Conquering the Fear of Failure: A Catalyst for Growth
By Greg Fitzgerald, CEO, ITC Federal
Failure isn’t fun, but it’s a necessary part of this business. When our marketing team asked me to start writing some of my insights and perspectives into our market, I wanted to be as honest as possible about the positives and negatives of scaling a business and operating in the federal contractor ecosystem. The reality is that the best lessons I’ve learned haven’t come from success stories. The best lessons I’ve learned have come from my experiences and especially those experiences that weren’t as successful as I might have envisioned beforehand. While human design can often be seen as a negative, there is a huge positive in every lesson I’ve learned along the way that has shaped ITC Federal as a company and who I am as a leader. As a mid-tier solution provider transitioning into the full and open marketplace, ITC is still evolving, but our team is focused on the missions, customers, and employees as our priority. We know from our experiences that the long game is always more important than the short one.
All leaders must be resilient, purpose-driven, and comfortable with failure while learning in the process to avoid making the same mistakes twice. You can’t be afraid to fail! A learning culture must evolve with failure. The lack of evolution impacts delivery, frustrates internal teams, and undermines the effectiveness of the governance, systems, and processes implementation.
At ITC, we’re not afraid of failure.
When you’re a growth-oriented business, you can’t control every risk, or it’ll stifle your ability to be agile, creative, flexible, and get things done. And let’s be honest, getting things done is paramount. When you’re scaling up, there are more tasks than people, and you can’t have it all be perfect. Now that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t focus on risk management because it’s still critical; you have to find the right balance between mitigating risk and getting stuff done. Every single builder, entrepreneur, leader, manager, and doer must take a chance occasionally to move forward, and every time it happens, there’s a risk that it might not work out. I like the term “fail fast” because it reminds me of one of my favorite passages from “Citizenship in a Republic” by Teddy Roosevelt, commonly referred to as The Man in the Arena, where he eloquently spoke to a group in Paris saying,
“It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the Arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming….”
We as leaders must encourage people to keep taking risks and not just point out what “we” or “they” should have done differently unless we (or our other managers) intend to enter the Arena and be vulnerable to failure. In our business, we use the term “fail-fast” to highlight that we want to take risks, but we want to move on from them quickly when they don’t work out. We should encourage risk-taking while putting the guardrails in place to minimize the impact, ensure critical thinking, and make certain common-sense practices are inherently followed.
As we approach the mid-point in 2023, ITC Federal is at an exciting time in our company. Outside of the contract vehicles we hold (where we are certified as a small during option periods), ITC is what the industry sees as the “dreaded other than small size category.” A good friend of mine reminds me that this is the reward for being a successful small business, and it’s true. Unfortunately, as my teenage boys tell me, “The next level in the video game is always more difficult, and the bosses are always harder.” You can’t celebrate your successes long because you must prepare for the next level.
Business, at times, is like a video game; as you get to the higher levels, top players are waiting for you who are further along in the game. They know all the maps and weapons and have a lot more coins than you do, so it can be challenging to compete against them. To beat them, you need a strategy.
- You can join with other players and form an alliance or in the GovCon world team strategically (CTAs, JVs, and partnerships),
- you can specialize in a couple of maps or weapons (or, in our case, a few missions/customers and capabilities),
- or you can change the game altogether (lots of examples, but AI is probably the one that comes to mind).
However, you can’t do any of this without taking risks.
First, you need a thesis to focus on your attack. You probably don’t have enough coins to specialize in everything, so you must focus. Once you’ve got your thesis, you have to do the work, not get distracted by shiny objectives and side quests, and focus on building your capabilities so you’re ready to battle the top competitors daily. Moving beyond the small business designation is an exciting and scary time for a business. You can’t lose the customer focus and agility that made you who you are, but you have to scale and build the governance, processes, and systems to compete, and this can be a challenge.
Customers, employees, partners, and vendors are critical to the success of the business, so you must spend time understanding their needs and solidifying your thesis. After all, a solution looking for a problem is never a good idea (and we’ve all seen our fair share of those). The Customer is the key, and you need to ask yourself constantly: What problems are we solving? How are we improving our customers’ ability to deliver on the mission? You can adjust your thesis along the way but stay focused and kind. Don’t beat yourself up as a leader if everything doesn’t go perfectly or every hire doesn’t work out as you imagined. If it were easy, everyone would do it, and that’s certainly not the case. It’s never easy to get to the next level, and while tough decisions are just part of the process, there needs to be room in your plan to take risks.
Moving beyond small business requires thinking outside of the box and taking some chances. At ITC, we’re certainly taking some chances in the next few years and are excited to add more capabilities, senior leaders, and partners to the journey. We’ll take every precaution to ensure we’re as prepared as possible to take on our challengers and deliver for our customers. We might not win every battle, but we’ll show up daily and fight for our people, our customers, and our company. We know that as long as we do this and always put ourselves in the arena, we’ll have already won.