Editor’s Note: Thought leader Grace Ueng is CEO of Savvy Growth, leadership coaching and management consultancy, celebrating its 20th anniversary.  Grace writes a regular column on Happiness & Leadership for us. Grace’s core offerings are conducting strategic reviews for companies at a critical juncture and one-on-one coaching for CEOs and their leadership teams.


RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – I have been researching the theme of Failure for nearly a decade.  It started in part because of feedback from a student in my UNC online reviews: “Professor Ueng did not share her failures.”

 Sixteen years ago, on the first day of teaching Entrepreneurial Marketing at UNC Kenan Flagler, I asked my MBA students what they were hoping to learn from my class.  One woman raised her hand and said “I would like to learn from your failures.”  I politely listened to the rest of the comments and then went on to teach the syllabus that I had spent months preparing.

Queen of Failure?

In the years that followed, I started to open up my eyes to the importance of experiencing failures, and why that student wanted to learn from mine.  One winter, I managed to secure an in-person meeting with a noted literary agent in New York City. As we came down to the wire in finalizing my book proposal, my book coach suggested calling me “the queen of failure.”  That made me quite nervous. While I understood my coach’s guidance to have a unique angle, I still was not comfortable with openly sharing my failures, much less to be known uniquely for a talent at failing!

The next year, a women in technology group asked me to give a talk focused on failure.  I was finally opening up to being vulnerable and sharing on that topic.  I now know that being vulnerable is not a weakness, it is a strength.  I had to grow my confidence to be ready to share my failures on a public stage.

Helping too much?

Being vulnerable and sharing failures, anchors a discussion, opening up others to feel safe to also share. This is very different from the digital social media world that our youth have grown up in where everything is edited to make everyone glamorous and having loads of fun. The real world is much different. However, as parents, many of us fall guilty of insulating our children from failing, which makes them less resilient in the face of  difficult challenges.  By helping too much, we end up hurting our children.

The same can be said of teachers. I restarted piano studies last year after a four decade hiatus to honor the memory of my mom, my first teacher.  As part of that, I am a student of Noa Kageyama, performance psychologist on faculty at Juilliard. In his post this week “Productive Failure”: Why Early Floundering Leads to Better Learning, Noa shares fascinating research with 7th grade students who are learning how to calculate average speed.  The students are divided into two groups: (1) using traditional direct instruction and (2) productive failure learning of complex problem assignments with no teacher support or homework.

The findings were that it was faster and more efficient to offer the right fix in the short term, rather than withhold the right strategy. In the long term, however, the productive failure group that did not get to the correct answer quickly, cultivated a deeper understanding of the fundamental principles and various ways of arriving at a solution, though at the expense of short term performance. Having the student struggle, search, and look in all the “wrong” places made them much more engaged in the learning process.

Photo courtesy of Grace Ueng

Struggling and failing first

This past weekend, I performed in another Presto Piano recital. I reminded myself of my own words Comparison is the Thief of Joy  as I was the least advanced pianist of the two dozen attendees. My performance Beethoven Sonata Pathetique No. 8, Op. 13  II. Adagio Cantabile contained many mistakes.  Afterwards, I met a visitor, who started playing piano again, teaching himself by hacking around his digital keyboard on his own over the last several years.  As he tried out the Steinway, I was surprised to her him play beautiful snippets of Bach’s Goldberg Variations #1 and #5 with great ease.  He said it took him a full year of working on his own to master these 2 variations. I fully appreciated this as it had taken me many weeks to play the introduction to the Variations, the  Aria at a rudimentary level.

I wonder how I am learning differently than he is, with my regular lessons. Teddy does have me practice a piece on my own, before he offers his suggestions, so my process is likely a blend of the best of both worlds. Teddy offers suggestions that I am unlikely to have ever thought of on my own that enable me to play better.  I appreciate his suggestions much more and implement them more readily, having struggled on my own first.

And this week I caught up over lunch with my friend, the coach who told me to make a poster entitled, “Grace, the Athlete” when I was training for my first marathon over two decades ago. I share her wise words each time I speak about the power of visualization in goal attainment. We were catching up after not seeing each other for many years, exchanging many life stories and lessons.  Toward the end of our conversation, she echoed the importance of failure, and how that is the only way to really learn.

Optimizes our outcome

So for the last several years,  when I review the prior week, I list all the failures I “accomplished.”  And if there are many, I celebrate!  Indeed, we need many failures under our belt in order to know how to succeed.

About Grace Ueng

Grace is CEO of Savvy Growth, a leadership coaching and management consultancy founded in 2003. Her great passion to help leaders and the companies they run achieve their fullest potential combined with her empathy and ability to help leaders figure out their “why” are what clients value most.  A specialty is conducting 360s in order to help leaders become more self aware and uncover their blind spots.

Companies hire her firm for leadership coaching and strategy consulting as well as to  facilitate HappinessWorks™ programs, infusing the happiness advantage into corporate culture, leading to higher productivity and results. 

A marketing strategist, Grace held leadership roles at five high growth technology ventures that successfully exited through acquisition or IPO. She started her career at Bain & Company and then worked in brand management at Clorox and General Mills. She earned her undergraduate degree from MIT and MBA from Harvard Business School.

Grace and her partner, Rich Chleboski, accomplished cleantech veteran, develop and implement strategies to support the growth of impact-focused companies and then coach their leaders in carrying out their strategic plans. Their expertise spans all phases of the business from evaluation through growth and liquidity.

Rich and Grace will be facilitating Savvy’s Leadership Mastermind Group starting this fall. Applications will be available in May.