The Key to NOT Messing Up at Work | Handel Group

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The Key to NOT Messing Up at Work

As a teenager, I had a tendency to destroy things. I picked on the younger kids, smashed mailboxes, and shot bottle rockets at traffic. My favorite game my friends and I played was to run when we saw cops, just to see if they would chase us…even though we hadn’t committed a crime.

Sweet, huh?

Yes. I was that human.

By the time I reached college, I was sure I had outgrown this (mis)behavior.

No such luck. I simply substituted (relatively harmless) delinquency with job-hopping, which I chalked up to my “lack of experience” and, sure, maybe I still had a little rebellious streak.

Eventually, I found my place in the corporate world as a pretty successful and effective engineer and settled down and had a family.

See, I wasn’t all bad!

However, this new phase of adulthood and the responsibility that comes with it meant that, as much as my anti-authoritarian inner voices wanted to, I couldn’t tell my boss to “go to hell” or call him a “d-ck” to his face when I was frustrated with a project, or person, at work.

Then I got a job with a large telecom company, where I thrived.

I was an engineering hero, the person everyone came to with questions. I always had an answer or was happy to help them find the person who did. A few years in, it came time to appoint a leader for an important new project. Of course, they picked me.

At first I was thrilled. Excited to take on more leadership, develop my skills in this arena. And I was sure I had outgrown my destructive streak.

My career was soaring and, in my mind, the natural next step was the C-Suite.

Until…I smashed up my own career…Yep. Worse than a mailbox.

Here’s what happened:

The new project required me to lead a team of engineers to compile data from across the country. My managers gave me an insane deadline and, a week into the project, took my supporting staff away.

I saw this as a complete setup for failure.

These people must actually not want me to succeed?!

Did I ever ask them what was the thinking behind the changes to my team?
Or share my concerns about the timeline?


My rebellious side went into overdrive. Instead of getting clarity, I worked long hours and weekends to prove my managers wrong. I had to show them that I could complete the project in time, no matter what they did to make my life harder. I had to show them…

That went down as well as it sounds.

In haste, I left out a crucial step: I “forgot” to automate the process.

The impact of my failure: someone else had to redo all the work, even though I had spent months doing it. Not exactly an impressive display of leadership.

I was so embarrassed and humiliated that I left that job.

At the time, I complained about how I had been wronged. I was sure my management had been trying to beat me down and prove me inept.

But now, with the help of my coach, I see that the only war being waged on me was the one by those anti-authoritarian voices in my mind. Not by my managers. They were only asking me to step up and be a leader. They were offering me the opportunity to display my skills and take on greater accountability, which should have been a privilege.

The truth is, I could have avoided the entire disaster by sitting down with them and asking a clear question about what their intention was.

You see, the key to not messing up at work (like I did) is getting KFC: Krystal Freaking Clear.

Being KFC means taking the time to be CLEAR – it may take extra time in the moment, but it will eliminate confusion and more time in the long run. What does that mean in practice?

As a leader, make sure your team understands the WHY, WHAT, HOW, and WHEN of everything you are communicating.

As a team member, make sure you have a clear understanding of the above and ask clarifying questions. You should be able to move forward confidently in your understanding of WHAT is being asked, WHY it is important, HOW you will deliver, and by WHEN you will achieve the deliverable. Do not EVER take a task without a deadline. If they say “Whenever,” look at your calendar and say “Ok well according to my calendar, I’ll have this done in [2 weeks or whenever], is that ok?”

That’s where I messed up. I was making too many assumptions about what my managers wanted, and what their intentions were. Instead of getting clear, I guessed, and made mistakes that led to one of my deepest career hauntings.

Now, at work, I have promises to make sure I stay KFC. For example, if I’m trying to avoid a conversation, I have to go directly to the person I’m hiding from and tell them exactly why I’m hiding and why.

I can’t tell you that there are no struggles in my career now or that I never mess up. However, I do take the time to get clear about my intentions and the intentions of others around me.

I’m proudly now that human.

Is that clear?