What Doesn’t Kill You: Bouncing Back from Failure

What Doesn’t Kill You: Bouncing Back from Failure

14 Jul 21 5mins Jon Midmer


When taking a client brief for an executive team role recently, we were asked to look for candidates who had not just enjoyed success in their career, but who had also experienced failure and bounced back from it.

The majority of leaders – including very successful ones – will have clearly ‘failed’ in one way or another at some point in their career, so it’s not too big an ask. However, it struck me that very few clients explicitly put bouncing back from failure on their candidate ‘wish list’.

Over the past few weeks I’ve taken some time to reflect on the value of failure, and asked a cross-section of founders, chairs, CEOs and senior functional leaders across the JMA Community for their views on the subject. Below are our combined thoughts:

Defining ‘Failure’

The challenge when it comes to defining failure is that it’s an ambiguous and loaded term, whose definition is largely subjective. However, for the purposes of this article, let’s take our definition of failure as ‘any major or serious setback in someone’s career or life’.

The Value of Failure

Here’s what some of the senior members of the JMA community had to say about the value of failure

Experiencing Setbacks

Allowing yourself to fail shows courage: “If, when you’re running, you don’t fall and graze your knee, you’ve not been running fast enough. If you’re not prepared to be bold and take risks, then you’ve held yourself back.” – Chief People Officer

Failure builds resilience: “In my career, in amongst my successes I’ve been demoted, made redundant and forced to resign, but I came back stronger after each event. However hard it is at the time, if you can pick yourself up and continue your career, you’ll be all the more resilient.” – CEO

A lack of experience of failure is dangerous: “You don’t want the first time an exec encounters failure to be once they have reached a really senior position. Without the ‘muscle memory’ of past failures, they are less equipped to navigate themself and their team through choppy waters – and have the confidence to know that they can.” – Chief People Officer

Experience of failure: enables C-level leaders to more effectively coach and empower the teams beneath them: “If you’ve never failed, how can you guide a member of your team through those learning experiences?” – CHRO

Learning from Failure

Most people said that the reaction to, reflection on and learning from failure was more important than the failure itself:

We all have failures – some larger, some smaller – so at interview I usually ask someone how they’ve come back from failure to understand learning agility, openness and maturity to deal with complex issues and circumstances. Frankly, at a senior level, I would not believe someone who said they had not experienced multiple failures.” – Chief People Officer

“What I perceived to be a massive personal career failure as a failed entrepreneur turned out to be an amazing opportunity to learn, and gave me life lessons in mistakes not to be repeated. I’m really grateful for those painful moments.” – CEO

“Taking personal ownership for a failure shows humility and makes someone more likely to learn from the mistake and work hard not to repeat it. Failure also forces you to lose the sense of invincibility and perfection that many high performers have held from an early age, and helps you move from self-centredness to other-centredness.” – Chair

Failure can be the catalyst for personal growth and transformation. “Failure forced me to do some soul-searching. I’m not sure if I was completely miserable, but I definitely needed much more self-awareness and resilience. It not only resulted in me starting a new business, which has turned out to be really successful, it has also grown me as a person.” – Founder

Reflection on failure can prompt a growth mindset: “Someone who has reflected on their failure has had to understand it, think about themselves and their own weaknesses and strengths. However, failure isn’t an end in itself and you can develop amazing reflection practice without huge failure. What matters is ‘pain + reflection = growth’, which drives a growth mindset.” – Founder & CEO

Do Companies Provide the Space for Early- to Mid-Career Failure?

Many thought not: “Personally, I have always felt companies say 'we need to fail fast’, but in practice there’s still a taboo associated with it.” –COO

“Honestly, many companies say they like risk-takers, but going ‘out of bounds’ can be seen as culturally inappropriate, create perceptual biases and, ultimately, become a career derailer.” – Chief People Officer

However, others disagree: “When talking about our high-potential ‘bench talent’, we have pro-active conversations about how we can create environments and experiences for people to ‘skim their knees’ – taking on roles or projects where success is not guaranteed – to ensure they reflect, learn and grow from the experience.” – Chief People Officer

“Being given the permission to fail early in your career is important because it totally transforms not only the way individuals think and approach their future work, but also how they then lead teams later in their career. A leader who has experienced career failure and is willing to share it with their team is more likely to create a culture of psychological safety, which I believe strongly correlates with the highest performing teams.” – VP, Talent

“At companies with a long-term view on their people and on the importance of personal development, you have to accept that if you want leaders with breadth, at some point you’re going to have to put them in roles that they do not have deep experience in, and they may well fail.” – CEO

“We have some senior roles, known as ‘growth roles’, in which people can experiment more, but there are other roles in which the exposure and cost of failure can be too high for the individual and the company, into which we almost always place people who have had similar roles before.” – Chief People Officer


In light of the above, it would seem perfectly logical – necessary, even! – for our client to seek candidates who have experienced, learned and grown from a few one-off failures in amongst an otherwise successful career. Failure does not, in itself, guarantee future success. However, for those that are humble, reflective and focused on self-improvement, it toughens you up, teaches you valuable lessons and makes you a more rounded, relatable and hopefully successful leader.