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Best mistake I ever made? Screwing up at my first job

Practice makes perfect.Practice makes perfect.
Practice makes perfect.Photograph by Ben Stansall — AFP/Getty Images

MPW Insider Network is one of several online communities where the biggest names in business answer timely career and leadership questions. This week, we ask: What’s the best mistake you’ve ever made? The following is an answer by Liz Wiseman, president of Wiseman Group and author of Rookie Smarts: Why Learning Beats Knowing in the New Game of Work.

My most valuable (and perhaps egregious) career mistake came at age 17 when a bridal store hired me as their alteration seamstress. I had been sewing since I was young and, having made numerous prom gowns and a tuxedo, I was fearless with a sewing machine.

Most of the alterations were fairly simple, but when Kathy, a petite size 6 fell in love with a size 12-sample dress, my skills were put to the test. I dissembled and completely remade the dress – it fit perfectly, to both our delight.

But the big screw up came when Kathy came in to pick up her dress 4 days before her wedding. The store manager asked me to do a final pressing. I hated steaming and pressing the dresses – it was sweaty work, and I considered it somehow below my skill level. Begrudgingly, I fired up the iron and began pressing the dress. As I placed the iron on the bodice, I watched in horror as the polyester fabric and lace overlay started to shrivel. I pulled away the iron to find a gaping hole in the bodice of her wedding dress.

I caught my breath and walked onto the store floor where the bride-to-be waited. I greeted her and calmly said, “Kathy, I just melted a large hole in the front of your wedding gown. It’s bad, but I will fix it and have it perfect again in two days.” Kathy was horrified as well. But, to my greater surprise, Kathy didn’t scream…or punch me. She listened to my plan and expressed her confidence in my ability to fix it. I scrambled, found the right materials, and recreated the burned out bodice panel. This time, I pressed it carefully, taking pride in this unglamorous work. I even got showered with praise when Kathy picked up her dress.

That botched bodice and forbearing bride taught me a few secrets for how to manage my own mistakes and help others recover as well:

Admit your mistakes. When we hide or downplay our mistakes, it leaves people questioning both our capability and our connection to reality. When we talk frankly about our mishaps, the conversation shifts from blame and cover-up to recovery. And, when the senior leaders readily admit their own mistakes, it gives others permission to come clean too.

Fix problems fast. Numerous studies show that fixing mistakes both quickly and correctly can actually yield a net increase to customer satisfaction. Don’t just own the mistake, fix it fast and completely.

Solve the whole problem. Every job has its unattractive, low-level work. While prima donna’s cherry-pick the glamorous work (and leave holes for others to close), the most valuable professionals solve the whole problem, from top to bottom. They sweat the details. Those that tackle the entire job find themselves entrusted with bigger jobs.

Let people fix their own mistakes. When someone on your team blunders, it is tempting to seize control and fix it yourself. Yet, when you allow someone to fix their own mistake, they not only learn for themselves, but the team develops a culture of accountability. While mistakes can be costly, a mistake well recovered is an opportunity for you or your team to show your true capability.

Read all answers to the MPW Insider question: What’s the best mistake you ever made?

Almost turning down a job at IBM by Gerri Elliott, board member of Whirlpool, Bed Bath and Beyond and Charlotte Russe

Leaving a cushy job for the ‘unknown’ by Robin Koval, CEO and President of American Legacy Foundation

Reversing my resignation by Kathy Collins, CMO of H&R Block