Steven Puetzer—Getty Images
By Stav Vaisman
February 22, 2017

The Entrepreneur Insiders network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in America’s startup scene contribute answers to timely questions about entrepreneurship and careers. Today’s answer to the question, “How do you move your company forward after a huge setback?” is written by Stav Vaisman, co-founder and CEO of OurPlan.

In February 1943, the II Corps of the U.S. Army suffered one of the greatest setbacks of World War II. In the lonely Kasserine Pass in a Tunisian mountain range, the Third Reich’s panzer tank division, under the brilliant leadership of Gen. Erwin Rommel, used superior armor and guns to defeat the II Corps. The Americans lost the first major battle of the war.

Enter Lt. Gen. George Patton—scrappy, foul-mouthed, and supremely confident in his leadership and strategic abilities. Charged with planning one of the most important comebacks in the history of the war, Patton quickly went to work retraining soldiers and strengthening the command of the II Corps. Less than a month after its defeat, the II Corps defeated the Nazi panzers at the Battle of El Guettar and changed the course of the war.

Even if the fate of the world is not at stake, the extraordinary comeback of the II Corps offers crucial lessons for business leaders seeking to move their companies forward after a huge setback. Patton’s leadership style and strategic genius provide several lessons for those seeking to bring their own firms back from the brink.

Recognize why you failed

Patton recognized multiple factors that contributed to the defeat at Kasserine: The II Corps’ soldiers were poorly trained, its commanders were incompetent, and its artillery and air support were deficient. Patton’s multifaceted solution stemmed from his ability to recognize the II Corps as complex organization comprised of people, materiel, and a command structure.

Similarly, your post-setback evaluation must recognize the fact that the causes of failure are most likely related to more than one factor. A colleague of mine suffered a major setback after his startup initially failed to secure financing. After evaluation, he went back to the investors who rejected him and asked for as detailed an explanation as possible. To his surprise, the investors all offered different reasons for closing their purse strings. My friend and his team found merit in all of these explanations, and they revised their business plan and re-pitched accordingly. During their second round, they secured financing.

Avoid the blame game

When Patton rid the II Corps of its inept commanders, he ended the blame game that ensued following the defeat at Kasserine. Patton recognized that those who blame others for failure are inherently ill-suited to mount a comeback.

A company I work with descended into quite a nasty game of infighting after reporting one of its worst quarterly sales results in company history. The CEO did two things right in this situation. First, he made no rash conclusions about who was actually to blame before further analysis. Second, he recognized that those who were quick to assign blame were acting out of guilt or fear, neither of which he found desirable qualities. Those people were not around for the next quarterly report, which showed marked improvement.

Get a pair of fresh eyes

Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower recruited Patton because Eisenhower knew that a pair of fresh eyes was needed to evaluate the failure of the II Corps. Your firm might also require a set of new recruits. Fresh eyes are important because they are not beholden to perceptions shaped by the past. They can avoid entanglements of self-interest, and just as importantly, can see the situation as it really is, rather than how some might want it to be.

 

Inspire the troops

Most likely, your corporate culture precludes making a speech that directs profanity, unflattering epithets, and veiled threats at your team. But Patton’s brutally honest communication style made him a favorite of his soldiers. Soldiers followed Patton because they knew they could trust him, no matter what he said.

A setback at your firm will create uncertainty in your personnel. Commanding trust in your leadership will require you to be frank, earnest, and honest—if not a bit profane at times. A firm I advise recently had to fire a founding member due to unethical behavior. At first, the firm decided to simply distribute a statement prepared by legal counsel on the company email system. The statement was ambiguous, raising more questions than answers. After a conversation, we agreed that the best course would be to assemble the staff for a forthright question-and-answer session that provided the transparency and catharsis necessary for everyone to move on.

A major setback for your firm can lead to an existential crisis about your future. While the situation may seem dire, the lessons of the II Corps under Patton’s leadership reveal the potential for mounting a comeback despite long odds. But this comeback is only possible if you recognize multiple factors for your setback, avoid the blame game, get some fresh eyes in formulating a new strategy, and inspire the troops for another rally. Your efforts might not save the free world, but they can save your firm.

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