3 business lessons to take away from Clinton email snafu

By Laura Haight

Everything I've ever learned that really matters, I learned by making mistakes. Sometimes big ones. That's made me a big believer in the idea that what happens after the screw up is far more important than the screw up itself. Failure to learn and adapt is a far more serious problem, ensuring the same mistake or some variant will happen again. 

This is not a political post; this is a business process post. Mistakes were made from Hillary Clinton on down. Everyone admits that.  

So what can we as individuals, as business leaders, as executives take away from it? 

Three things: 

Never get outside your process 

Personalized service is a great marketing slogan. And, in the analog years, it helped set businesses apart. But in a technology-driven workplace, doing things outside of the system significantly increases the chance for a screw up. Businesses frequently make these "exceptions". One of the most common, is not applying the same rules and requirements to long-term employees or upper level management.  

The boss doesn't like changing his password every 30 days? No problem. We'll just set up a special rule for him so he doesn't have to do it. A 40-year employee retires? We're not going to cut off their internet access today; let's give her some time to get all her "personal things" off the computer and out of email.  

These are dangerous accommodations usually made for favorite clients, top brass, or star performers. Two factors make this a poor practice. First, we rely on technology systems (perhaps more than we should) to make sure each step of a process (on boarding, terminating, manufacturing, acquiring or shipping, etc) is implemented appropriately, accurately and with precise repetition. Error logs tell us when something isn't working; redundant systems kick in and take over critical processes. Analog systems rely on a legacy "hands-on" human action which is far more prone to error, for which there is little oversight or reporting and usually no redundancy. The first time we realize that something is out of process is when the CFO's computer (the one with the easy-to-remember password that has never been changed) is hacked, or the star performer walks off with a dozen key account campaigns and contracts that she takes to a competitor.

Secondly, your "special" accommodation will likely quickly become known because people talk to each other. Some may brag that they don't have to do that "stupid" password change all the time; clients may boast about the special deal they got. These situations lead others to question why the rules exist in the first place and whether they really are as important as they've been told; or to demand similar accommodations. Either way it's a sticky wicket: prone to error and more likely to backfire. 

Never assume anything 

You would think we had learned this from The Odd Couple, but apparently it bears repeating. Secretary Clinton said she received approval for her email set up. She is either flat-out lying or she relied on a staffer to take care of it and, never hearing any different, assumed it had been handled. There's a lot of evidence that Clinton staffers stood steadfastly between her and bureaucratic distractions.  

I've got no great insight into what happened in the State Department, but I have seen firsthand what happens often in business. Meetings are a perfect example. How many times have you sat in a meeting for a hour and discussed a plan, looked around the table to see everyone nodding and writing, only to find out at the next meeting that nothing's been accomplished because no one realized that they were supposed to be doing something?  

You can't rely on assumptions in any business process. Write things down, have clearly defined and assigned action steps, email meeting recaps to team members, use task lists and deadlines to track progress, demand accountability and don't settle for rhetoric.  Sure this is more middle management stuff. But if you are the boss, you should make it a point to "inspect what you expect". Are we ready for next week's audit? "You bet!" That's not enough to help me sleep at night. And any direct report who is really doing their job would be happy to show off by bringing in a checklist, task list, sample reports, and the like for review. 

Don't be left behind 

If you are the boss, a senior manager or team leader, it's important that you understand the systems, processes and procedures that you are asking your staff to work with.  

You may not love technology, but you cannot be left behind either. If your team is going to be expected to use the new VPN when they connect to the office from home, the road, or a mobile device in a Starbucks, you need to use it as well. You need to be able to explain to them why they are using it and why it is important.  

Most every enterprise today runs on technology-drive systems. You don't need to be able to build them, but you do need to understand them and set an example for your staff from senior managers down to shipping clerks. 

It's easy to look at mistakes other make, roll our eyes and lay some blame. But maybe we can avoid the same pitfalls (albeit on a smaller scale) if we take a look at the underlying causes and see if maybe, just maybe, there might be similar problems - and solutions - in our organizations.