Making Mistakes

The US advertising guru and author Roy H Williams once wrote that, ‘A smart man makes a mistake, learns from it, and never makes that mistake again. But a wise man finds a smart man and learns from him how to avoid the mistake altogether.’  Hopefully this post will demonstrate that I am indeed ‘smart’ and will help you all become a little bit wiser!

Already the September 2010 trainee intake are halfway through our first seat and, with the workload picking up, the odd mistake has been made along the way (although I much prefer the term “happy accidents”).  Supervisors are aware that trainees will make mistakes, having themselves been in the same situation not so many years ago.  They can occur regardless of the trainee’s current seat; although you’re also expected to learn from them and make sure you don’t make the same mistake twice.  Hence, as your training contract progresses, you’ll be expected to make fewer mistakes.

I can tell you now that you will never forget your first mistake.  My first mistake involved work for a partner and a stray email that found its way to our Graduate Recruitment Manager (who happen to have very similar names).  The first emotion was most definitely frustration having realised I’d made such a simple error.  This quickly turned to fear as it dawned on me who was involved and all sorts of thoughts raced through my head, including whether or not this might impact on the remainder of my training contract and my chances of qualifying with the firm (in hindsight I shouldn’t have worried so much).  Having corrected my mistake, I set about apologising to those involved.  Both were fantastic, accepted my apology and understood that mistakes do happen. 

With the panic over, I entered into a period of reflection to make sure I learned as much as possible from the episode, the fruits of this deliberation can be found below.  They’re very clichéd but they all stem from my experience and I’ve tried to apply them practically where possible.

Don’t panic.  Keep calm and gather your thoughts so that you can explain your mistake in a concise and collected manner.

Own up.  Own up to any mistake as soon as possible.  Your supervisor will not be impressed with any attempt at concealing a mistake and will be justified in reprimanding the trainee if it results in increased workload because of delay.  My own experience has also taught me that supervisors often consider the ability to admit to your mistakes to be a rather endearing feature that also builds trust between the two of you.

Offer solutions.  Before you own up, consider ways to rectify your mistake and offer these solutions to your supervisor when you speak with them.  You never know, your supervisor may agree with one of your solutions and be able to sanction it there and then, meaning they don’t have to resolve your mistakes.  You will be expected to offer solutions to clients later on in your career and this approach has the added benefit of demonstrating your ability to solve problems, which impresses supervisors.

Learn.  You can really demonstrate your personal development over the course of your training contract by referencing your mistake, the actions you took to correct it and how you learnt from it and prevented it from happening again.  Failing to learn from a mistake is unacceptable and your supervisor will be justified in being irritated and reprimanding you.

Ask questions.  Prevention is better than cure.  Many mistakes arise from miscommunication when a supervisor is giving you instructions for a task.  If you’re unsure about anything, then ask questions.  Explaining things again may take up an extra minute of your supervisor’s time, but this is better than a couple of hours they may have to allocate for correcting your mistake.

I hope the above is useful and please feel free to post any questions below.  Finally, all the Pinsent Masons trainees would like to wish you a prosperous New Year.