Failing Upward

This article was originally posted to AllAccess’ “The Bigger Picture” series, written by Charese Fruge on May 12, 2022 

Charese FrugeI was reading a story in the Wall Street Journal the other day about “Mastering the Art of Failing Upward.” It caught my attention because my colleagues and I often have conversations about the people who manage to fail upward in the audio and broadcast business. It’s always the usual suspects. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of hardworking, deserving people out there who have legitimately earned the success they have built in the industry, but there are just as many, if not more (the usual suspects) who have no business being in leadership roles and continue to “fail upward.”

According to the above-mentioned article, Tessa West, a professor of psychology at New York University and author of “Jerks at Work,” “For most of us, failing is a sign that you’re not good at something. But for those who fail upward, they manage to turn their failure into success, with some ‘serious magic.’ Masters of failing up work their ‘magic’ by framing mistakes as moments of growth,” she says, “and in so doing, convince executives to boost them ever higher.” In other words, they are fantastic bull sh*tters! Their ability to pitch, spin and sell are incredible, but their follow through leaves a lot to be desired. By the time it matters, they have already moved up or on in the world and it doesn’t matter what bull sh*t they fed you to get there.

I remember working in a situation in Los Angeles with someone who was supposed to be a genius in the industry. Seasoned, experienced, smart, fantastic for sales, etc. etc… We switched formats on a station and without discussing it with anyone, this person spent over a half a million dollars on a billboard campaign using the names (and sometimes likenesses) of some of the biggest bands on the planet (who by the way, all lived in LA) without getting permission from ANYONE involved with those camps. Needless to say, their attorneys, who were also based in LA, had a problem with that and the C&D came immediately.

The Billboards literally went up, and then were immediately taken down. It was far too late to get permission to use these names and likenesses, and it was never going to happen anyway. This was a very expensive failure in a major market and one of many “brilliant” moves by this person who continues to fail upward to this day because of an uncanny ability to pitch and spin things. This person is the Master of “The Art of Bullsh*tting!” This person was also never held accountable for those very expensive actions and the problem was never fixed. It just turned out to be over a half a million dollars down the toilet. Imagine what could be done with that kind of money in the audio business these days.

Let’s dig a little deeper into failing upward in the industry. Remember the guy who was ordered by a judge to pay Taylor Swift one ceremonial dollar after inappropriately grabbing her during a photo at a meet & greet in Denver. He was banned by Taylor’s camp from ever attending any other event she was involved in. Less than a year later, someone who should have never been allowed to work in radio again was re-hired to work on air at a station by a manager who actually defended him publicly.

What about the married guy who had an inappropriate relationship with one of his subordinates, left his wife for her, ended the relationship, lost his job, then publicly begged his wife to come back to him on Facebook. The entire story was public knowledge and sadly everyone else’s business too. He was literally hired again, shortly after, in the same management role.

And what about the few usual suspects in the industry who have moved from job to job at least three times within less than a two-year period, with zero success behind them and displaying no sign of loyalty or commitment. They haven’t stayed anywhere long enough to prove they are worthy of a leadership role but their uncanny ability to spin things and fail upward have lifted them to positions of power.

There is a HUGE difference between learning from your mistakes and failing upward. It’s the difference between being a person of good character and being narcistic. It’s the difference between emotional and intellectual intelligence and being completely self-absorbed and obsessed with power. Most people acknowledge their failure, own it, and take steps to fix the problem while learning important lessons along the way. Those who fail upward minimalize the problem, charm their way out of it and just move on, only to continue to make those kinds of costly mistakes in the future. Sadly, that means someone else has to clean up their mess, and in a lot of instances, especially in this business, take the fall for that person’s foolish behavior. We see it all the time in radio.

According to The Wall Street Journal, “not everyone can spin a botch job into a better job, and rare is the mere mortal climbing the corporate ladder who will admit a promotion or raise is unearned. Managers may subconsciously cut more slack to people who remind them of themselves, and since the upper echelon of corporate America is disproportionately white and male, it often helps to be one or both of those things.” SHOCKER!!!

The Truth: The WSJ goes on to say, that those who fail upward are “often protected by the egos of supervisors who hate to admit to picking the wrong people. So, they keep their ample paychecks and shuffle into new roles—often with vague titles and few meaningful tasks, so they can’t cause too much harm. The bigger the organization is, the more room you have to move around and fail. The person who put you in the job, rather than confront you, will simply pass you off to someone else.”

But what happens when there’s no where else to move, no legitimate positions left, and the person who helped you fail upward has to make a choice between you and themselves? I’m pretty sure we know the answer to that question. But the damage to the business is already done. Hopefully, we as an industry can turn that around quickly and begin to legitimately hire qualified candidates with diversity and inclusion in mind, and with more than just good lip service. The damage we’ve done to the traditional radio business by allowing the same few people (the usual suspects) to call the shots for the last 30 years and not hold them accountable for their actions has been extremely costly from both a brand and financial standpoint. It’s time to start hiring candidates who truly do learn from their mistakes and bring passion, creativity, and problem solving to the table. They are out there in plain sight. They are loyal and committed, and they shouldn’t have to master the art of Bullsh*t just to get the job.