How to Handle Career Mistakes

The following was excerpted from The Bigs: The Secrets Nobody Tells Students and Young Professionals About How to Choose a Career, Find a Great Job, Do a Great Job, Be a Leader, Start a Business, Manage Your Money, Stay Out of Trouble, and Live A Happy Life with the author’s permission.

No matter how much you know or how hard you try, you are going to make mistakes as you pursue your career. The question is: how will you handle them? Whatever you do, I caution you not to follow in the footsteps of a former coworker I refer to as “Never.”

Meet “Never”

Never joined Greenwich Capital a few years before I took over as co-CEO. From the first day she walked in the door, Never projected an aura of confidence and competence. Being young, Never had a junior position at the company. However, because she handled every task efficiently and professionally, more responsibility naturally flowed her way. Never quickly made many friends and was liked and respected throughout the firm.

Your first few years at a company are about establishing a foundation on which to build a successful career. The foundation Never constructed in her first few years at Greenwich Capital was rock-solid. But then cracks began to appear. The first one was so small it was not really regarded as a problem but more as a surprising personality quirk.

Almost simultaneously, a handful of employees who worked closely with Never realized she never took responsibility for any mistakes and never apologized for anything. It had taken a few years to notice because Never was so good at her job that she did not make many mistakes.

Because Never was well-liked, competent and hardworking, people did not dwell on this issue and instead viewed it as a peccadillo that was assigned to the “nobody’s perfect” bin. The problem was that over the next few years new and much more serious cracks in the foundation appeared as Never began to periodically abuse her position of power. While she still didn’t find fault with herself, she was quick to find it in others. In subtle and not-so-subtle ways she let them know.

Poor Guy!

While there were numerous examples of Never’s abuse of power, the worst was her treatment of one poor guy in the mailroom. The Poor Guy was a gentle soul who loved working at Greenwich Capital. A senior manager of the firm complained he was not receiving his daily newspaper delivery to his office. Never immediately confronted The Poor Guy, accused him of stealing the newspapers and told him she was going to see he got fired. To say that this man was distraught would be a gross understatement. The world he loved was crashing down around him.

Never got the head of facilities involved because the mailroom reported to him. Before he agreed to fire anybody, he looked at security tapes to see what really happened. Lo and behold, the tapes revealed that the master criminal was a very senior and very powerful trader at the firm. The trader was asked politely to stop taking the newspapers.

When Never was informed of the truth, she laughed it off and, of course, never apologized to The Poor Guy. Not surprisingly, the goodwill and support Never had rightfully earned over the years started to disappear. When Never left Greenwich eight years after her arrival, most of her coworkers were more relieved than sorry to see her go.

Three Lessons from Never’s Experience

1. Take responsibility for all mistakes you make. If you are a competent and valued employee, when you do take responsibility it will be viewed as a sign of strength, not weakness, by your coworkers. Plus, you’ll be in a position to learn and improve.

2. Understand that how your boss views you will be largely a function of how your peers and subordinates see you. All my interactions with Never, from her first day at Greenwich Capital to her last, were nothing but positive. However, my opinion of her deteriorated as I came to understand how she treated her peers and subordinates.

3. Everyone starts each new job (especially their first job) with a sense of trepidation. Will I fit in? Will people be nice to me? The truth is, most people at most companies love having new employees who are hardworking, pleasant and have the ability to help make the company better. The initial warm reception that Never received at Greenwich Capital is not unusual. As with so many other issues, work and sports are identical this way. If you are a rookie and helping the team win and are supportive and considerate of your teammates you will be welcomed with open arms and held in high regard.

Ben Carpenter, author of The Bigs: The Secrets Nobody Tells Students and Young Professionals About How to Choose a Career, Find a Great Job, Do a Great Job, Be a Leader, Start a Business, Manage Your Money, Stay Out of Trouble, and Live A Happy Life, began his career as a commercial lending Officer at the Bankers Trust Company. Two years later he joined Bankers Trust’s Primary Dealer selling U.S. Treasury bonds. After a brief stop at Morgan Stanley, Ben joined Greenwich Capital which, during his 22-year career there, became one of the most respected and profitable firms on Wall Street. At Greenwich Capital, Carpenter was a salesman, trader, sales manager, co-chief operating Officer, and co-CEO.