AB Thinks  →  2nd August 2023

Embrace mistakes (and then learn to avoid them)

When Sally Susman first left college she went to work in the post room for a United States senator. There she overheard senior members of the team talking about an announcement they were due to make about the senator’s imminent retirement.

“I was young,” Sally tells Katie Macaulay in episode 85 of the Internal Comms Podcast. “I was naïve. I had a hot bit of gossip, and I told one person.”

That person told someone else, who told someone else, who told someone else… “The next thing I knew the media was calling and asking the senator about his plans.”

It soon became known in the office that Sally was, as she says now, “the weak link… I was horrified, ashamed. I went into the senator’s office to apologise but the dynamic between he and I was never the same.”

Now, four decades later, Sally says she still “sweats a little bit when I tell this story.”

So why include it in her new book?

“I learned a big lesson,” she says. “It is important to be open and honest about our shortcomings. It is in those moments that we really stretch ourselves and we learn and we grow.”

Today Sally is the Executive Vice President and Chief Corporate Affairs Office at Pfizer. Clearly that mistake in the senator’s office (and another she tells Katie about, which led to her ending up on the front page of the Wall Street Journal) wasn’t fatal.

Sally’s Michael–“I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career”–Jordan. She’s failed forward.

Her book Breaking Through: Communicating to Open Minds, Move Hearts and Change the World, includes 10 principles. One of them, “Measure up to the moment and take a pause,” is inspired by her past mistakes.

She now believes that any mistake you make is almost always a result of rushing. “There’s nothing worse than a communications person running around like a chicken with their head cut off,” she says.

So, her advice? Think like a concert pianist pausing for a moment to settle before they start to play, or a footballer taking a breath before that pivotal penalty shot.

“Take a moment, settle yourself, and decide your course forward.”

For more honesty and openness, and discussion about failure and success, tune into episode 85 of the Internal Comms Podcast.