Jeanine Cogan
Executive coach

Jeanine Cogan

Heads Cogan Coaching and is on the faculty of the Center for Continuing and Professional Education at Georgetown University.


Take responsibility

Q: What are the biggest mistakes -- professional and personal -- you've made on the road to where you are today? Were you able to overcome them?

In my 30s, I won a Congressional Science Fellowship and chose to work with Rep. Diana DeGette, of Denver. It was an exciting year.

Given my background as a psychologist, the legislative director urged me to see if there was a role for the federal government in responding to a phenomenon uncovered by the Hartford Current of deaths resulting from inappropriate use of restraints in mental hospitals and residential facilities for children.

The more I researched, the more appalled I was to discover the widespread misuse of restraints on helpless people -- those with mental illnesses and children. And the shocking consequences, including death! This led to the drafting of a bill called "The Patient Freedom from Restraints Act" that my boss introduced with Rep. Pete Stark. Given Congresswoman DeGette's leadership on this issue, she was invited to Tipper Gore's office for conversations about how to address mental illness in America and she was summoned by advocacy groups to speak at their events.

One day she was the lunchtime keynote speaker for an advocacy group. I had been invited by that group the day before to brief a few people about the bill. Their meeting was in a hotel downtown, so I took the Metro to meet them. When I looked at the schedule for the Congresswoman on the day of the luncheon, it said that her meeting was in the Senate Hart building. We had a new scheduler who had only been with us for a week. I was certain that this was a mistake and told her the correct location for the luncheon talk was the downtown hotel.

This was an important detail because it now required the Congresswoman to have a driver, rather than simply walk to the Hart building. The scheduler made the change and scrambled to line up a driver. We had to hustle from her last event to the downtown location. Traffic was thick and we started running late. Tension was high. When we entered the hotel, something immediately felt off. I started walking with rapid speed to the conference room from the day before. When I opened the door the room was empty. My breath caught in my throat. I brought the Congresswoman to the wrong location!

I asked her to wait there while I inquired at the front desk. The group was no longer having meetings there. I called the office and asked the scheduler to call the contact person. Yes -- it was true the luncheon was in the Hart office building after all. I looked at the watch -- it was already 12:20 -- she was supposed to speak at 12. With traffic it would take us at least 25 minutes to get there.

I told the Congresswoman I had messed up and gave her all the information. She was not happy. After discussing it she decided there was no way she could make the luncheon and then her next appointment on the schedule. We called the contact person to let her know the Congresswoman would not be making it. They were very disappointed.

I was mortified. As we waited for the driver to return to pick us up, I kept apologizing to my boss. Telling her it was my mistake and it will never happen again. After letting me know that she was not happy with this and listening to my continued apologies she eventually told me to relax -- these things happen.

When we returned to the office, the chief of staff was waiting. She called me into her office and let me know this was a serious mistake. What had happened? I briefly told her what happened but did not wallow in the details. Instead I took responsibility. "This was my mistake. I will make sure it never happens again. In the future if I have a scheduling question I will call the contact person and double check. If I am unsure about something I will double check."

No one was happy with the mistake I made, yet I minimized the negative impact on everyone by taking full responsibility.

Today in my role as boss and colleague, my respect and trust for those I work with increases when people take responsibility rather than making excuses. Given the cultural tendency to blame others that seems so common these days, the idea of personal responsibility is refreshing and confidence building.

By Jeanine Cogan  |  July 29, 2010; 10:46 AM ET  | Category:  Success and failure Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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People make big and little mistakes every day. But I don't know anyone who owns up to them all or eschews the tendency to blame others or to repeat the errors. At best, we are good at avoiding the purchase of a bad product twice.
A mistake about the location of a meeting is hardly exceptional. Some people introduce officials with the wrong name and title. It's nothing ethical or diabolical, nothing more than red face or a wasted hour or two. Could this be the writer's "biggest mistake"?

Election or re-election to public office seldom goes to individuals who readily admit errors or embrace failures. Ditto for job offers, promotions, court litigation, or motor vehicle disputes. Do CEO bonuses bear any correlation to long term corporate returns? Does one become Pope on the basis of humility, candor, pennitence, and servility? Success seems to flow more to those who are clever at plausible denial, blame displacement, and selective amnesia. Outright lies eventually cause trouble, maily because the liar eventuall fails to keep the lies consistent. But to embellish (or inflate) success, while omitting (or excusing) failure are key features of what we call "self-esteem." How mainly banker résumés read "contributed to record losses in 2008-9"? Or would you expect a surgeon to tell you about the patients lost due to some goof?

Posted by: jkoch2 | August 2, 2010 2:36 PM
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You minimized the negative impact by taking full responsibility AND never doing it again.

Posted by: CF11555 | August 2, 2010 9:25 AM
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