HOW TO SURVIVE YOUR MISTAKES
When you have made a mistake, your impulse may be to bury it and run away from it. However, doing so means missing an opportunity. We talk to successful women about the mistakes they have made and how they turned them around
Malaysian female bosses share steps you can take to make mistakes work for you
Sumitra Visvanathan, 49, is no stranger to pain and suffering. For 17 years, she was a United Nations humanitarian aid worker who helped displaced men, women and children in war zones. Today, she is executive director of the Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO), an NGO that focuses on helping victims of domestic violence.
"To do this kind of work, you have to think fast on your feet, knowing that at any time, if you should get it wrong, it can result in someone’s death,” says Sumitra.
Working under tremendous pressure can cloud one’s thinking – which is why crisis workers have to learn a set of principles and then apply them rigorously to every situation. This helps to promote best practices and avoid known problems. However, the system is not perfect.
“If you get it right 75 per cent of the time, you are actually doing great,” says Sumitra. “Unfortunately, the trouble is that the wrong decisions – the other 25 per cent – affects real people. It can really get to you, knowing what can happen if things do not go well.”
In her current role, she helps victims of domestic violence who need a lot of protection. However, they often suffer from prolonged stress and fear, which leads to depression, anxiety and other mental health issues.
“In our shelter, we cannot take anyone with untreated active mental health conditions because we are not trained to cope,” explains Sumitra. “Even if the case is compelling, we still have to say no.”
When the situation is clear, applicants are referred to WAO. However, in crisis, clarity can be hard to find.
“Once we took in a victim, and a few hours later, she self-harmed,” Sumitra says. “Luckily, she did not kill herself; it was a cry for help and we were able to take her to hospital in time.”
For most lay people, this may seem to be an understandable mistake – but aid workers see it a little differently.
“The principle for helping others is this: If you cannot do good, at least do no harm,” Sumitra points out. “It is about knowing your role and capacity. By taking in victims whom we cannot cope with, we put them – and others who are in the refuge – in danger.” So how do they manage the stress as a team? “We get together often and debrief in a safe space, allowing ourselves to feel our emotions,” says Sumitra. “It is vital to accept and embrace feelings as suppressing them leads to trouble later. After that, we assess the need to refine our process, which involves careful auditing.”
“I have to think fast on my feet. When I make MISTAKES, people may die”
Jess Teong, 52, actress, model and filmmaker has a diverse portfolio in the creative arts, including the critically acclaimed award-winning film, TheKidFromTheBigApple. It is tricky to try and appeal to people’s desires, and Jess believes the secret to success is authenticity.
“I have to love my own work – that is the first principle. Of course, you can certainly make something fit a commercial type or specific festival, but I won’t do it,” says Jess.
“Like with TheKidFromTheBigApple, a festival committee said that if I removed some songs and scenes to fit in with their specifications, I might do very well.
“However, I said no because I think you have to be true to yourself to appeal to people. Sharing what you believe is the way to create a message that the audience can take home.”
While this principle has brought success, the flip side is that it has also landed her in hot water occasionally.
“About eight years ago, I was designing jewellery,” recounts Jess. “I love big chunky pieces, especially elegant chokers. One of my idols is Audrey Hepburn, so I designed a collection of chokers that was reminiscent of her sophisticated style. I visualised my clients wearing these beautiful pieces to showcase their necks and shoulders.”
To her dismay, the collection did not sell. One of the most challenging tasks for creative people is that having put in so much personal effort into their art, critique can be very painful and personal.
“However, you have to remember that the bottomline to success is the same as any other business,” Jess says. “It has to sell. If it does not, there is a problem. Your product needs to be of quality and available in the right places and at the right price – that is a basic business model.”
“Sometimes, you can be ahead of your time though. A story or necklace that does not have market appeal now may be all the rage next year. So a ‘mistake’ this time may be a success next time.”
Having checked and re-examined the basics, Jess talked to her team and her clients.
“I misjudged my market,” Jess admits. “My clients just did not go for that particular style or appreciate it as much as I had expected.”
Fortunately, with a little creativity, Jess was able to salvage much of her project.
“I took apart the pieces and used them to make rings and bracelets,” she grins. “Chunky, of course, because I love that!” Thankfully, the results were excellent. “It sold – very fast!” Jess laughs, adding, “And I see chokers are back in fashion now!”
“A MISTAKE this time may be a SUCCESS next time”
Adelene Foo, 35, GrabTaxi’s regional head of operations, is the poster girl for commercial success – but the path has not always been trouble-free.
“I did not dream big enough,” she laments. “When we started, we were thinking nationally. We decided to call our start-up MyTeksi. It was a great name locally, but when we went to the Philippines, they did not get the spelling of ‘Teksi’ and they did not identify with ‘My’ either.”
The fix that seemed reasonable at the time was to call the Filipino version GrabTaxi. It went very well and the company expanded all over the region – but then Adelene discovered that it created difficulties too.
“When we went global, our own country was out of step. With MyTeksi in Malaysia and GrabTaxi everywhere else, we needed separate apps, separate social media accounts and even separate emails! From a business perspective, that did not make sense.” The fix was obvious. “We knew we had to rebrand our product back home. We were hesitant though, because it means you have to persuade your customers to change. And change is not easy.”
The company took six months to plan the rebranding campaign and then took another six months to carry it out completely. It was successful, but it was taxing.
“In business, it is a MISTAKE to think small”