Conversations in Management: Cliff Robinson

It’s like the NBA playoffs: The series doesn’t really start until you lose a game.

 Cliff Robinson

RobinsonThere was a flash of lightning and the torrential rain intensified. Members of the Solana Tribe were seated around a fire in Cagayan, a northern Philippine province, facing their first tribal council. Robinson was about as far from the NBA as he could get. The former All-Star had spent 18 years in the NBA playing for the Portland Trail Blazers, Phoenix Suns, Detroit Pistons, Golden State Warriors and New Jersey Nets while compiling an incredible record of success. This was a man who knew something about winning—and losing. He said that losing brought clarity to a situation and gave you a chance to make adjustments and move forward. The storm got worse and it was time to vote.

For those of you who missed it, Cliff Robinson was a contestant on the granddaddy of all reality shows—Survivor. The goal of the show is to become the “sole survivor” by outwitting, outplaying and outlasting the competition. Your social game has to be so good that the people you’ve outwitted, outplayed and outlasted feel benevolent enough toward you to vote for you to win over two other finalists. The game lasts just about a month and advancement is made through a series of challenges. Winning, first as a group, later as an individual, moves you forward. Losing means a trip to the dreaded tribal council where someone always goes home. The cup is half empty crowd will correctly note that this is a game about failures. Failure in a challenge always triggers activity and this is a particularly real part of the reality show. If you win individual “immunity” you’re safe from being voted out during tribal council. If you’re not safe, alliances, back stabbing, being thrown under the bus and most of all, hurt feelings come into play. How the contestants respond is very instructive. Some people respond to the mayhem by giving up. They figure they don’t have a chance of winning so why bother. These types never win. Others get angry. They blow up, confront the other contestants and generally make life miserable for everyone. This is surprising because the social game will ultimately decide the winner. Folks who’ve been attacked aren’t likely to feel warm and fuzzy toward you when it’s time for the final vote. Finally, there are the folks who pick themselves up, dust themselves off and regroup. They figure out what went wrong, try to fix it and do their best to keep playing. They also remember that they are playing a game and don’t take anything personally. You’ll find the sole survivor in this group. These are the resilient players and you can bet they play the game of life the same way they play survivor.

How you respond to failure is one of those things that are entirely under your control. You can give up, complain or work on a solution. Two of those options will put you in a failure spiral. Each loss saps your confidence and makes you feel less likely to believe you can ever win. You’ll hesitate to face new challenges and figure that the status quo is the best option. On the other hand, reacting to failure by developing a new strategy is the only path to future success. It forces you to think in novel ways and explore different approaches. It’s a confidence builder. Robinson made his comments moments before being blindsided and evicted from the game. But he’s a resilient player. He’s ready to play again. For the Solana tribe, blindsiding Robinson was the start of the game. The game moved forward and the competitive people—the resilient players—were making strategic adjustments. One of those folks will win the game. It’s the way you can win too.    —Ebert  

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