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Brian Scudamore (KATIE BOSDET)
Brian Scudamore (KATIE BOSDET)

Why I champion a WTF culture at my company Add to ...

This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab

Sure, he’s got billions of dollars, but would you really want to lead like Donald Trump? He spent 2015 shocking us with outlandish and offensive comments in his bid to be president. As a business leader, he doesn’t tolerate (or even admit) failure, preferring instead to say, “You’re fired!”

Some people confuse strong leadership with being aggressive and merciless. However, after building four brands that employ thousands of people, I’ve found that the best leaders are the ones who embrace risk-taking (and failure) and who can own their mistakes.

Champion a WTF culture

By leading with vulnerability, you build your team up instead of tearing them down, creating a company culture where people work from passion instead of fear.

When the Volkswagen emissions scandal erupted this summer, VW’s corporate culture was suddenly in the spotlight. Former CEO Martin Winterkorn was accused of creating a “cutthroat, insular” environment where driving for massive goals and openly berating employees who didn’t make them was the norm. Given that he was motivating workers by being a bully, it’s perhaps not surprising that people would fudge the numbers to reach targets (and keep their jobs).

Although taking an untested idea to the marketplace can result in failure, at O2E Brands we know that risk-taking is key to innovation. The WTF room is our space for blue-sky, green-light thinking. WTF stands for Willing To Fail (or sometimes the other thing) and the name reinforces a company-wide understanding that dreaming ‘big’ is allowed – and so is the occasional flop.

In keeping with this concept, some ideas brewed in the Willing To Fail room were duds. On the other hand, we would never have expanded 1-800-GOT-JUNK? into Australia, landed Oprah, or had our own Starbucks cup without people who were passionate, engaged, and given the freedom to try something new. Engendering a WTF spirit company-wide has been essential to our growth.

Look in the mirror and say WTF

Our WTF culture wasn’t created magically – it came from years of mistakes and learning together. Taking the blame or acknowledging failure (sometimes publicly) can be certainly scary, but it’s a necessity for leaders who want to instill creativity and risk-taking in their people.

One of the biggest mistakes I’ve made was in 2008. It was an exciting time of hyper-growth for 1-800-GOT-JUNK? and we desperately needed a chief operating officer to manage the boom. When a candidate applied from a Fortune 500 company with experience managing 6,000 stores and 30,000 people, I was quick to hire on pedigree alone.

It quickly became clear that the new executive didn’t fit our culture and some strong staff members started to leave in protest. Growth began to dwindle as we argued over strategy. To top it off, when I finally acknowledged my mistake and let this person go, severance was costly. Although it was awkward and embarrassing, I apologized to my staff, promising that next time I would hire slow – and fire fast.

When it comes to admitting failure, you don’t have to be like Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, who cried during a particularly gruesome round of layoffs. But you do have to take ownership if the fault is yours, and show you truly care about making things right.

Let WTF trickle down

Since that time, embracing vulnerability has become part of our company fabric, and it’s especially evident in our seven-minute high-energy huddle. Each day, the whole company gathers together to discuss good news and revenue. Perhaps most importantly, we cover missing systems and opportunities to ensure problems are addressed.

Sometimes the issues that come up have quick fixes, while others have long-term impact. Five years ago, a successful franchise partner asked me in front of everyone, “With all due respect, do you think you’re the CEO to take this company to the next level?”

Although I was surprised (and hurt) by the question, it forced me to consider if I really was the right person for the job. I knew I had vision and passion, but I wasn’t as good at handling daily operations. That realization inspired me to hire a COO so I could focus on big-picture ideas. This “two in the box” leadership strategy has allowed us to smash revenue records and add three companies to O2E Brands. Needless to say, now I’m grateful that someone put me on the spot at huddle.

As a leader, you can motivate your employees with fear if you want: doggedly pursue goals and eliminate anyone who can’t keep up or who sees things differently. But before you join Trump and Winterkorn on the dark side of leadership, remember that vulnerability can be a powerful tool, and failure can generate new opportunities for growth. A corporate culture built on trust will be far more agile and innovative in the long run.

Brian Scudamore (@brianscudamore) is the founder and CEO of O2E (Ordinary to Exceptional) Brands, which includes companies like 1-800-GOT-JUNK?, WOW 1 DAY PAINTING, You Move Me and Shack Shine. He helps others grow small to medium businesses and corporate culture.

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