Four years ago, I nearly walked away from my career because of motherhood. This was not because of the immense bond I felt with my sweet new baby, but because I was suffering from postpartum depression.  At the time, I truly believed I was a failure in all aspects of my life. I had reached rock bottom. Convinced my “perfect” image would be ruined, I sat down to talk to my boss (who I had always defined as a perfect leader herself) and told her what I was experiencing. Yes, she was amazing and offered to support me in any way possible. But a totally unexpected thing happened: she also opened up about her own struggle with something similar many years before. Boom. My mind was blown. In that moment my own recovery was turbocharged. I went through a profound personal transformation after that experience: I realized that I had been holding myself to an unrealistic standard of “perfection” in the workplace. I wrote about all of that here.

The journey inspired me to stand up on a stage last March at SXSW and tell my story in hopes that I could help other people embrace vulnerability to unleash greatness.

I had no idea how much the talk would resonate with people. Men and women of all ages and backgrounds, shared deeply personal stories that they had never felt comfortable sharing up until then. Others wholeheartedly believed in the power of vulnerability and said they had reached a similar realization in their own lives.

It was almost like opening up to them invited them to share their own stories and fears of how they perceived their ability to show up in an authentic way at work, paralleling  my experience of opening up to my boss enabled me to be more vulnerable myself. 

The things people told me all centered around the following themes:

  • “I worry too much about what other people think”

  • “I have to have all of the answers”

  • “Mistakes in my company aren’t seen as a good thing”

I knew that there was more I wanted to unpack here. It goes beyond personally believing it’s okay to open up at work - it’s also about being in an environment where mistakes and failures are embraced and encouraged. If you can’t make mistakes - how can you possibly be coming up with the best solution? Mistakes and learning are at the heart of innovation. But it all starts with vulnerability.

Take for example a recent project where I spent a few months working with a team to run pilots for a new product. As it turned out, the way the product was designed didn’t match how the customer actually needed to use it. It was only through hands-on trials by the customers that the team was able to uncover this. Initial team feedback deemed the product a failure. But was it? The learnings from those pilots gave good and relevant insights for a  product design that truly met the customer’s needs. Now, that product is in our customers’ hands, delivering benefits to them in a way that they couldn’t have before had we not taken the steps to learn and make mistakes along the way.

Some of the most successful outcomes occur when companies allow employees to be vulnerable enough to take risks in the workplace. The concept of “failing fast” has taken hold across companies in the midst of a technological transformation. Yet, not many companies have the culture to embrace the concept.  It is a true paradox. As Amy Edmonson points out in her piece on “Strategies for Learning from Failure”, the human tendency is to hope for the best and avoid failure. Organizations have to reduce the stigma of failure, which can be challenging. Leaders must make sure that they take the right approach to learning from failure to create a culture of organizational learning where employees feel psychologically safe. Innovation must be approached with both creativity and discipline. Helping employees know what defines a good failure - and encourage those - leads to not only better results, but a greater sense of satisfaction in the workplace. It’s a bit of an art and a science. The art piece is the organizational culture that supports good failures; leaders who set the tone and encourage employees to be vulnerable and speak up without fear of making mistakes. The science is having a system in place that defines and rewards good failures.

Research shows that successful modern workplaces with employers that embrace taking risks and risking failure, such as Capital One, understand that making mistakes can ultimately lead us to create better products and innovation that help our customers. When companies focus on how to overcome the performance paradox, to deliver breakthrough experiences better and faster.

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Passionate about creating amazing customer experiences, Kristen Przano leads the go-to-market strategy for a new product being launched this year. Kristen also leads the Dallas-Fort Worth Area Women's Business Resource group.


Przano is a featured speaker at this year’s Capital One House at SXSW -- to learn more, visit Capital.One/SXSW.