Celebrating Mistakes as Learning Opportunities

Over the course of the past two years, I asked 14 learning leaders the following question on my Learning and Development Stories podcast:


After interviewing 14 learning leaders on the podcast, I went through their responses to this question. In summary, the lessons from mistakes broadly center around three key themes.


Dan Pontefract of TELUS (Canada’s fastest-growing national telecommunications company) spearheaded the launch of an innovative initiative for up and coming talents working in the company: an in-company MBA program in partnership with the University of Victoria Gustafson School of Business. One of the mistakes Dan shared was not always providing clear instruction about what the TELUS learning experience expectations were with the professors in the program.

“I probably should have taken action earlier to provide the feedback that a particular style may not be working for the TELUS culture,” he said.

David Leaser, Senior Executive of Strategic Growth Initiatives for IBM’s Training and Skills program, explained that one of the initial mistakes he made was underestimating the amount of resistance there would be to doing something like creating a unique Digital Badge Program.

“We’re always on the leading edge,” said David. “But when you get down to the human level, people are interested in how this going to impact them personally. And so, I think that early on, I probably didn’t do a good enough job describing how this would personally benefit them. And I think that if you don’t have a ‘what’s in it for me message’ for everybody you talk to, it’s going to shortchange you.”

Britt Andreatta, an internationally recognized thought leader in leadership and learning, sets expectations differently with prospective clients based on a particular interaction years ago. She recounted the story of a conversation with a CEO who was known for inspirational speeches and interviews about the importance of work culture and values.

Britt developed a pitch on how this executive could achieve these goals through a new initiative. To her dismay, this executive cut her off as she was pitching a project and said: “I don’t really care about those things for my own employees. They should do learning on their own time so I don’t have to pay for it.”

Stunned, Britt faltered through the pitch and the initiative wasn’t supported at the time.

“The lesson for me was don’t make assumptions even when you think you have evidence,” she said. Britt went back to the drawing board and re-pitched the initiative with a science-based evidence approach using ROI data. It was approved.

“To this day, I use the two-pronged approach of science and values,” she said. “It is actually better in the long run. This was an eye-opening experience, especially for someone who was on the record for valuing learning and employee development. We need to listen between the lines, anticipate needs and prove our value.”

Dana Hariton is the Director of Development at Prism Brain Mapping for North America and previously held learning roles for Lenovo and Morgan Stanley. As a result of previous experiences, she approaches relationship building with key HR stakeholders differently around the launch of big new initiatives.

“This culture was fast moving, sometimes firing first then aiming,” she explained of a previous work environment. “I had my head down a little too much working and I didn’t feel like I had a seat at the table. I didn’t understand the why until much later on. This hurt me.”

She shared how articulating her priorities is much more important for her now.


Abhijit Bhaduri, formerly the CLO at Wipro, explained how he and his colleagues evolved in their approach to putting together learning designs.

“We stopped designing materials for the person in the classroom as an end-consumer to actually viewing this person as the teacher,” he said. “We started to believe that learning happens when the person in the classroom begins teaching someone else.”

Melissa Taylor, Global Learning and Development Director for the public relations firm Porter Novelli, realized she was trying to fit too much content and material into a short amount of time in the roll-out of a new initiative called Generation Next. She has learned to stand back and allow room for absorption and reflection. She saw the benefit in cutting back on different sections and modules of the trainings, and instead provided more time for the participants to process the information they received.

“When I implemented these changes, I noticed that people didn’t feel rushed and people had more energy. I started to think about the right condition and environment for learning,” she said.

Patrick Veenhof, formerly the head of L&D at Swisscom (major telecommunications provider in Switzerland), shared how one of the initial forms of trainings his team used was podcasting as they thought the format would work well. However, after about six months, they realized no one was listening.

“You simply need to be open for the feedback that your users or customers are giving,” he said.

Throughout her career, Malika Viltz-Emerson, currently an L&D leader with Microsoft, used a standardized approach when doing analysis. In one particular role, she believes that she relied too heavily on this approach and it didn’t work as effectively. Part of the reason was that millennials made up a significant portion of this organization’s employees.

“I had to learn what works better with that group,” Malika explained. “That humbled me. I work in L&D and performance which means I am always a student and need to be continually learning myself.”

It can be difficult to pull the plug on a program that isn’t driving the intended change. IATA learning leader Jane Hoskisson experienced this first-hand. She inherited a program that had been in existence for 20 years and she didn’t have a good feeling about it. Many in the business were involved in sharing their knowledge, so it was even more difficult to terminate the program. But she waited too long. She tries to avoid this from happening in the future by constantly reviewing the performance of programs. It is important to bring a “critical eye without being jaded.”

Adilson Borges, an L&D leader at Carrefour, highlighted a learning lesson from his career: moving too fast and failing to spend enough time listening to sponsors to really understand what they needed.


Sometimes we need to be more skeptical. Dave Atack, currently the VP and Career Management Principal with the employment agency Right Management, shared the story of choosing a vendor for a particular system. After selecting a company among hundreds, Dave and his colleagues needed to test the system prior to full implementation. It was during this stage, after a significant amount of time had been invested, that the team learned that this vendor was facing a dire financial situation and not paying its own employees.

“We ultimately wasted lots of effort in evaluating the platform. We should have been more skeptical about their finances. Don’t take things at face value,” Dave said.

Wes Parker, currently a senior independent consultant, shared a similar story. He explained on episode 2 of the Learning Development Stories podcast how he failed to thoroughly vet a facilitator who came highly recommended. Consequently, a number of issues propped up.

“Never trust alone,” advised Wes. “Verify, especially on critical opportunities.”


I wanted to leave you with parting advice from Adilson: “There is one way to not make mistakes – don’t try anything new. Mistakes are part of the process. We have to celebrate them.”

On that note, now it is your turn. What are some lessons that you have learned from mistakes throughout your career? Share in the comments at the LinkedIn post.

This article was written by Kevin Anselmo, founder of Experiential Communications. You can access all the episodes of the Learning and Development Stories podcast at the following link

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