Getting Back Up: 5 Steps from Failure to First Place

Four World Cup titles overall including two in a row, four Olympic Gold Medals, and many years ranked as the #1 team in the world.  It’s fair to say that the US Women’s National Team has demonstrated dominance over the best in the world for a long period of time.  In fact, no other national team has achieved those heights ever, much less over a 25-year span.

 From their trailblazing days in building the women’s game to the unforgettable penalty shootout in the 1999 World Cup to their rivalries with Brazil, Canada, England, France, Germany, Japan, and Norway, to their easy accessibility to young fans, this team has been inspiring for a generation.     

 Yet only three years ago, this global juggernaut was eliminated at the quarterfinal round of the 2016 Olympics. From top of the world to elimination at the earliest point ever.  The loss set off a period of soul searching and retooling everything.  “I knew after 2016 we had to deconstruct this and reconstruct it,” said USWNT Coach Jill Ellis. “That was the plan. We had to continue to evolve because the game was growing so fast.”  And all the while, they were under pressure to continue to deliver results while being under-resourced compared a typical men’s national team set up.

 If you’ve ever achieved great success and then been knocked back, you can probably relate to the challenge at hand. Along with inspiration, I believe we can learn a few things from this team and their journey.

 Get humble. The trouble with success is that it often causes people to lock in on themselves and what they’ve done. Confidence can be a good quality for individuals and organizations. Too often though, it enables people to ignore the lessons of their work. As a consultant, I know that’s why an outside voice is helpful. Insiders may be too busy or too proud to see the signs. Don’t waste a good failure to humble yourself and open your eyes. If you’re like me then put the reading glasses on too.

 Take stock. It should go without saying that failure should trigger reflection. How many of us have an after-action review built into the “way we do things around here”?  It doesn’t always happen. The urgency of the day to day tasks can get in the way.  Don’t let it. Be rigorous, comprehensive, and open to assessing the situation both inside and out. As Ellis said, the game could be changing too.   

Blame serves the competition. The “blame game” cliché is valid if overused. Clearly, blame becomes a divisive factor in companies large and small.  The winner of the blame game really isn’t amongst the combatants. The division and venom triggered by blame deflects attention from what needs to change to get back on track.  That’s why the winner is nearly always the competition.

Engage experts. You might think this is the blinding glare of the obvious: talk with people who know the problem.  Here’s the thing: many of the experts are right there alongside you. And they may not even have a title that would denote expert status. Talk with people on the front lines, the ones dealing with customers and consumers, the ones using your products…or making them. Take a look at the janitor who created Flamin’ Hot Cheetos for a little inspiration. Yes, there’s a place for turning to outsiders who complement your collective knowledge…or can poke holes in it.    

Own the action plan.  OK, this one is obvious.  Agree on the path forward. Make sure that each person on the team understands what needs to be done…and their individual role they need to play. Collective ownership is fine if it’s supported by individual action.      

While few will truly stand on top of the world, we can stand on top of our world again. Following the lead of those who reclaimed their position can be a way to make it happen.  Here’s to your continued success and hopefully to seeing the US WNT standing tall again at the 2020 Olympics. 

You might also enjoy my previous articles:  How to Fail Successfully and Harnessing the Power of Pain to Achieve Goals.

Mike Irwin is an advisor, blogger, mentor, operator, and strategist.Drawing from his past as a startup co-founder/President, executive officer of a $1+ billion market cap company (WD-40), public company CFO, VP Marketing, global chief strategy officer, head of sales, and board member, Mike helps companies grow sales, improve profitability, and scale up.He serves as an advisor, consultant, fractional or interim CEO/GM/MD, and on boards of directors.Follow him at, get in touch at or connect on LinkedIn.

Photo Credit: US Soccer

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