The Value of an Apology
One of my clients hit a bit of rough water in their business a few months ago. The problem was serious, not fatal, but probably could have been avoided. During the lead up to the rough patch, they had been getting advice from another adviser in areas of their business where my expertise and experience are not as deep.
The problem was that they got ahead of themselves and started focusing on their aspirations rather than their daily operations. Over the past couple of months, they have concentrated on getting, “back to basics” and the company has dug itself out of the hole it had created.
When I was meeting with the CEO about six weeks ago, I apologized for the difficulty they were in because I felt I should have seen it coming. My apology was a fleeting moment during our discussion and we quickly moved on to discussing how to right the ship.
Now that we are on the backside of the issue, we were reflecting back on the past few months to capture lessons learned. We were talking about the other advisor and what role that person may play in the future. The CEO is uncertain, admitted that the other advisor does not seem to “get it” and told me that the other advisor has not taken any accountability or ownership for the problems that the company encountered.
Conversely, she also acknowledged how much my apology six weeks ago meant to her – even though I was apologizing for not having given advice when maybe I should have versus apologizing for giving the wrong advice. She said my apology at the time made her feel that she was not in it alone.
I was stunned by the power of that simple statement six weeks ago in terms of building the relationship and trust between the two of us. At the time, I was feeling bad for her and genuinely concerned about her business. I was feeling that I had let her down, even though in some aspects I was a bystander watching the train wreck happen. My regrets were for things not said, not for poor advice given.
So why don’t more advisors, managers and leaders take ownership and accountability for what they do or should have done, but didn’t?
I think this is related to a topic I have written about many times before: the ego and hubris of many leaders. In the words of Jim Collins, “good leaders [and advisors] look out the window when sharing credit and look in the mirror when allocating blame”. David Maister writes that, “… it is not enough for an advisor to be right; an advisor must also be helpful”. Saying, “I told you so” is never helpful. Not saying anything is often tantamount to saying, “I told you so”. Listening to someone explain their current problems, which occurred on your watch, without acknowledging regrets, sharing empathy and taking appropriate ownership for your actions or inactions is tantamount to blaming the other for their own misfortunate.
If you are a leader, manager or advisor, never forget the power of a simple apology. No one is going to sue you for being empathic.