Investing in Failure


One of the great losses of our time, it seems to me, is the loss of the concept of apprenticeship. In some skilled trades this still exists. Consider the ‘master carpenter’ and her apprentice, working together on fine, detailed woodwork, say for a boat, or a custom-made staircase. When the master carpenter said the apprentice was ready—and only when the master said the apprentice was ready, did the apprentice become the master. In this way, the excellence in a craft was perpetuated. There is a corollary saying, ‘When the student is ready, the master will appear.’ I take this to mean that in the beginning of our learning journey, we have to stumble through a little—perhaps you did this, as I did, by learning to ride a bicycle, or play a musical instrument. We need to experience the ‘I need help’ moment before we turn to the master; usually, in those early lessons, Mom or Dad—both of whom are eagerly awaiting our cry for help.

In an age where middle management roles have largely disappeared, so too have structured apprenticeship and mentoring disappeared. Organizations want just-in-time expertise as well as just-in-time materials.

Sometimes, when we recognize our shortcomings we can go and find an expert. In my early struggles with public speaking, I found and took lessons from a trained Shakespearean actor, who taught me everything he knew—I became his apprentice.

Other times, however, if we want our teams and, as a result, our businesses to flourish, we have to find ways to carefully, respectfully, encouragingly, intervene. For several years I served as a ‘remedial sales trainer.’ I was assigned to come alongside committed folks who were struggling with their role. My work took time. First a relationship of trust needed to be developed to ensure that my ‘apprentice’ would be comfortable with my presence, and willing to discuss his or her approaches. Sometimes I would role model a sales approach and have my apprentice critique me, and other times we would reverse the role.

There were occasions, I have to admit, when my apprentice was in fact unable to perform the role, and my task was to help them ease on to a new career path. Most of the time, however, significant change occurred; my apprentice became more skilled, more confident, more relaxed, and happier. The company saved the huge expense of letting someone go and hiring a new sales person.

And for me? Well. I learned a lot about caring, and the impact that investing in a failing situation could have—even when the outcome was that a person had to move on, which they were able to achieve with grace, and certainty of what they should seek as their next opportunity.

Who could you invest in this New Year?


Paul Bates

A Chartered Professional Accountant (FCPA), Fellow of the Society of Management Accountants (FCMA) and Certified Management Consultant (CMC), Paul’s career has spanned: senior academic administration; business and divinity school lecturing; investor advocacy; capital markets regulation; investment dealer executive leadership with P&L accountability; expert witness and international consulting in the financial services sector. Paul holds a Master’s degree in Theological Studies from McMaster Divinity College, where he is pursuing a Ph.D. in Theology. Paul is available for speaking engagements through Blu Pagoda LLC.