7 ways to turn setbacks into success stories

By Jessica Hibbard

The executives, entrepreneurs and rising stars who speak at Retail’s BIG Show Student Program are invited to the stage because of their successes. Those triumphs are often hard-won, the result of lessons learned the hard way.

Fashion designer Rebecca Minkoff likens our warped expectations to Uber. In our daily lives, getting from one place to the next is as easy as pushing a button on our smartphones, feeding the illusion that success can be as fast and easy as ordering a ride via app. But to reach your career goals, Minkoff says you have to be “willing to work your you-know-what off” — and it will probably take longer than you think.

Learning from mistakes, rejection, setbacks and criticism can close the distance between dreams and reality. Here are some tips to keep in mind:

Be accountable

Lauren Mastrodonato’s most memorable mistake was a conference agenda misprint that seemed like a castastrophe when it happened. Mastrodonato, a project manager of retail operations at West Elm, said the most important thing — no matter how big the blunder — is to own up to your mistake and be accountable for it. Don’t try to cover it up; instead, focus on getting the help you need to fix the problem.

Come to a solution quickly

Early in his design career at Kohl’s, Blake Smith missed a deadline that threw off his team’s holiday production schedule. He quickly assessed the situation to figure out what happened and what could be done to mitigate the issue. The first priority was solving the immediate problem, but Smith said it was just as important to look ahead to future projects and develop processes and safeguards so the same mistake wouldn’t happen again.

Pay attention to details

Paige Richardson, now a vice president at Belk, cringed while recalling a mistake she’d made earlier in her career as an associate buyer at Macy’s. A simple numerical error — entering the wrong number of zeros in the wrong place — couldn’t be corrected without a visit to the chief financial officer. Richardson says it was a great way to learn an important lesson: Details matter.

"Success is sweet revenge."

- Karen Katz, Former President and CEO, Neiman Marcus

Build relationships

Jake Farrell, senior manager of interconnected operations strategy at The Home Depot, also made a mistake he couldn’t fix on his own. A couple of years ago, late on a Friday afternoon, he had to call on IT colleagues to help him reverse an error before it impacted e-commerce sales. It’s important to know who your partners are, Farrell said, so you know who you can lean on to help fix mistakes as soon as they happen.


Be resilient

Karen Katz applied to business schools and retail buying programs, and received a rejection letter from Neiman Marcus’ buyer training program. She’s now CEO of the company. “Success is sweet revenge,” Katz said. Resilience and persistence can pay off in a big way.

Solicit — and filter — feedback

Asking for feedback is a great way to learn quickly, but not all criticism deserves the same level of consideration. Rebecca Minkoff says once she decided on the focus of her brand, she used that as a lens to filter feedback. When it comes to negative feedback, consider the source: Does the critic have valuable experience and unique insights, or are they just resistant to change? To be a successful entrepreneur, you have to be willing to take a risk, and that can mean dismissing some advice.

Take ownership of your career

Heidi O’Neill, president of direct-to-consumer at Nike, was once passed over for a promotion — not because she wasn’t doing excellent work, but because her manager didn’t know she wanted the job. If you want something, make sure your colleagues know it. Your boss doesn’t own your career, and neither does your company, O’Neill said. You own your path.

The Student Program at Retails BIG Show changes the lives — and careers — of hundreds of college students from across the country. This golden opportunity puts students in a room with executives from retail’s most popular brands.

View the opening keynote with Rebecca Minkoff and a panel discussion with young professionals who are taking charge of their careers