Women need a chance to fail

When JK Rowling, the bestselling author of the Harry Potter series, was invited to give the Harvard University Commencement address a few years ago, she chose the benefits of failure as her subject. Not an obvious choice for the audience of Harvard graduates, their proud parents and professors, but an inspired one.

“It is impossible to live without failing at something unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default,” she told her audience.

A few years later, and this April’s issue of the Harvard Business Review is branded “The Failure Issue”, with the entire contents devoted to failure, its lessons and its rewards. The message is that failure may not be fun, but it is good for you.

It was only when Soichiro Honda was turned down for a job with Toyota and the young man instead started to make scooters in his back yard that the foundations were laid for what would become a multi-billion dollar company. Bill Gates’ first venture after dropping out of Harvard, Traf-O-Data, bombed. Walt Disney was famously fired from his job on the Kansas City Star newspaper because “he lacked imagination and had no good ideas.”

Risk and failure, like love and marriage in the Frank Sinatra song, go together. Innovation thrives on a degree of managed failure. So in a fast-moving business environment, the need to fail, learn, and move on, is a critical leadership skill.

There is a school of thought that says that women are inherently more risk-averse than men, and also better at avoiding the biggest failures. Michel Ferrary, professor of management at Ceram Business School, spoke for many in his recent FT article entitled Why Women Shine in A Downturn. However, his piece led to a vehement counter-blast from fellow academics Herminia Ibarro, Lynda Gratton and Martha Maznevski, who argued that there is simply no evidence for women being more cautious than men.

Whichever view you hold, women do need to have exposure to risk in their journey to the boardroom. Women may be held back from the riskiest assignments by the best of intentions: that the organisation doesn’t want to see them fail. Or women themselves may hold back from signing up to challenges outside their comfort zones because of some gender-induced cautiousness.

But either way, keeping women out of the firing line isn’t helping them acquire the skills they need for today’s corporate boardroom. Women need to be allowed, even encouraged, to screw up.

This blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

The 'Women at the Top' blog is part of a series of online and print publications that focuses on women's achievements in business. With up-to-date news and incisive analysis, the blog will provoke discussion on the role of the world's most prominent businesswomen. www.ft.com/womenblog

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About our bloggers

Liz Bolshaw

Liz Bolshaw is a business journalist and editor. She has been a successful book publisher, online editor, magazine editor and publisher.

She was launch editor of the Europe-wide online community Entrepreneur Country, has published magazines for PwC, 3i, dunhill and Bafta, and launched The Sharp Edge, a magazine for and about entrepreneurs, with Duncan Bannatyne. She is a regular contributor to Thomson Reuters’ Venture Capital Journal.

Her last project for the Financial Times was as editor of the paper’s Business Education magazine.

Rebecca Knight

Rebecca Knight is a freelance journalist based in Boston. She writes regularly for the FT on business education, entrepreneurship, and management.

Andrew Hill

Andrew Hill is an associate editor and the management editor of the FT. He was City editor of the FT and editor of the daily Lombard column on British business and finance from September 2006 to December 2010.

He was the FT’s financial editor from June 2005 to September 2006, with overall responsibility for coverage of companies and markets. Before becoming financial editor, he was the FT’s comment & analysis editor, in charge of the paper’s opinion and features pages.

From 1999 to 2003, he was the FT’s New York bureau chief. He joined the FT in 1988 and has also worked as foreign news editor, UK companies reporter and correspondent in Brussels and Milan.

Pino Bethencourt

Pino Bethencourt is a professor and leadership expert at IE Business School in Madrid. She is also an author and executive coach.

Lynda Gratton

Lynda Gratton is professor of management practice at London Business School.

Linda Tarr-Whelan

Linda Tarr-Whelan, former ambassador to the UN commission on the status of women, is a Demos distinguished senior fellow.