Don’t fear mistakes

Thomas R. Hager is not going to let an employee feel his wrath over a single mistake. If that employee makes the same mistake three more times in a row, that’s another story.

But the idea of learning from one’s missteps is part of growing up, says Hager, managing partner at Schlabig & Associates Ltd.

“If I made a mistake and it’s the wrong decision, I’ve got no problem telling everyone in the firm, ‘Listen, I made the wrong decision,” says Hager, who leads the 20-employee CPA firm. “Here’s the thought process, but it didn’t pan out.’”

Smart Business spoke with Hager about how to learn from your mistakes and ultimately make better decisions.

Q. How do you build accountability?

People make mistakes. If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not moving forward, you’re not challenging yourself. It’s my job to inspire and channel people and get them to grow, as long as they are falling forward and not falling backward.

If you’re making mistakes, you’re stepping outside yourself and you’re falling forward. When we’re sitting in a situation where a decision needs to be made, I ask them, ‘What would you do? Tell me how you would handle this situation. Let’s talk about it.’

We have a dialogue as to how they would handle the situation. In that conversation, I might interject, ‘Did you think about this or that?’ I might suggest we do this. What ends up happening is in that dialogue, I’m going back to nurturing and channeling some of the conversation.

They are making the decision in conjunction with myself or another manager or partner. But by doing that, they get into a situation where they are developing some higher critical thinking and their critical thinking starts to get better. Ultimately, they are making decisions that 99 percent of the time are going to be right.

Q. What’s the best way to keep blame from being passed around?

One thing I learned a long time ago is that whatever decision is made in this firm, it stops with me. I’m responsible, whether I made it or didn’t make it. That was imparted to me about 25 years ago when I didn’t have as many years behind me.

I was talking to a client and I said to them, ‘Somebody made a mistake,’ and they said, ‘No, you made that mistake. That’s your mistake.’

Whenever an employee makes a decision, it comes back to me. In order to help in that thought process and bring that employee along, we sit down and we talk about the decision.

All this stuff we’re talking about comes from the top down. If I’m not doing it, if my other partners aren’t doing it, that’s a problem.

We try to set the bar of responsibility upfront so everybody knows what’s expected upfront. If there is a situation where you don’t develop those expectations upfront, then someone might blame somebody else for not getting in their piece of the work. I would say, ‘No, that was your responsibility to resolve that upfront.’