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.’

Q. How do you make smart decisions?

You have to take into consideration the good of the firm or the good of the company. What’s the best thing for the company? From that perspective, if you’re going down a situation where you need to make a decision, I put the pros on one side and the cons on the other. From there, I analyze why this decision makes sense. I analyze why it may not make sense.

Part of the problem why some people can’t be leaders is paralysis by analysis. They get into all the reasons why you shouldn’t make the decision. I’m more interested in why we should make the decision. You need to look at why we shouldn’t, but let’s look at the positive side.

Tell me why this decision makes sense versus why it doesn’t make sense. If you’re going to come to me with a problem, that’s all right and I want to hear about it, but come to me with a solution.

In the end, you do your due diligence and you do your analysis. If you’ve done your due diligence, done your homework and analyzed it not to the point of being paralyzed, chances are you’re going to find you’ve made the right decision.

There are some decisions where you go through all the analysis and you say, ‘I’ve done all my homework, and here’s how I feel about it.’ You don’t know if it’s going to be right or wrong, but you make what you think is the right decision at the time you make it. You have to live with that.

Q. How do you deal with unpopular decisions?

You’re not going to please everybody, and you need to get over that. We don’t have a situation here where it’s leadership by committee. Although I do value the input of everyone in the firm, there needs to be one person making the decision.

You may make an unpopular decision in someone’s eyes, but you need to make it. You need to be convicted and you need to stick with it.

I’m not saying we don’t have a collaborative method, but at some point in time, there’s going to be a decision that has to be made. Leaders make decisions. Whether they are liked or not, you have to make a decision. That’s why some people can’t be leaders. They can’t make a decision.

How to reach: Schlabig & Associates Ltd., (330) 253-4424 or