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‘The most important thing is to get back on track.’ Advice for CEOs who miss their goals

Maynard Webb offers a toolkit for assessing what went wrong, and how to move forward.

‘The most important thing is to get back on track.’ Advice for CEOs who miss their goals
[Source image: sham prakash/iStock]
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Editor’s Note: Each week Maynard Webb, former CEO of LiveOps and the former COO of eBay, will offer candid, practical, and sometimes surprising advice to entrepreneurs and founders. To submit a question, write to Webb at dearfounder@fastcompany.com.

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Q. Things haven’t been going as planned. For a variety of reasons, we’ve missed some big goals—some by a little, and some by a mile. How do I communicate this? 

-Tech executive at a public company

Dear Executive,

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I have a lot of sympathy. As a perfectionist myself, it kills me when I don’t deliver on what I committed to do. Now, we have to think about why this has happened. To determine that, I have some questions for you:

  • When did you start to think you might miss the goal? When were you certain?
  • Did you communicate this concern? Did you message anything in advance, or did you wait, hoping for a miracle? People don’t do well with surprises. And like with all problems, bad news doesn’t get better with age.
  • How big of a surprise is it? Where would it fall on the Richter scale?

When things don’t go well, people are looking for you to step up and lead in a bigger way. How you handle sharing bad news is a great way to instill more confidence in your leadership. This is what people will want to know:

What was the business issue that caused the problem? Answer these questions clearly and definitively to understand why. Own it. Do not be defensive.

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  1. Was your planning flawed? Were your goals unrealistic?
  2. Was your execution flawed? If you under-executed, at what phase did this happen?
  3. Was the product flawed?
  4. Did the market for the product or service tank?

People will want to know what is next, specifically, how can you get better? If these are very serious issues your job can be at stake, but it can still be saved. The board and the people at the company want to know how this affected you. Did it harden your resolve? Do you know what to do next? Are you doing this with urgency—better, faster, and stronger than ever?

Be transparent about where you fell short and be positive about the momentum that you do have. Don’t become so conservative that you miss the opportunity you’re striving for. Mediocrity is the worst place you can be. Continue to set aggressive goals. It’s important.

Finally, after you go through all of this, it’s time to move on. At eBay, we used to say, “It doesn’t matter what happened last quarter. The most important thing is to get back on track.” You have to understand what went wrong, learn from it, do something differently, communicate more, and not give up. Lead through this. Leadership is about giving hope—and then delivering on it.