Executive Suite: How to Overcome Business Failure

Learn how to overcome business failure and turn it into a success with these four lessons from the experts behind SMU's Online MBA program.

A businessman in a suit stands in front of a window in a high rise building

This blog post was originally published in November 2019, and was revised in June 2023. 

Famous inventor Thomas Edison held over 1,000 patents in his lifetime. He’s responsible for practical everyday items, like the incandescent light bulb, that have endured for decades. Edison, however, failed substantially more than he succeeded. “I have not failed once,” he said. “I have succeeded in proving that those 10,000 ways will not work.”1 If your goal is to become a successful business executive, be prepared to fail. Because it’s going to happen. Frequently. It’s how you rebound from those failures that will determine your ultimate success.

Learn and Find Solutions from Failure

Business can be unforgiving at times. When you slip up, there are only two ways to proceed: learn from it or don’t. From a personal growth perspective, you can build character and perseverance; from a business perspective, industry insights and trends.

The following entrepreneurs are all imperfect, but no doubt you know them for their enterprising prowess. None were successful in their endeavors the first time around and they all overcame mishaps that would ultimately catapult them into history.

“… the contrary habits must be broken, and good ones acquired and established…” – Benjamin Franklin.2

Reflect on Your Failures

After failure, it is important to be reflective and strive for self-improvement. It has been for hundreds of years. Benjamin Franklin created a list of 13 virtues to strive for but realized it was impossible to achieve them all. However, he learned it was all about striving for progress. Aspiring. To Franklin’s credit, he was a successful newspaper printer able to retire early—to take on more famous endeavors. So, examine your conduct closely. Be scrutinizing but not deprecating.

Think of how you can learn from negative experiences to make future ones more advantageous. Take a step back and think of your responsibilities; what are the necessities and how can you prioritize? Often, taking on too many responsibilities and trying to do too much can make you think you’re a multi-tasking superstar, but really your performance starts to slip. Numerous studies have shown that for most of us multi-tasking is a myth. Research shows that people who frequently multi-task may be the least cognitively equipped to effectively carry out multiple tasks simultaneously.2 Be ambitious, but realistic. Consider how you organize, interact with staff and peers, research industry trends, scrutinize deals and business opportunities.

“I’m here to build something for the long term. Anything else is a distraction.” – Mark Zuckerberg3

Use Failure to Build for the Long Term

Zuckerberg said that in his early twenties. Despite his apparent youth, there’s much to be gleaned from his early insight. Zuckerberg realized to be successful is to be built to last. Failure is an opportunity for you to refocus, to set your sights on new milestones and goals. Keep one eye turned always toward the future. That means immersing yourself in the latest advancements of your field; get a grasp on which direction the industry is moving, and why. Use your considerable business acumen and industry knowledge to imagine how and when changes will occur.

The flip side to this: Don’t get distracted by the minutiae, don’t get swept up in every notification or email that sets off your mobile device. Yes, you need to know what’s happening in the field and the directions your competitors and collaborators are taking, but don’t overburden yourself with unnecessary worries. Overexposure to technology prevents you from being creative. Lack of creativity stifles critical thinking. Don’t fall into this trap. It can be tough to get out of.

“… the word that most articulates what we’re looking for is what we want to be: included.” – Oprah Winfrey4

Diversify Your Business to Drive Innovation

Oprah Winfrey knows a thing or two about being a successful executive. She evolved from local TV anchor into a worldwide brand. She couldn’t have done this without a global vision, leveraging technology and media to succeed in a global business landscape.

She’s also had plenty to overcome, from personal tragedies to industry biases implicit and explicit. But she never doubted herself and the multiple perspectives informed by her experiences, her downfalls and successes alike. Diversity drives innovation. When you’re rebounding from a mistake, think of how you can diversify; bring more points of view to the table, stir up disagreements and discussions, get ideas flowing. When you bring different and fresh perspectives to the fore, creativity thrives. Leaders who give opportunities for diverse staff to actively participate are almost twice as likely as others to produce new insights, while employees in this kind of culture are 3.5 times as likely to contribute their full innovative potential.5

To achieve your goals and be successful in business, you need a vigorous innovative spirit. This spirit will be your motivation during those inevitable moments you fail. Failure is an opportunity, a chance to overcome and learn. You can learn to embrace failure, examine your performance, correct negative patterns, move your business forward, and diversify your staff and knowledge. The SMU Cox School of Business is a forerunner in innovative business programs that meld cutting-edge theory with real-world best practices. The SMU Cox network is there to support you throughout your academic endeavor and far into your career. And you can tap into Cox’s alumni and professional networks to seek advice from fellow executives on how to rebound after a mishap. After all, it’s the great ones who get back up again after they fall.

By anticipating—even shaping—the changing business environment, we enable our students to stay on the leading edge of business. At SMU Cox, you’ll enjoy dynamic opportunities to learn, grow and advance in your life and career. Request more information about our Online MBA to find out how you can take advantage of SMU Cox’s world class faculty and rigorous academic programming with the flexibility of remote learning.

  1. https://www.forbes.com/sites/nathanfurr/2011/06/09/how-failure-taught-edison-to-repeatedly-innovate/#4bc1fd0465e9
  2. https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0054402
  3. https://www.fastcompany.com/59441/facebooks-mark-zuckerberg-hacker-dropout-ceo?utm_source=facebook
  4. https://abcnews.go.com/Entertainment/oprah-winfrey-longer-word-diversity/story?id=41458530
  5. https://hbr.org/2013/12/how-diversity-can-drive-innovation