I Failed as a Professor, And It Was Powerful

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I Failed as a Professor, And It Was Powerful

If you’re like me — a recovering perfectionist — you might be able to relate to this story.

Sustainability for Business Students

When I moved to Des Moines in 2007, I taught leadership courses for William Penn’s College for Working Adults – AA, BA and MBL students.  And, as manager of sustainability at Kum & Go, I spoke at conferences and universities for 3 and a half years.

I’m an advocate for every business student graduating with a practical understanding of corporate social responsibility and sustainability.  The difference that would make in the world is huge!  Many business students still don’t take a single class on ecology or environmental science — and if so, only in specialty “Green MBA” programs like Presidio and Bainbridge do they see how principles of sustainability completely integrate with and/or drive good business management.

In my experience, even when higher education programs says, “We’re integrating it into the existing curriculum,” the students I talk to struggle to give concrete examples of where they see that to be the case.  With groups like AASHE (The Association for Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education) focused on providing tools and resources, I think this will be changing, even for business colleges.

In the fall of 2013, I was invited to teach my first collegiate sustainability course for the University of Iowa’s Evening MBA Program.

My Ideal

What I had envisioned for any conventional business college looking to integrate vs. become a “Green MBA” was adding one introduction class for undergraduates, and one practicum for graduates.

The business community could provide case studies, local tours, and professional guest speakers for the prerequisite undergraduate course.  Familiar with the concepts, students could then theme class projects, reports, and assignments in all of their other courses (marketing, operations, finance, etc.) around CSR and sustainability topics.

MBA students could then focus on team projects in partnership with local businesses interested in sustainability.  Those who don’t know where to start, but willing to open their doors to some free consulting.  Final reports are then given directly to company leadership, who participate in the evaluation and grading process.

Simple, right?

The Reality

Having spoken earlier in 2013 at the University of Iowa’s Net Impact Summit, I had already met with the Tippie College of Business and shared that vision for how they could continue to integrate their curriculum.

And I should have been excited to receive an email from them, requesting I teach a sustainability elective at their satellite office in Des Moines in the fall of 2013.

There was one problem for me:  it was already fall of 2013.

  • The class would start in 3 weeks
  • There was no syllabus
  • No lesson plans
  • No marketing done to students

My internal dialogue sounded something like, “Are you **** kidding me?  That’s not enough time!”  Luckily, my actual response came out much more professionally as, “Give me a day to think about it.”

My tenure as president of Urban Ambassadors, the non-profit I founded, had just come to a close.  I was excited about having more time for myself, my friends, and my family.

I was also scared of teaching what I assumed would be a “less-than-perfect version” of my ideal course.

  • Would that reflect poorly on me?
  • Would the students leave believing sustainability didn’t work in business?
  • Would the University of Iowa (and other colleges) quit if the first one flopped?

It was easy to turn down.  Except that it wasn’t.

In my book club, I was reading The Pursuit of Perfect, and really saw how thinking everything had to be perfect had held me back in the past — opportunities missed from fear.

So, I discussed it with my friends, my girlfriend, and the Tippie College of Business.

And accepted.

The Failure

Boy, did my pride take a lashing.

It took a week to actually approve the elective for the fall semester.  2 weeks left.

I wrote the syllabus.  It took another week to approve that with the dean of the college.  1 week left.

The, we could finally promote the course to students.

  • Only 11 MBA students registered.  None had taken an undergraduate sustainability course.
  • I didn’t know how to use the online site for sharing slides and grades.
  • I was completing the lesson plans the week prior to each class.  Every fiber of my being hated doing this.
  • 2 of the planned businesses were not available for evening tours.
  • 2 of the professional speakers were not available to attend class.
  • The students chose local companies to assess with available information.  There was no time to line up consulting client partnerships.

My perfect vision of a course was shattered!

In my mind, it was an utter failure.

My Response

After I licked my wounds — and read the student evaluations — I went looking to find the silver lining.

I didn’t curl into the fetal position and pretend the course had never happened.

I took notes, and set up meetings to discuss future offerings.

Tippie College of Business did continue to offer the course on campus in Iowa City and Cedar Rapids.  In the fall of 2015, I was asked to teach again in the Des Moines satellite classroom downtown.  This time — with a few months notice — 24 students registered, we had 5 excellent professional speakers, and students assessed companies at least one of their team already worked for (to provide access).

Again, not perfect.

But I was able to let go of attaining perfection on the first (or even second try), instead moving towards our ideal over time.  And that takes building healthy partnerships.

  • Most of the feedback was very positive.  The MBA students learned a lot and enjoyed the majority.
  • The business speakers that attended (Hy-Vee, Casey’s General Stores, Vermeer, ) are both excited to return and willing to give testimonials to other companies to participate.
  • The Greater Des Moines Partnership is helping us create a waiting list of business members as future clients for classroom project teams.
  • I am connecting with experienced professors to develop the consulting style of course I envision.
  • And, I am meeting with Drake University, Grandview University, and Iowa State University to bring similar courses to their business students in Des Moines.

The Powerful

If I had been too scared to take on teaching the course with only 3 weeks notice, knowing that it would test my comfort zone in EVERY way, I never would have allowed myself to fail.

And I never would have learned how powerful a little failure can be.  Because it can lead to an opportunity to improve over time — and start making a difference today.

The alternative would have been to avoid failure, and not simply not try.

Tippie College of Business might not be offering sustainability courses had I done that.  I might have contributed zero value to share with those students, who in turn will be helping their future businesses change the world someday.

I see this in the environmental community — often as a reflection of my own struggles.


Environmental issues I care about can often start to feel seem like life or death.  Literally, decisions can carry the weight of world with them.

“We have to get this right!”  Which is, ironically, sometimes paralyzing.

Some people thrive in those situations.  They become more decisive and take action.  But a majority avoid decisions, and wait for more information or better timing, from fear of doing it wrong.

The “better-safe-than-sorry” philosophy permeates the environmental movement in the form of “first, do no harm.”  When it comes to things you can’t take back — persistent toxic chemicals, for instance — it’s a great philosophy.

But when it comes to everyday decisions, perfectionism that says “If I can’t get this right, I’m not going to do it” can rob the world of something really special — your gifts and the difference they were meant for.

Just go for it!





Adam Hammes is the executive director of the Iowa Sustainable Business Forum, a consultant, author, and motivational speaker. He specializes in helping businesses and sustainability professionals with environmental and social performance.

Check out Adam's new book on Amazon, Audible and Kindle: Sustainable Business in Iowa.

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