For over 20 years, Bert Overlack had his own company with more than 270 employees. He experienced internationalization and expansion – but also market collapse, insolvency, and rebuilding. He knows what he is talking about when it comes to failure and existential fears. Today, Bert Overlack advises and accompanies entrepreneurs who have experienced similar things as he did eight years ago, but he is also a contact person for entrepreneurs who are already successful. Last year, he published his book FuckUp: Das Scheitern von heutesind die Erfolge von morgen (FuckUp: The Failures of Today are the Successes of Tomorrow), in which he helps the reader to deal with the possibility of crisis and failure.
For Innovation Origins, Bert Overlack will now write his own column about success, failure and much more. In a telephone interview, he talked about himself, his motivation as a coach, and his goals.
How did you come up with the idea of becoming a coach?
I made failure my topic. The reason is that 11 years ago, I had to file for bankruptcy with my company and during the whole process, I experienced how difficult it can be to deal with such a thing as failure. Then I began to deal with it more systematically and started to talk about it as well. At some point, it turned into a book. Now, it is a topic for lectures and workshops on how to deal with failure on a personal, social, and entrepreneurial level. How to learn from it and how to pass this experience on to others. So that others are also able to learn from it too.
Your website says, “Your success is my mission”…
That’s right, but I’m not a success trainer. I am rather a sparring partner or a coach, a consultant. I prefer to refer to myself as a sparring partner for entrepreneurs and managing directors who go as far up as the advisory board in change processes. As an alter ego, fatherly friend, a channel for a bad conscience, whatever. The backdrop is that many decision-makers at the highest or second highest level often have no one to talk to. Sometimes, a coach is not enough, because it is also concerns business or entrepreneurial topics. Only a few coaches can do this because they are better versed in psychology. A consultant also falls short because they very often cannot address the psychological aspects. I am lucky that I can do both.
What made you decide to do exactly what you are doing now?
Until 2011, bankruptcy was not part of my life plan. Over the years, I noticed that there were people in various professional situations across various age groups who felt good when they could talk about their own failures. Especially entrepreneurs or founders of start-ups. I have dealt intensely with the psychological side and I am familiar with the business management issues that are at stake. That was the basis of the whole thing, to see that I am able to help other people and that I can reach people so that they are able to take a different approach towards dealing with failure and making a new start or having a second chance.
How do you find your customers? Do they come to you or do you do acquisition? Or by word-of-mouth?
That varies. I hardly ever do acquisition because it does not really work. I give quite a lot of lectures. This is a kind of self-promotion whereby people get to experience me. But a lot is just mouth-to-mouth advertising too. Actually this is also the most important part. Lectures and recommendations.
What do you talk about in your lectures?
The classical lecture consists of three parts: The first part is my story. It’s about the authentic, emotional level. So as to make a connection as well. The second part concerns why we fail. This is based on my story, but using various scientific research models. The third part is, how can we learn from failure? This won’t happen naturally, there are a few prerequisites for this. Ultimately, mistakes or failure cannot be completely avoided; it is about what we make of these experiences.
In Germany, failure is still regarded as defeat and it is best not to talk about it. In other countries like the USA, failure is normal, and if you’ve messed something up, you just start over again. In Germany you should be ashamed and go and hide if you fail …
Yes and no. This is also part of my mission: I no longer hide. Because I can do that, and because I am so at ease with my story, I have the courage to take the topic out of the taboo zone and bring it into the public eye, so that it is no longer taboo. Funnily enough, this works because after every lecture, older entrepreneurs aged 50+ or 60+, come up to me and say, ‘Thank you for finally saying it. We have all had our hard times. We have all experienced when you can’t sleep for days, weeks or nights because something is bothering you.’ It doesn’t always have to be bankruptcy. They are grateful that someone is finally saying it because it just does them a lot of good.
What advice would you give to people who, for example, have chosen a profession where they know that they will never be happy, or to people who have already failed?
The most important point is to talk about it. Whether with your family or with friends. If need be with a coach, an outsider who is qualified in some way. Talking about it is always the best therapy. An outside viewpoint. When it comes to a choice of career, the next step would be to find someone who is qualified to give advice and support to you. Someone who is an expert in the subject of career choices, especially in terms of personality, strengths, and competencies. A person who is able to advise you on how to find a career that best suits your character and strengths. It may not be a great career, but not everyone wants that. Yet there is a always the possibility of taking up a career that simply gives you pleasure.
Does your job give you pleasure? Is this your dream?
Yes, it absolutely does give me pleasure. I still have some ideas that could be developed more, how it could become even more pleasurable, but I am on the right track.
And where do you see yourself in five, ten or 20 years from today?
I would like to take this topic further and work on an international basis. On one hand through lectures, on the other, through workshops, and thirdly by using relevant scientific studies. I am not a great scientist, so I’m thinking in terms of a kind of think tank that deals worldwide with lessons from failure, so as to show that it is an unhealthy strategy to ignore failure.
Like Jack Canfield?
Yes, kind of in that direction. Somewhat more specialized, but yes, Jack Canfield actually gets that across quite well.
Why do you think so many innovative projects fail?
Many projects fail because parameters change and some things are contributing factors. All in all, these are very common patterns to me. And when project managers are really committed to their innovation projects, they can get extremely despondent. In the end, they go through very similar processes to those that an entrepreneur experiences when faced with insolvency. Personally, it is less dramatic. Yet the same conditions apply to an entrepreneur or a founder or for a career break in someone’s professional life as to how you can learn from such an experience. There are interesting studies on this subject which, unfortunately, are still not too well known. It is important that it is possible to guide employees through decision-making processes in a company. No matter what their position is, they don’t have to be fired if they have loused something up, or they don’t lose their motivation. Instead, they actually come out stronger from such an experience and continue to work in the company with the same amount of pleasure as before.
Recent surveys have shown that people are under increasing pressure, they are more stressed and, as a result, they are becoming more and more aggressive. What would you do in order to make people enjoy their work more and not just feel under pressure and stressed out?
That’s a very important question. The first point, and this is the be-all and end-all, is appreciation and respect. We all know that if we are not treated respectfully in a situation, we shut down. Many people have had that experience and it is actually quite commonplace. It’s amazing how managers sometimes treat employees. Of course, you can also see that they are under pressure as well. Nevertheless, respect and esteem are essential, which means that people are key. It is also very much about fairness and transparency. This also includes the question of purpose, that employees want to know why they are doing something, where their contribution lies. Employees often just do their job, but if you ask them what their contribution to the big picture is, they don’t know. These are actually the most important issues. The third point is to see the person in the employee, namely the person with their abilities, strengths, and potential, and to use this employee in areas that really suit them and in which they are able to find some kind of satisfaction. Sometimes, I get the impression that in some companies, there are employees who only do their jobs because at the end of the month they get paid an amount of x dollars for it. I’m convinced that you take a very important step towards motivating your employees when you employ them in areas where their enthusiasm lies.
Do you address all these topics in your lectures?
Yes, it always depends on what nuances there are. You can’t cover everything in just half an hour or forty-five minutes. In the end, however, everything has to do with leadership. If, for example, I have an employee who has ruined a project, who is responsible for a project that has failed, then the respectful approach to that is that I don’t blame them in front of the entire team. I have to support them. It is important to see what you can learn from it. What did you learn from this, what can we as a company learn from it in order to avoid something similar in the future? What will change for you? What have you realized about yourself? Or you might need to invest even more in education and training, and then everything would actually be quite simple. But the problem is that middle management executives are often under pressure. I’m convinced that companies and organizations that are not succeeding in focusing on people over the next few years, no matter at what level, including the CEO, they are human too, will get in trouble. Even my boss can have a bad day, my boss is not doing too well and that is okay. Companies that don’t manage to do that will quickly run into difficulties.