Successful Australian CEOs share a mistake they apologised for -- and what they learned from it

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Everyone makes mistakes, even CEOs.

What’s important is how you respond.

An apology, and how it’s delivered, can be everything.

One CEO who recently learned from this was founder of Showpo, Jane Lu. Her company recently experienced a warehouse back-end glitch over a busy sales period, which caused a backlog of orders, and a number of unhappy customer enquiries.

But what Lu did next was a masterclass in crisis management and delivering the perfect apology.

The task at hand was so big she trained her entire staff in customer services to get through the backlog of enquiries, and then created a video to explain the problem, and most importantly apologised for it in a way her customers would appreciate.

Knowing that there are probably a number of other CEOs and execs out there who have gone through similar experiences, we asked around to hear what they have had to apologise for and what they learned from it.

Here’s what they had to say.

Sebastien Eckersley-Maslin, CEO at BlueChilli

SuppliedSebastien Eckersley-Maslin

At BlueChilli we have a culture of embracing failure, so making mistakes is something that is expected as we keep pushing ourselves to do better, and that comes from the top.

This philosophy was born when we were just starting, and I accidentally wrote code (as a root user) which wiped a production server — killing at least 20 of our client sites.

I sheepishly apologised to the clients, to my CTO, admitting it was my fault — and we instigated strict server policies to ensure this would never happen again!

Janelle Goulding, CEO of Address Housing

Janelle Goulding

When I landed the role of General Manager of AV Jennings NSW not only was I quite young, but I was also female in a heavily male dominated industry. Although I had a good understanding of the building industry, I was arrogant about the challenges of running a large organisation.

I had found a fair bit of success in my career up to that point and as a result felt that I knew everything I needed to know about leadership.

In reality, I knew hardly anything about true leadership. In fact, I was a bull in a china shop when it came to managing people. I forced my opinion on others, closed myself off from criticism, and dictated plans from high above, possibly feeling a need to prove myself as a female.

It didn’t work. I faced resistance from my team.

Fortunately, my Managing Director was my mentor who finally pulled me aside and helped me to understand the error of my ways. From that time on, I took measures to listen to others, let them take the lead, and adopt a much more gentle leadership style.

Jaimie Fuller, Executive Chairman at Skins

SuppliedJaimie Fuller

In 2005, we ran an ad campaign saying “We don’t pay sportstars to wear our product, they pay us.” A year later we ran the same campaign but we had changed our strategy with some athletes and clubs (less than 10%) to start to sponsor them — swapping product for marketing benefits.

The latter claim was in breach of ACCC guidelines and my hubris at the time meant we fought it. We lost. It cost us a very large sum and we had to run apologies in media.

It was a good and expensive lesson. My arrogance led me to make a bad decision which I regret to this day. There was no intention to mislead but that’s not the point.

We were wrong.

Dan Ross, Managing Director ANZ at Optimizely

SuppliedDan Ross, MD at Optimizely

Earlier in my career, I ran an operations and strategy team. Someone on my team made a mistake on a piece of analysis that was informing a major strategic decision. The analysis came up in a leadership meeting but it seemed not everyone understood that a mistake had been made. Being the leader of the function that made the mistake, I owned the error, ensured that everyone understood the issue, and moved on.

Afterwards, my boss grabbed me and told me that I had made a major mistake by publicly admitting the analysis was inaccurate. She said that I shouldn’t have fully owned the error since other teams had contributed to it and that I had made my, and her, team look bad.

This struck me. I had spent my professional career until that point trying to be accountable for a broader area of work and assumed that would also include a broader area of likely mistakes. It always annoyed me when people spent more energy avoiding accountability than just “owning it” and moving on. Now I was being told to do just that.

Had I been wrong? Had I “thrown myself and my team under the bus?” Should I have danced around and obfuscated a simple mistake casting doubt upon the competence of my highly competent team? I left the business a few months later and interestingly, that company no longer exists…

Andrew Joiner, CEO at InMoment

SuppliedAndrew Joiner, CEO at InMoment

Back in 2002, my brother and I started our own company Singlecast Technologies, a policy and compliance software provider. My role was raising capital, and my brother’s was building the software.

Our skills complemented each other perfectly, however our personalities were quite different. My brother needed peace and quiet to concentrate on coding and the technical intricacies needed to build software, whereas I was quite loud and “salesy” in comparison. A couple of times when under pressure to hit deadlines we came to loggerheads, which was frustrating for us both and certainly didn’t help the business.

When this happened, I’d give a quick “sorry” but not really change my behaviour.

In order to break this cycle, I had to do more than give a cursory apology after a blow-up; we needed to really communicate. Talking about our different work styles and having respect for the fact that just because something works for me, doesn’t mean it works for him.

At the same time, we knew we needed to give each other room to be ourselves because that was critical for the success of the company. I also learned the power of both speaking up to let others know where I’m coming from, and hearing what they need.

It was an important lesson in adaptation and consideration. In the case of my brother and me, we developed a signal: when he put on his headphones, I knew it was time for me to leave him alone.

Mick Spencer, CEO, ONTHEGO

SuppliedMick Spencer

We had a large order for a charity ride for someone whose sister passed away unexpectedly. It was the first anniversary of her passing. The order was personalised with a caricature of her face, and information commemorating her life.

We took the job even though it was a rushed order. Then, due to unexpected delays, closer to the week for delivery, we learnt the order was going to be late and we missed the event.

When this happened, we felt really hurt that we let a customer down and the purpose it was attached to. We did our best to get the order to the event on time, but it just did not make it.

When we found out about the delay, we had staff and execs spending countless hours at night figuring out how we could get the shipment out to them before the commemorative event.

Even though we failed in delivering, we kept the client informed. It was a hard call to make at the time, but we did it, owned up to it, and it was a very emotional call. We ended up making a commitment to honour the sister’s memory by donating a significant amount to a charity under her name. The client cried on the phone and was both very thankful and ecstatic.

Whilst we resolved this issue, we learnt that people actually use our products for massive meaningful reasons, and it’s not good enough to just not deliver. Since then, we have taken new precautions when dealing with rush orders and have systems in place to better manage expectations.

It was a big learning curb for the business and the team, but it has only made us stronger and more equipped to handle situations like this in the future.

Jenny Vanderhoek, CEO of Mynder

SuppliedJenny Vanderhoek

A new customer recently signed up with us and loved our service but complained that she felt like when I called her to collect her credit card details that I made her feel like she was an inconvenience to me. I immediately emailed her back and acknowledged how she felt and apologised.

Of course, it was never my intention but if that’s how she felt, then I needed to apologise for it.

Since taking over the business, I suspected this might have been sticking point from a customer experience perspective and after receiving that I feedback, it finally gave me the final push to upgrade the app to include credit card facility for the booking fee.

I learnt that customer experience is the one of the most important part of my business, and even though I offer a great service in terms of quality babysitters, all the tools that a customer comes in contact with are also important. It’s my goal to make every customer’s experience better than the last.

Roby Zomer, CEO at MGC Pharma

SuppliedRoby Zomer

A simple apology can go a long way towards helping connect with others and empathising with their situation. During my time in the Israeli military, I learnt the valuable lesson of being mindful of the words that you use and the impact of a simple apology, as well as being accountable if things go wrong.

In a high-level briefing, I witnessed an exhausted and nervous lieutenant giving his highest superiors a status report and accidentally transposing some very crucial numbers. The mistake was obvious to myself and everyone else in the room.

To my surprise, a four star general raised his hand and apologised, saying he had misunderstood and not heard the end of the report. He politely asked the lieutenant to repeat the last batch of numbers.

This was a humbling experience and amazing to see in the military, where instead of pointing out of a mistake, or issuing an immediate reprimand, there was a polite apology and a genuine interest in what the lieutenant had to say. This small but significant gesture was a remarkable way of putting this weary and nervous lieutenant at ease. The lieutenant was able to calm down and brief his superiors on key verifiable information as part of his report.

I learned an important lesson that day, one which I have done my best to instil in the corporate culture at MGC and other places where I have worked — our choice of words is important, and our ability to communicate even more so. Sometimes, an “I’m sorry”, even if it’s taking ownership or responsibility for something you haven’t done, can be a simple way of putting others at ease.

And it’s no surprise that people at ease do better business and get better results.

It’s important to remember that a simple apology is not one that relieves you of any responsibility, rather it represents taking on that responsibility, an acknowledgement that something has gone wrong somewhere and it will be addressed and fixed. Saying the words is never enough, action is crucial to make any apology worthwhile.

Richard Kimber, CEO and Co-Founder of Daisee

Gregg Porteous/ SuppliedRichard Kimber

The best form of apology is to learn from your mistakes to ensure that you don’t repeat them. Throughout the years, I’ve had to travel for work and in the process I’ve missed several important family milestones.

I have since sought to adapt my approach, accepting that work never goes away but milestones in your personal life matter — you can rarely repeat them.

Short-term apologies won’t wash if you continue to make the same mistakes. I now prioritise the things that matter. Family comes first. I continue to work hard but schedule travel so that at the weekends I can be at home with the people that are most important to me.

Robbie Sampson, CEO of OrbitRemit

SuppliedRobbie Sampson

One time we sent an email to our customer base and instead of a salutation with individual or personal names we called everyone “Robbie”.

We immediately realised what happened and put together an email apologising for the oversight. But instead of just doing a traditional apology email we kept it true to brand by making it funny and sympathetic, leading with comments like “we’ve all started our days badly”.

In keeping our apology humourous – and human – we had an incredibly positive response from our customers who appreciated the way we owned up to our mistake in a relatable way.

The biggest thing we’ve learned is when you make a mistake you need to confront it head on and act fast. But it’s also important to keep things fun where possible, and provide a personal, real touch in resolving any issue.

At OrbitRemit we want our customers to know we’re on their side, and giving them a genuine, human response in any situation is part of how we operate.

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