OK, so you've just blown it. But even a major blunder doesn't mean your career is over. Much as we all would like to be perfect, our humanity manifests itself when we make a mistake. "To err is human", Alexander Pope wrote nearly three centuries ago. Maybe your new hire is not working out, the technology you selected as the corporate standard is suddenly obsolete, or you made a slip of the tongue at just the wrong time. What we do after that heart-stopping moment, when we realise the error, may determine just how big a problem it turns out to be.
STEP 1: Acknowledge the mistake. The first step toward recovery is to admit to yourself that it's your error. Denying responsibility makes you defensive and tends to elongate the resolution process. Owning up frees you to learn from the experience.
Whinge not! Avoid the victim mentality, searching for an outside force on which to blame your actions. Everyone stumbles occasionally, even the best leaders. Don't let this experience push you into risk-aversion. Instead, use it to learn and grow.
STEP 2: Communicate. You may feel like hiding in your office until the dust settles, but generally this will not serve you well. There is no need to take out a full-page ad in The Wall Street Journal exposing your mistake, but there probably are some people who need to know. Consider who might be impacted by the problem - especially your customers. Next, think of those who will inevitably hear about the problem - perhaps your boss. The earlier you expose the issue to these stakeholders, the better the outcome will be. It is certainly better that they hear it from you than be blindsided.
Early exposure also gives you the opportunity to draw others into the solution. Strange as it seems, many studies show the best customer relations are built when recovering from a shared problem. When apologies are in order, offer them only if they are sincere. In all of this, it's your credibility that is on the line.
STEP 3: Try to fix the problem. Gather your wits and see if you can salvage the situation. There are three possible remedies: undo, redo, make do. Which approach you use will depend on several factors. Is it even possible to undo the damage? How important is it? Can you tolerate the time for a redo? How costly are the various alternatives? Consider the psychic cost to the organisation as well as the financial expenses.
STEP 4: Learn the lessons. Once the problem is resolved, do a postmortem. Use this to understand the mistake so that you don't repeat it. Ask "why" five times to get past the symptoms and down to the underlying causes. How could you have avoided the problem? More information, wider participation, better discipline, tighter controls, better judgment, a better sense of timing? Make changes that will eliminate the problem.
You may be tempted to skip the postmortem, but it's actually the most valuable part of your experience. If you learn nothing from the mistakes that you will inevitably commit, you will put your career in jeopardy. I often think that I learned more from my own mistakes than from any other source.
Early in my career, I was interviewed for a study on future leaders. Asked to recount one of my most memorable mistakes, I was slightly embarrassed by how readily it came to mind. It was reassuring to learn that the study data showed that the most successful leaders could all vividly recall their mistakes and recount the lessons learned from them.