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My Best Mistake

Originally published on LinkedIn on June 14, 2021

Mistakes can be fascinating, so long as they’re other people’s. When they're your own they can be difficult and even painful to think about. Try and you may find a protective mental block kicking in. Get past that, though, and rewards await. Now, when it comes to mistakes in comms, I’ve got the full sticker album. And the very best of all? That takes me back to spring 2017 and our annual leadership conference in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia.

I had a range of tasks at this event but my main one was supporting the CEO’s keynote. It involved weeks of brainstorming, researching, coordinating, videography and eventually crafting the whole thing into story form. After many iterations, it was in great shape. All that was needed was the inevitable last minute on-site tweaks. Which is when disaster struck, silently. I was to find out only when the CEO was delivering it live on stage.

With everything going perfectly, the CEO turned to the control desk to play his first video. About two thirds in, the audio dropped out of sync. Everyone looked on in confusion as the on-screen talking heads started mouthing to the audio of other people’s voices. It lasted about a minute - the longest of my career - as I scanned impossibly for solutions. Just as suddenly, the audio snapped back in sync and the video played out. It was surely one of the oddest and most embarrassing moments of any conference in the world, bar none.

Following a post-event inquest - and yes, it felt like a death had occurred - I discovered what had happened. The video we’d used in rehearsals had been replaced right before the keynote with an updated version containing a last-minute edit. Except the thumbdrive used for the uploading also contained a discarded draft. The chances of the incorrect version being uploaded undetected were exceedingly small. On review, I counted at least 7 things that would need to go wrong for that to happen. And they all did. As the lead for CEO comms, it was on me.

Watching helplessly from the sideline as the wrong video ran was a harrowing experience. It left me stunned at the time and echoes within even now. I felt an unwashable feeling of shame and did my best to avoid anyone’s gaze till I could fly home. My wife asked how it went. “Well," I said, "I learned a really great lesson for my next role”.

There are two reasons this episode remains important to me. The first is the way my manager handled it. Instead of quizzing me or in any way giving me a hard time, he patted me on the shoulder and said, “Forget it”, indicating to focus on the many other key tasks to come over the weekend. It was just what I needed. He was good to his word too. At my performance review later that year he himself had forgotten all about it and I had to remind him!

The second is that, since there was nothing I could do about the past, I determined to draw on the experience for the future. I’ve had three more leadership conferences since then. I’m proud to say all of them have been great successes and each surpassed expectations, including this year’s event, our first ever virtual conference. In the same period I’ve had 13 pan-Asia townhalls. All of them have been vastly superior to those that went before and have tended to get better over time.

Of course, my ‘KK’ experience is only one of many reasons why our events have tended to improve. Most notably, my team has consistently overdelivered. But, on a personal level, that experience has been an underlying and unequalled driver. It’s not one I’d have wished for myself or anyone else, but it undoubtedly shaped me for the better. To date, I can say, it’s my best mistake. You won’t tell anyone, will you?

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