March 31, 2009

April Fools Day

You can do a hundred good things at work. And then, something happens, and you feel like a fool. You remember feeling like a fool for years, maybe decades.

At Lands' End in 1995, I selected the best 1.3 million names for a catalog mailing. We were supposed to mail the best million households, and leave 0.3 million as a contingency. I sorted the list in the wrong order, mailing households 0.3 to 1.3 million. Ooops. You know you made a mistake when the catalog is in-home for two days, and is 40% below plan. The merchants, your CEO, and your boss are all very interested in finding out why the catalog is failing. After I found the error, I had to fess-up. Fun stuff. We sent out another 300,000 catalogs to make up the demand --- so my sin only cost my company $150,000 of profit.

A similar problem happened at Nordstrom in 2004. We mailed something like 3 million folks a 124 page catalog, and 3 million folks a prospect catalog, 64 pages --- the best customers were supposed to get the bigger version. Two days after the in-home date, we observed a problem ... the big book is -50% to plan, the smaller book is like 80% over plan. Oh, if you want to see inventory managers get frustrated, go ahead and switch customer lists sometime!

One of my executive team peers told my President that s/he "wanted blood". This person wanted to know the name of the individual working in my department who made the mistake.

I admitted the mistake of my team to our entire direct-to-consumer division and marketing division via e-mail, I apologized. I didn't give up the name of the person to this executive --- I did tell my President and my CMO. You cannot offer enough blood to an executive who thirsts for it.

You find out who is on your side when you make a fool of yourself. And honestly, there's value in that, right?

We all make mistakes. Some are public, some aren't. Today's a good day to think about being more tolerant of the fools who make mistakes.