from it can help determine your future success. For me, the worst moment of my professional life has imparted three critical lessons that have helped me become such a better employee, boss, and person.

This happened when I was a young employee new to client service. My boss brought into a new business pitch process that was halfway towards completion. He summoned me into his office to ask for my help in converting our template new business pitch document into one ready for this project.

I dutifully went off to work on the deck, starting with the simplest task – which was opening up our deck template and affixing Company X’s logo to the bottom-right corner of the deck template, so it showed up on every slide. I then flowed in the appropriate text and selected images that illustrated the ideas and work we were proposing to do.

I then wrote an email with the subject line: Company X deck in progress. In our back and forth, the other participants in the pitch discussed their edits to the Company X document.

Fast forward to the meeting. We handed out copies of our deck and began the pitch. The potential clients started murmuring and pointing to the bottom part of the paper within ten seconds. Our potential clients, representatives of Company Y, were shocked to see their competitor’s logo on the deck that was supposed to solicit their business (their names and logos were very similar looking). One senior representative excused herself and left the meeting. My boss shot me a glare the intensity of 10,000 Suns.

We collected ourselves and apologized profusely. We knew we were at Company Y – it was an embarrassing mistake and oversight, but we’d love to continue to discuss how we could help your business if you’d like. Thankfully they said yes.

My boss and I knew everything we were going to say, so we collected the printouts and just spoke from memory about Company Y’s challenges and opportunities and how we could help.

It was a productive meeting where the Company Y representatives that remained nodded their heads. My boss and I interplayed as if nothing ever happened. Of course, I dreaded the eventual time alone in the elevator, where he angrily, but measuredly said – that can never happen again. He didn’t have to say anything else; I was glad I was not fired on the spot. It never did happen again. And we got the business.

So the three important lessons are thus:

1) Proof your work! Proof other’s work. It was a great case of Group Think. I came in cold and referred to Company Y as Company X, and the rest of the collaborators went and ran with Company X. While I was the clear culprit and committed the original sin, others should have realized I was using the wrong company name immediately.

2) Don’t let a setback change your strategy. We could have ended the meeting right there, assuming they would never hire a company that made a mistake like that. But we knew we had the right solution for them and did our best to quickly pass the issue and get to the matter at hand. Once we apologized, we proceed as if nothing had happened.

3) Don’t let a mistake cloud your judgment. Not only did they prompt us to continue our pitch, they likely weighed all pros and cons and decided we were the best organization to help them. They also never brought up the logo snafu again. From there out, we just focused on the future. Also, my boss could have sacrificed me for the mistake. He could have called them and said, if you go with us, I’ll make sure you work with another employee. But he trusted that I was the best for the job and the client did too.