What Six Leaders Learned From Their Biggest Mistakes Of 2016

These leaders learned how culture solves problems, why not every change is an innovation, and that poaching talent doesn’t always pay.

What Six Leaders Learned From Their Biggest Mistakes Of 2016
[Photo: mantinov/iStock]

From Volkswagen’s ongoing recovery from its emissions scandal to revelations about Wells Fargo’s fraudulent consumer accounts, 2016 hasn’t been short on corporate mistakes and misbehavior. Some slipups were more manageable and than others, and in certain cases leaders immediately admitted fault and changed course. Others denied, deflected, and delayed.


It’s always been important for business leaders to openly admit their misjudgments to their teams and stakeholders–that’s the only way to avoid similar pratfalls in the future. By fits and starts, the business world is coming around to embracing vulnerability, empathy, and transparency, even if we still have a way to go.

As we turn the corner on 2017, here’s what six leaders said led to their biggest miscalculations of the past year, and how those experiences helped them each reset their game plans for the next 12 months.

Know Your Values Before You Hire

Last year, Jeff Perkins’s company hired two people away from a competitor. “At the time, we thought this was a huge win,” he says. “They clearly understood our business and could hit the ground running. We would benefit from their deep knowledge of our competitor–or so we thought.”

As it turns out, says Perkins, CMO of the software testing firm QASymphony (which, in full disclosure, is a client of mine), “they ended up not being a good cultural fit. One of these hires was in a critical international sales role, and they slowed our growth in some of our key emerging markets.”

But the error has been instructive. “In 2017, we will be much more rigorous about hiring people who align with our company’s core values,” says Perkins. Having a competitive hiring strategy counts for something, but it isn’t everything–and probably shouldn’t drive hiring decisions all the time.

Dhruv Saxena, cofounder and CEO of the shipping company ShipBob also discovered the decision-making value of, well, values. But for ShipBob, that lesson came through transitioning from startup to grownup. “In the early days, when everyone is in the same room, it is easy to communicate” he says.


But as the business grew, hiring choices didn’t always keep up, and Saxena is now working to retie them more closely to the company’s mission. “Building an effective team that represents our culture, values, and mission is a key focus for 2017.”

Waiting To Fire Can Cost You

Delayed firings can be as costly as a poorly defined hiring process. Debra Cleaver, CEO and founder of the voter information platform, shared that “in 2016, we waited too long to fire one particular manager. He was creating a toxic environment for everyone on his team, and we spent too much time and effort trying to coach him.”

Since then, she says the organization has taken much the same approach as QASymphony and ShipBob and documented its values. This way, says Cleaver, her team can not only “more easily determine if someone is a good fit for our company,” but also “point to specifics if we need to let someone go.” Better defined values creates a two-way street, she believes, paving the way to better staffing choices–from hiring through termination.

Your Partners May Have Other Ideas Than You Do

“I grew up on a farm in West Texas and was raised on the wisdom that ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,'” says Curtis Eggemeyer, CEO of Lemi Shine, which sells nontoxic household cleaners. The company rolled out new product packaging this year that, as it later turned out, wasn’t necessarily fixing something broken.

“The packaging tested great with our target consumers. We were so confident in our work that we couldn’t wait to unveil it to our retail partners,” Eggemeyer recalls. “We were surprised when, instead of being thrilled, they were concerned about generating any sales from a product that looked new.”

Lemi Shine had assumed retailers would simply grandfather in its new look. “We were wrong,” says Eggemeyer. The company is heading into 2017 focused on looping in its retail partners earlier on and more regularly.


Butcherbox was also surprised this year to find how ideas can either fly or fall once they’re rolled out. Mike Salguero, founder CEO of the subscription beef delivery startup, says it tried partnering with major promoters to “share the health and ethical benefits of humanely raised, grass-fed beef,” only to find “our message was being reduced to ‘meat in a box.'”

“We realized that we needed to reach a smaller, specific audience,” says Salguero, plus a more targeted way to reach it. The new marketing approach is already paying off, he says, and Butcherbox is doubling down on it in 2017.

Your Culture Can Solve Unexpected Headaches

Marcia Deutsch is CEO of Medical Electronic Systems, which makes YO Sperm Test, a smartphone-based fertility test for men. The company operates in Israel, where a regulation this year required workers to begin logging hours. “We have always based our culture on trusting one another to get the job done,” says Deutsch, and asking her teams to clock in and clock out all the time had a demoralizing effect.

There’s a reason why “just punching the clock” is another way of describing disengagement, they found. So the company turned to its culture of trust in order to find a new way to comply with the law. “In 2017, we will only require a morning sign-in sheet and will allow teams to work from home. This compromise meets the legal requirement,” says Deutsch, while expanding “flexibility for our staff.”