Cultivating Our Capacity for Repeated Success

Most of us are familiar with the old adage that we must learn from our mistakes. But how often do we learn from our triumphs? To illustrate this point, this column explores 2 storylines: first, we follow Noel and her team as they achieve an against-all-odds victory. Then we dig underneath to see how they maximized the value of their huge accomplishment. It’s the second story that contains valuable lessons for us all.

Let’s begin with Noel. When she came into her chief executive officer role 3 years ago, she inherited an organization in turmoil. Its most serious threat was starkly portrayed by outside stakeholders who claimed that the institution no longer had a reason to exist.

Noel also encountered significant problems within her team of senior leaders. They were accomplished individual contributors, but some were in the wrong roles for the work ahead. There were also unhelpful personality clashes that affected the whole team. The group was not a cohesive unit, and it was ill-prepared to lead the organization away from imminent demise.

After gaining a full understanding of her challenges, Noel wasted no time. She partnered with her board and other allies to focus on the organization’s mission and determine where it could add value in the new landscape of healthcare. From there, they developed goals and strategies that held potential for success.

Noel, her board, and the leadership team set about implementing the plan, adjusting as needed during the occasional wins and the many setbacks that followed. Eventually, the number of successes outnumbered the failures, and the organization started to reap the rewards of their intense focus on their updated, mission-consistent contributions. Finally, after nearly 3 years, the organization achieved a new level of viability. Every measure indicated they had turned the enterprise around.

So, does the story end with “they lived happily ever after”? No. This is where the second story begins. Although it’s truly remarkable that Noel and the team achieved a goal that seemed unattainable, the real story is what she and her team did after the organization’s trajectory reversed course. They realized that no matter how great things had become, it wouldn’t last. It couldn’t. So they were eager to understand and capture what made them successful. They wanted to embed the learning from their missteps and newfound best practices so they would be ready when future challenges appeared.

What did they discover?

  1. Noel and her team had learned to respect the limits of their professional knowledge. They now know that it’s not enough for leaders to rely on technical, clinical, healthcare-specific knowledge. Our organizations—and all organizations—are in a constant state of change. To survive, we must learn, all the time. To make this case, the author Liz Wiseman declares that learning is the new knowing.1 Stated another way, learning trumps knowing, so we must learn how to learn, and we must do it as we go.
  2. Noel and her team realized that they had created a regular practice of cultivating new awareness. From the start, they had been asking questions about what was working and what wasn’t. They did this at the beginning when they experienced repeated resistance, and they continued when they had more success. Over time, they developed a culture that was curious rather than judgmental. Instead of saying, “That won’t work,” they said, “How can we make this work?” If they couldn’t find a way, they asked different questions to find new, workable pathways to achieve their goals.
  3. They saw the results of providing resources for team support. Noel brought in consultants and coaches, they held offsites, and they invested in knowing who they were individually and as a team.
  4. Noel had support, too, and she learned to understand who she was “being” in her role. The position required her to make hard calls, particularly regarding the members of the senior team who were in the wrong roles. She also needed to instill a new level of accountability in the team. When she analyzed the skills she needed now, and she compared them with what her previous job required, the 2 lists were different. In her former role, she had not encountered the destructive power of embedded team dysfunction or her own strong distaste for conflict. Now, Noel had to deal with both. There was simply too much at stake, and she could not default to her old, familiar way of leading.
  5. Noel considered whether she was willing to address the conflicts in the team, implement difficult staffing changes, and build a healthy team. Of course, she knew the right answers to these questions, but the deeper questions were whether she was equipped for this work and whether she could overcome her aversion to conflict. In the end, she collaborated with her support system and worked to increase her competence in dealing with strife and managing team growth. If we were to query her now about her skill in these areas, she would offer us a realistic assessment—she would say she is still a “work in progress” on both fronts.

The key lesson for Noel (and for all of us) is to ask what leadership qualities are needed now. Are they what worked in the past and if not, what do we need to do differently to lead today? If we aren’t sure, how can we find out? Once we know, how can we develop those skills? Equally important, what will help us access our capacity for valor and courage so we can lead differently when we don’t know, and can’t know, all the answers?

The good news is that Noel changed the composition of the team, and over time, its members learned to support one another. This was most evident when the organization offered its premier programs. The team learned to operate interdependently to produce their large, now-successful offerings. This was not easy for these decidedly independent individual contributors. Despite the difficulty, over time, this formerly dysfunctional team gelled. But to get there, they went through several terations of forming, storming, and norming. Now the team’s self described “new normal” is what they all claim is “performing.”2

The team learned to learn in the moment by asking questions. They did this before, during, and after signal events. They developed practices to reflect on and talk about themselves and their work as a team, and as individuals working together. They acknowledged and celebrated their achievements and their learning, and they admitted their setbacks.

Significantly, the laughter on the team increased exponentially as they became more unified. Although they know that their very big organization wide victory is a treasured moment in time, they are confident about their new-found capacity to learn, grow, and change together. They know they can rely on this critical skill as they weather the storms they have yet to face.

1.Wiseman L. Rookie Smarts: Why Learning Beats Knowing in the New Game of Work. New York, NY: HarperBusiness; 2014.
2. Tuckman B. Developmental sequence in small groups. Psychol Bull. 1965;63:384-399

* This article was originally published in Nurse Leader

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