The Weight of Failure

By     Mar 17, 2016
Executive Program in Arts & Culture Strategy Alumnus

Mary Madigan

Gravity is greater on Planet Freelance than on Planet Employee, and failure is heavier for a freelancer than for a company employee.
During 20 years of employment in organizations and companies, I rarely experienced failure to a degree with consequences. Working in an organization, one is supported by strong leaders, mentors, and colleagues when taking risks. If the results don't meet the target, then the team together shoulders the responsibility. In an organization, typically, successes far outnumber failures. The overall accomplishments of the organization are its hallmark.

Unlike a workplace where colleagues are in the same culture with tacitly understood professional practices, freelancers have separate “virtual cultures” with each client. This brings in to play a series of varying expectations from relationship to relationship. It’s important in these instances to set expectations for clients so that misunderstandings can be avoided and measurements can be taken with the same stick. In reality, however, such preparations often fail.

As the sole proprietor of the business, the failure lands squarely with you. Now, it is reasonable to ask: “What about the client? Aren’t they also responsible for the success of communication and understandings? It takes two, right?” Yes, I think ‘it takes two’, but ultimately it’s my business and reputation that will succeed or fail, and so I bear the responsibility.

Let me put it this way: You may remember in the mid-‘90s there was a battle (no pun intended) between the soprano Kathleen Battle and The Metropolitan Opera. Miss Battle, a great talent, committed a series of “unprofessional actions” during performance preparations at The Met; such as not showing up for rehearsal after the schedule had been changed to suit her, being “very nasty” to other cast members and telling other singers to leave the stage when she was singing. After efforts taken by The Met’s powerful and skilled management to resolve the situation and getting no functional cooperation, The Met dismissed Miss Battle, and the chorus and crew cheered. The general tone was that Miss Battle deserved it, and maybe so. But, I remember hearing a radio interview in which a spokesperson for The Met considered the fallout to be their failure to keep the relationship together. This made a lasting impression on me.

I consider it my responsibility that my client relationships succeed. If there is a misunderstanding or even an ‘out of left field’ request from a client, it’s for me to manage the situation. If the client lacks the business experience I have, I need to cover that ground on their side and assist them, even in negotiation with me. That’s the heavier weight of responsibility that rests with the sole proprietor.

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