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Tech CEO Eva Chen dares staff to fail

updated 10:07 AM EDT, Fri November 1, 2013
Trend Micro Chief Executive Officer Eva Chen speaks during the second day of the National Summit in Detroit, Michigan, June 16, 2009. AFP PHOTO/Jim WATSON
Trend Micro Chief Executive Officer Eva Chen speaks during the second day of the National Summit in Detroit, Michigan, June 16, 2009. AFP PHOTO/Jim WATSON
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Eva Chen is CEO of Trend Micro -- a Japanese software security company
  • Within months of becoming CEO, a bug caused worldwide problems for the business
  • Chen turned mishap into opportunity, turned company into cloud computing protection leader

Editor's note: Leading Women connects you to extraordinary women of our time -- remarkable professionals who have made it to the top in all areas of business, the arts, sport, culture, science and more.

(CNN) -- There was a time when my biggest fear was getting my brain munched by zombies.

But that childhood fright of Halloweens past has given way to a scare that often grips me as a journalist today -- the fear of failure.

Alright, I know I'm not alone here. Many of you know exactly what I'm talking about. It's those moments of workplace indecision, avoidance, or perhaps procrastination all due to the simple fear of making a mistake on the job.

Read: Can you train your brain?

So when I sat down with Trend Micro chief Eva Chen for CNN's "Leading Women," I made sure to hit the topic. You see, just months into her job as CEO of the company, she had to manage through an episode of failure.

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Make that, monstrous failure.

In 2005, one of the company's signature files caused computers worldwide to crash. The effects were so far-reaching, the bug even forced ever-timely trains in Japan to grind to a halt.

Did that epic fail make Chen doubt herself or her ability to be the CEO?

Not at all. Instead, she focused on a solution.

"There were two problems I tried to address," she tells me. "One is external -- how do I help the system quickly recover? My customers' businesses need to continue.

"The second one is internal: how do I make sure that the values of Trend Micro -- innovation and 'dare to fail' -- really stayed."

Chen says the lessons learned from that mistake helped propel Trend Micro from a player in traditional antivirus software to the forefront of cloud computing protection.

A company philosophy at Trend Micro reads as follows: "We drive our growth by innovation; we encourage risk-taking and our management style dares you to fail."

That call to embrace failure, like firewalking or "trust falls" at a corporate retreat, can reek of management malarkey.

Read: From farm girl to U.N. administrator

But Chen is a leader who sincerely takes it to heart. To this day, she still doesn't know which employee was responsible for the faulty file that crashed computers across the planet.

Nor does she ever want to know.

Risk-taking and fear management came early in her career when Chen founded the company in 1988 with her brother-in-law, Steve Chang, and sister, Jenny Chang.

Cold-calling potential customers, she found herself reluctant and afraid to speak on the phone.

To address her phobia, Chen mined her memories and rediscovered a moment in early childhood when her mother was speaking on the telephone just as lightning struck a tree that fell inside their home and set ablaze the phone's wiring.

"The impression just made me feel that the telephone line would kill my mom," Chen tells me.

"So something that you never expect -- that image from my childhood -- actually became an obstacle when I tried to do business."

Read: The female force that is Melinda Gates

Chen says once she identified that fear, it went away.

"Every time you overcome one obstacle, you feel you've learned something and you grow. That's the joy of entrepreneurship and taking challenges."

So what is the one obstacle that is holding all of us back?

Did you ever turn down a challenging assignment because the depressive realist inside said you couldn't do it?

(I know I have.)

How many times have you failed to truly speak your mind at a meeting?

(Guilty. Many times over.)

Instead of sitting on our hands, we should raise them high and dare to ask that question, make that assertion, or take on that new challenge.

Like Eva Chen, we must lean into our fear to conquer it.

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