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How to Make a Great Mistake

02/24/2011 12:00 PM Wong Auditorium
Ellyn McColgan, Director, Primerica, Inc. and Executive Advisor, Aquiline"LCC

Description: Take it from Ellyn McColgan: Colossal, cringe"inducing screw"ups can make rather than break a career. In a self"deprecating talk aimed at educating an audience training for corporate leadership, McColgan, who rose to run businesses managing trillions in assets, reveals how she learned from even the most devastating mistakes.

"The single greatest weakness most people share," says McColgan is the "unwillingness to take a risk that might lead to make a mistake." But the problem is "you cannot lead from the middle, only from the front." This might sound intuitive, she acknowledges, but people avoid putting out "big ideas" because of the possibility of failure or hostility from colleagues. The fact is, McColgan states, we must learn to make and recover from mistakes in order to advance.

McColgan identifies several key categories of mistakes, and describes them using episodes from her own work life. The "execution" mistake often results "from messing up something like time, resources, quality or the deliverable itself." At Fidelity, McColgan was tasked with reorganizing a client services division that was losing money. She developed a 15"month plan, with 2,000 action steps, millions in new technology, that when launched, "didn't work: We couldn't get a check to a participant in an envelope on time." Her boss stopped talking to her and she wanted to run away.

Instead, McColgan came up with a fix, apologized to clients and her boss, and learned that "a good idea poorly executed doesn't count, no matter how great the plan was on paper." She also realized she had to share more and control less, and never shrink away from or conceal errors. While this episode was "terrifying" at the time, McColgan gained confidence from it.

Other typical mistakes involve politics -- knowing who has the power in an organization to help you get things done, and how to read the work environment strategically; and personal weaknesses. McColgan shares missteps she made in these critical areas. In one case, she initially declined an invitation to become the assistant to a CEO in her firm because it seemed too large a leap. After a glass of wine, she reconsidered, and rather than serving as an MBA trainee, became instrumental in a giant brokerage firm merger. In another case addressing issues of personal style, she indulged her tendency for directness, and was told off by a colleague, learning that "people do not always want to know what I think of them." Ultimately, says McColgan, "making mistakes helps you to learn your own limits and the limits of an organization, so you will not be afraid to lead."

About the Speaker(s): Ellyn McColgan has been a senior executive in the financial services industry for over 25 years. She began her career in the industry with Shearson American Express after graduating from Harvard Business School in 1983. She joined Fidelity Investments in 1990 where she worked for 17 years developing an expertise in growing the retail and institutional distribution businesses. Between the years 2002 and 2007, Ellyn built the Fidelity Brokerage Company to be the largest brokerage company in the United States as measured by client assets and client accounts, growing the business to $1.9 trillion in assets. She left the firm in 2007 as the President of Distribution and Operations. After leaving Fidelity, Ellyn served as President and Chief Operating Officer of Morgan Stanley Global Wealth Management Group where she led an organization of 17,000 people and $6.5 billion in revenues. She left Morgan Stanley in 2009 and is now an executive advisor to Aquiline Capital Partners in New York City.

McColgan is a trustee of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and a member of the President's Council for the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. She is the former co"chair of the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association.

Host(s): Sloan School of Management, MIT Sloan School of Management

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MIT World — special events and lectures

MIT World — special events and lectures

Category: Events | Updated over 1 year ago

December 19, 2011 12:10
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