Patricia McGuire
University president

Patricia McGuire

President of Trinity Washington University.

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Getting even

Q: What's the right response when you come tantalizingly close to success but fail to achieve your goal? How hard is it to recover from heartbreaking setbacks like the ones the Washington Redskins have endured in recent weeks? How often have you experienced reversals that tested your own spirit?

I'm a university president today because I didn't quit when I experienced a wrenching professional loss. Early in my career, I was passed over for a promotion that should have been mine. I was good at the particular line of work, and had created success for the company.

Even my boss told me I was terrific, and he begged me to stay -- even as he told me that he hired the other guy. Yes, a guy. A guy who was 50. I was 30. My boss said he wanted someone who was more experienced, "a graybeard." My female colleagues urged me to sue. I refused, and instead, I put my father's old adage to work: Don't get mad, get even.

I set about doing an even better job than before; I was determined to win. It worked. A year later, "the guy" was gone, and I got the promotion. The energy I put into winning made me even more successful, and that success paved the way for my career as Trinity's president. Had I quit or sued, I would not have been able to leverage that position into this opportunity.

That hard early experience has served me well as a college president. Successful leaders face loss and disappointment all the time. The trick is not avoiding failure, but rather, learning how to treat each setback as a learning experience, not a catastrophe. I often tell my colleagues, "We don't have failures, we have experiments."

Fear of failure is a great obstacle to success. In my early days as Trinity's president, I faced a lot of criticism because some people thought that my ideas for the college's future were much too risky. We were a small women's college that was having a hard time attracting students. I believed that we needed to build a women's sports center to boost our appeal to new generations of young women. Too risky, said my critics, and we have a lot of older buildings that need repairs. Forget about that sports center they said, just fix the old stuff.

I ignored my critics. I went "on the road" to raise money for the sports center anyway. I came back with empty bags. Rather than feeling dejected, however, each unsuccessful solicitation made me more determined to figure out how to make this dream a reality.

Today, the Trinity Center for Women and Girls in Sports is five years old. More than 30,000 athletes, patrons and visitors fill the center annually, and the names of more than 1,600 donors are carved into the plaques around the athletic complex.

Through the many early rejections I learned how to "make the case" more effectively to a more strategically identified set of benefactors. As a result, not only do we have a great new sports center, but Trinity, itself, has become more successful, now a university with more than 2,000 students in four academic schools. Sticking with the vision while learning from the setbacks made Trinity's success possible.

The top sluggers in the National Baseball Hall of Fame never batted more than .400 -- that means that they were unsuccessful in more than half of their at-bats. They didn't worry about strikeouts. They came back to the plate, adjusted their stances and calibrated their swings. They connected when it counted.

Maybe the Redskins should take up baseball.

By Patricia McGuire  |  December 10, 2009; 1:07 PM ET  | Category:  elusiveness Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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