Chris Fanning | Crain's Connecticut

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Chris Fanning


Chris Fanning joined Survey Sampling International in 2012, bringing with him more than 20 years of experience in technology companies. Headquartered in Shelton, Conn., with offices around the world, the company specializes in business-to-business survey research.

The Mistake:

Early in my managerial career at the Boston Consulting Group I equated asking for help with weakness, an admission that I really wasn’t good enough or I couldn’t get the work done. Instead, I wanted to exercise a little bit of corporate machismo and not need any help. As you get older and as you assume a broader scope of responsibility, you realize just how foolhardy that is.

I had been asked to manage recruiting, a fairly visible project that went beyond the usual client work. Every year at BCG a promising new manager would be asked to be responsible for the recruiting efforts of the firm, which is a big deal because it brings in the future lifeblood. It was a good sign to be asked. And so I said yes to the request and coupled it with a specific project that I was trying to manage, which was trying to come up with a way to more efficiently and effectively match people who currently worked at BCG with candidates that we viewed as high priority targets.

My idea was to match candidates up with teams of consultants by their interests. So if a recruit from California was a sports person who liked to ski, I would magically want to connect them to BCG people who liked sports or skiing or might be from California, to ensure a strong affiliation with the candidate. As I got into it, I realized how complicated the solution was going to be and that I needed technical help from IT and other areas of the firm.

When I finally started to admit to someone senior to me how I was a little afraid I had bitten off more than I could chew, he just looked at me and said, “You know you can’t get it all done by yourself.  But now you’re going to have to beg people to help you and you are going to put them under stress because of the time deadline.”

The ideal way would have been to get everyone together earlier and say, “Hey, this is important. We have to get it done in the next six weeks.” That would have allowed people a little bit of margin from a calendar perspective to contribute to the project without it being a super urgent, hair-on-fire, got-to-get-it-done tomorrow kind of job where there was no margin of error.

It turned out to be a rocky ride and I don’t think anybody would want to sign up for the ride again. Still, everyone appreciated contributing to the end result—the project did provide value to the firm.

I learned early in life, from my folks, to own my mistakes and talk about how I would avoid them in the future.

The Lesson:

I may have created a bit of a reputation with certain people that suggested.  “Boy, Fanning projects aren’t going to be the smoothest.” It wasn’t the way I wanted to work, not a great way to establish myself as a early stage manager

It didn’t take me a long time to recover because I owned up to it. I learned early in life, from my folks, to own my mistakes and talk about how I would avoid them in the future. I think most people want to see others do well if you earn their trust.

The lesson, as always, is to try to think through the different steps of your project, like when you play chess. In my case these steps were recognized areas that were either unknowns to me personally or areas that I was not going to be able to control as well. Those are probably the areas you want to seek assistance with and get substantive advice as needed. And if you have to do that, then you want to sit people down and really explain the project objective, create a team with a common vision, and get buy-ins from the team. It’s important to have everyone thinking, "We are all on this project together," and that each team member has a part of the project to deliver. And that if they don’t, they are going to let the team down. 

Follow Chris Fanning on Twitter at @chrismfanning.

Photo courtesy of Chris Fanning.

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