How I Failed and Learnt

How I Failed and Learnt
Posted: Jan 2020

I was gifted a book called ‘How to Fail’ by Elizabeth Day – an apt choice, as the gift giver and I have been through some tough times together. It got me thinking about what I considered my failures, and one that instantly came to mind was the business a few years ago.

Time flies as a business owner, and in the 17 years of running it, I have been focused on bringing in revenue, growing the business, managing and training a team of demanding millennials, and constantly trying to improve processes, marketing, PR, events … the list is endless.

It’s relentless, all-encompassing, hugely demanding, and sometimes you can’t see the ‘wood for the trees’.

I thought that success meant growing the business so it’s working for you, with a view to perhaps selling it one day; to do this, my plan was to grow it, train up more people, bring in more senior consultants, and increase the revenue and profit. Looking back, this ‘grow decision’ was the moment I started to fail – it was a decision made without absolute clarity of the finances, careful planning, or considering our high costs, not to mention some underperformance in the team.

I had just bought my business partner out of the company, and where we had previously split the training and coaching of the feisty team between us, I was now responsible for a team of 10. The volume of internal meetings (daily, weekly and monthly one-to-ones) doubled and it started to feel like meeting madness.

Then, about three years ago, when my (outsourced) FD flagged up that we needed to be billing much more than what was in the pipeline, I started to worry. With a team who were inconsistent with bringing in money, often looking to me for business like a ‘mother hen’, we clocked up several months of making a loss, and the underperformance became contagious – the team seem to wallow in it. Inevitably, we hit a cash flow crisis and I felt like I was running on a treadmill, working hard but not moving forward. At this point, I made another poor decision – I borrowed money and personally started to bail the business out. I also stopped paying myself, which came with its own set of challenges.

I was fortunate to have the support of a fantastic coach and mentor, and I remember the day she asked me, “If you were to start over and rebuild the business, who would you keep?” I surprised myself as I knew the answer – it was just three people. Clearly, it was time to restructure the business, which was a daunting task and I no longer had a business partner to share the burden. I needed to step up and move forward otherwise the business was going to fail – and I hate failing (I blame my competitive nature).

Over a series of weeks and months, I made the necessary changes and pulled the team back to just three of us. I let go of the FD, attempted to get to grips with the finances and cut supplier costs dramatically. It’s amazing what you can negotiate when you need to!

It took a couple of years to get the business back to a healthy profit, with all debts paid off. It was a tough two years but also enjoyable – the small wins counted. Having
worked in a team for so long, I was now the main fee earner and I had no choice but to do the job I have always loved, and it was nice to be reminded of that. I had been so caught up in what I thought a business should be doing, I failed to see what mattered. Profit is key; paying myself first was a huge lesson; keeping costs lean; enjoying the team and the process.

I’m far happier and fulfilled now than I ever was. I have a team of four superb, self-sufficient operators, who support me with exec searches and are delightful to work with.

I wish I had done this years ago! I have more balance in my life, I use all my allotted holidays, which is something I never did before, and we are way more profitable now.

I have gone back to the basics of being a search consultant – I love finding good people great jobs – and I’m damn good at it. As my PA says, “You make recruitment look easy, but it really, really isn’t.”

What have I learned? My perception of failure has changed; I made a series of poor decisions, but I feel stronger, more confident and more fulfilled for it. My perception of success has changed too – who cares how large the business is when it’s profitable and life is more fun?

The Works Search is a search consultancy specialising in PR and corporate communications. We have unrivalled matching abilities and known for finding the top 5% performers in the industry - the ones who deliver and make your reputation great. For more advice or market insights, do get in touch with us on 0207 903 9291 or email

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