A Multi-Million Dollar Mistake

The year was 2006. Sheryl Sandberg, a then 37-year-old vice president at Google had just made an error that cost Google several million dollars. After she realized the magnitude of her mistake, she decided to inform Larry Page, Google’s co-founder. Even though she knew she was doing the right thing, I’d imagine that walk to his office was difficult. What would he say? Would she remain with the company?

In 2009, I had the opportunity to visit Google’s campus as part of a strategic partnership role that I held with a Fortune 500 company. While walking around the campus, I noticed that it looked and felt very different from any “traditional” office space that I had ever visited. As someone who had spent 5+ years traveling for my company, I had seen quite a few offices. While the Google campus was clean, it was more chaotic. Projects, materials, props were in the corners of the hallway. Food is available whenever you would like it, including snacks and candy. Meetings were happening not too far from a sand volleyball court. Finding a particular conference room was confusing without a guide. My colleagues and I were fascinated at the company’s ability to push and challenge boundaries. The company is known for their innovation…and innovation felt, well, somewhat messy.

Back to my story. How do you think Larry Page responded to Sheryl Sandberg’s admission of her multi-million dollar mistake? How would you respond as a leader in your company? What feelings arise as you consider this situation? As it turns out, Page did decide to accept her apology. As she was walking out, however, he said something that surprised her. He said, “I’m so glad you made this mistake, I want to run a company where we are moving too quickly and doing too much, not being too cautious and doing too little. If we don’t have any of these mistakes, we’re just not taking enough risk.”

While I’m not suggesting that every company should model Google’s, a key insight can be learned from this story. Is your organization very cautious? Are changes incremental and smaller? If you want to do new things, there is an element of risk involved. System risk, financial risk, or in this case, human error. Innovation and change require an appetite for risk. While all parties involved would probably agree that they would rather have not had this particular mistake occur, they were able to live up to their values in the midst of a crisis moment. They were willing to acknowledge that mistakes can and do happen as you push boundaries and innovate at the pace that Google does.

We might not all have the same budget as Google. However their mindset, risk tolerance and pride in innovation (along with their strong financial position) enabled them to weather the storms that arose as they pushed boundaries, tried new things and led the way in this market. And when crises arose, as they inevitably do, they were able to view it in the context of their overarching mission as an organization. It turns out that Larry Page’s belief and investment in Sheryl Sandberg paid off. She would later became the company’s COO. Shortly after she was listed in the Time 100, an annual list of the most influential people in the world.

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