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Eileen Fisher knows that the more mistakes you make, the more you learn
by Margaret Heffernan

How do you know when an acquaintance is turning into a friendship? Usually when you stop raving about your successes and start discussing your mistakes. It takes a lot of trust and honesty to talk about the dark nights of the soul, when the plans didn’t work out, the strategy turned out to be misguided or we found ourselves knee-deep in a mess with no idea how to extricate ourselves.

Entrepreneurs know this best of all because they have all made mistakes. I have one friend who calls her mistakes her MBA and she’s proud of it. She says it cost her less than a more formal degree course – and she learned more. And we’ve all heard the truisms about failure being a badge of honour in Silicon Valley.

But still, we don’t like making mistakes. They make us feel stupid, fallible, mortal. And if we run our own companies, they remind us that our companies are mortal too: they do die if we get it wrong once too often. So we fear failure. We don’t want to not to make mistakes – and we particularly don’t want to make them in public.

We have to get over this. I tell my kids – and, really, I’m just telling myself: you learned to walk by falling over, in private, in public. The falling over was the learning. No falling, no walking. Mistakes are how you learn. Which is why conversations about mistakes are always so much richer and more interesting than the stories with the fairy tale endings.

Behind every successful business and businessperson lie many mistakes. Eileen Fisher may be a famous name now but it wasn’t always that way. And one of the engaging things about her is her willingness and ability to talk about the mistakes she made along the way. To less adventurous minds this might seem a PR nightmare but in fact, of course, it humanizes her business. She remembers when she and the business were young and vulnerable and, most important of all, she remembers what she learned when it stumbled.

In 1998, one of the problems the company faced was that department stores didn’t know where to position the clothes. Some went into casual wear; some went into designer departments. That meant they were spread across two different floors, which was confusing for everyone. The company tried to solve the problem by embracing it.

“We tried to separate the line – to have two lines, one for casual wear and a higher end line that we called the New York line. And so we created two whole new product lines, with samples – with the result that we just confused people even more. And ourselves! We just got too big and complicated and there were too many products and the whole thing just got a little crazy. We weren’t editing the line, we weren’t focused. We were just overwhelmed with complexity.”

“It was a very scary moment because we could have lost the business at that point.” Recalling the experience, Eileen shudders. “That was a really intense moment.”

In many ways, the strategy was everything the company stood against: it was too complicated, too ornate. It was trying to follow the department stores’ lead rather than cleave to the intrinsic values of the company. Eileen didn’t know what to do but what she didn’t do was start looking for someone to blame. She didn’t look back, she didn’t look for scapegoats. She kept facing forward.

“At the end, we learned so much. We ended up finding a lot of new products we couldn’t have done otherwise. We changed our positioning and went higher end. We repositioned the company so that we could sell more expensive things because our customers really appreciated them – and they really appreciated the way things went together. Like the way you can wear our sequined top with the trousers you wore to work. That kind of thing. We made a mistake, we were stretched too thin and had too much money at risk. We got off track but we sorted it out. We got back to who we were – and we were even better at it.”

Eileen did several smart things: she took responsibility for the problem, kept reworking it and she never gave up. That takes stamina, nerve and a habit of mind that is more concerned for the future than with the past. She also didn’t beat herself up over the mistake: all her efforts were focused on fixing it.

I’m always struck by the number of managers who pay lipservice to the value of mistakes – but you rarely catch them discussing their own. They prefer regaling us with tales of triumph. They’re more comforting because mistakes – even just the memory of them – are painful. But Eileen Fisher wouldn’t say that her company is successful despite her mistakes. It is where it is today because of them.

Copyright Margaret Heffernan. All Rights Reserved.

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