“I could have told you that would happen!”

People in my family and many of my friends, are blessed with ‘20/20 hindsight’ …they love to be ‘right’…they frequently remind me that they “told me so”. They particularly love my business mistakes and mishaps and use these as a reason to predict my imminent downfall. They have been predicting it now for several decades.

One particular very close family member recently told a mutual friend (who of course immediately reported it straight back to me) that: “Bob’s biggest problem is that he doesn’t know his own limitations”. They may be right.

Indeed there is a whole medical/psychological condition (identified in 1999) called the Dunning Kruger effect in which “..persons of low ability suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their cognitive ability as greater than it is”. I’m open to the possibility that that’s me… but I’ve rarely claimed abilities outside my range of knowledge or experience; people seem to assume I have them.

In the 30 odd years that I was an ‘employee’ I was frequently targeted as the person who’s ‘fault’ some major corporate catastrophe was. I was also frequently promoted upwards out of jobs I’d ‘failed’ at into jobs I wasn’t really qualified to do so no wonder I made mistakes. I once told my boss that I knew nothing about a managerial position I was told I was being given. “But I don’t know anything about this market“, I wailed. “I know you don’t” he replied…”But everybody thinks you do!”

On another occasion (as a new sales director), without asking permission, I hired entrepreneur Richard Branson’s Nekker Island in the Caribbean for a week as the top prize in a sales competition. The top 12 global sales executives would spend a week in absolute luxury and he company would achieve its annual sales targets 4 months early; Result! News of this incentive rapidly spread through the company to the very highest levels and clearly those ‘in-the inner-power’ circle made sure the CEO was made aware of my permission-less transgression. Indeed a few days later I received a very loud and extremely vitriolic phone call direct from the CEO. “Idiot” “optimist” “ fool” “stupid” “a*s*h*l* “ were some of the more polite names directed at me. Finally after 15 minutes the tirade stopped and I readied myself for instant termination. But instead he said, very quietly, “Right official reprimand over!………………..well done!! ” and put the phone down. The ‘mistake’ sales competition was a massive success.

Being prepared to take a risk and/or make mistakes, I have discovered, is really important for your corporate success. ‘Postit notes’ ‘Nitrous Oxide’ [170 years later still today’s main medical anaesthetic] and ‘Tippex’ are all the result of well known mistakes. Thomas Edison in US and Joseph Swann in UK between them made 1700 mistakes before coming up with a working electric light bulb. Edison was once asked if he was disheartened by all his mistakes. He replied “Not at all I’ve just learnt 1700 ways not to make a light bulb”.

As a result I am starting to formulate a business philosophy:

· You rarely get sacked for doing things. You may be severely reprimanded but sacking is usually a result of not doing things.

· If you ask middle management for permission to do something different they will generally say ‘No’ so why ask them? If it says ‘Manager’ on your door then go and MANAGE!

· Mistakes only become failures if you repeat tomorrow the things which didn’t work today

· If a subordinate asks for guidance on resolving an issue ask them what they think should be done. (i.e. Bring me solutions not problems). When they tell you have the courage to reply “Go on then!” (With every pair of hands you get one free brain.) I learnt this one from a great manager of mine at Reuters, ’Dave Brocklehurst’ Thanks Dave.

Finally, I have a client in NYC right now into whose corporate structure across America we have introduced a “*c*k-up of the month club”; the person who this month has made the biggest corporate mistake but with good intentions, is rewarded with a weekend away (with partner/spouse) in the nearest big city all expenses paid. But if they (or anyone else) then make the same mistake next month they will immediately be placed on the official termination list because we now know something that doesn’t work. They tell me sales turnover is already up this calendar year by 29%…..I maybe wrong !

Bob Etherington

“Europe’s Best Sales Trainer” :  [Voted by ‘Sales Innovation Expo’ 2015 and 2016, Excel London.]



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