No one is immune from mistakes. Whether it is totally unintentional, or whether you made an uninformed choice or you thought you were making the right decision, if you are wrong, it is really important to fess up and quickly.
Yesterday on our Executive Girlfriends' Group call, we had one of the first female pilots in the industry, Continental Captain Karen Kahn. Karen told a story about how once upon approach to LAX, she spilled some water on the instrument panel, rendering her display screen unusable. At no time were the passengers in danger, as pilots are trained to land even when instruments fail, but upon landing, Karen had a choice.
- She could have just ignored it and let the next pilot deal with it
- She could have called maintenance and told them it was not working and let them figure it out
- She could call maintenance, tell them she spilled liquid on the panel, fessing up to the mistake
Choice #1 is the cowards way out and is flat out wrong. Karen's job is to get the airplane and its passengers and/or cargo from point A to point B safely. But her job extends to ensuring that the entire system works smoothly and that the next time that aircraft is used, that it can leave on time and operate safely.
Choice #2 is better, but doesn't take it all the way. It would have taken maintenance much longer to deal with the problem if they didn't know what was spilled and they might have made a much more expensive repair than needed. Either way, Karen would have been remiss in not reporting the full circumstance to maintenance.
Choice #3 is absolutely the right way. Karen had just spilled water on the console. If she had spilled something sticky or sugary or something with milk or carbonation, it would have been dealt with in a totally different manner. As it was, it was a quick fix. The maintenance person was able to take a hair dryer, get rid of all of the moisture and everything was working fine. There was no delay and no costly repair.
But more importantly, if Karen had made choice #1, she would have felt guilty about it all day, particularly if she heard later about a delay on that aircraft. And anyone who knew how she handled it would have lost respect for her and not trusted her to do the right thing moving forward.
If she had made choice #2 and later heard about a costly repair on the aircraft or a lengthy delay (or both), she also would have felt bad. At that point, she would have had the chance once again to fess up, or just remain quiet, which as you can imagine, leads down the same path as choice #1.
Choice #3 left her with a clear conscience and her integrity was left intact. Her co-pilot would have still had respect for her and perhaps even more than before the mistake was made.
As I've said, we've all made mistakes. It is how we handle them that really matters. It isn't just doing what is right. It is doing it quickly and rectifying the mistake as swiftly as possible.
Corporate life doesn't always reward the admission of guilt. But you should always behave as if you are the owner (e.g. the entrepreneurial way) and that you will have to be fully responsible for the consequences of the mistake. You should also always behave as if everyone is watching. Your integrity depends on it and so does moving forward and not only recovering, but coming out stronger and better than before.