Growing up, I put a lot of pressure on myself to be perfect and great at everything.
I “had” to get good grades, be on top of my sports team, join all the school clubs, always have a smile on my face, etc. This over-achievement mentality carried over into my early career as well. I never want any of my bosses or colleagues to think that I don’t know how to do something or can’t do what they’re asking me to do. I “must” be the perfect employee, get my next promotion, be the most balanced working mom, etc. I would rather die than tell someone “I don’t know” or “I can’t” or even worse “I won’t”. I just hate the idea of potentially disappointing someone.
After being a mom, working professionally for 25 years, starting my own business, and being a great therapist, I realized that perfectionism sucks and often comes across as insincere.
In 2021, I started my own strategy consulting practice after years of leadership roles in corporate and marketing strategy at several amazing organizations. Even though taking the next step in my career was a bit scary, I ended up making this decision for two main reasons:
- I hope to use my expertise and skills to work with a wider range of businesses.
- I want to have more control over my schedule so I can spend precious time with my two school aged daughters.
Fortunately, my business is doing well and these two goals are being achieved. However, owning my own business has a benefit that I didn’t anticipate – the freedom to “be myself” and therefore be more vulnerable (vulnerable to opposition) in everyday life.
While my personal standards are high, it feels different to me now because I only need to meet or exceed my own standards and not worry about meeting employers’ expectations as well. I can relax a little bit more confident in my skills/experience and be more transparent about my weaknesses. It feels more authentic to say, “Yes, I can definitely help you. However, I really don’t know how to do it, but I’d like to figure it out with you.”
In fact, the freedom to say “I don’t know” now makes me more resourceful and creative in delivering results to clients. To my surprise, being able to tell potential clients what I can and cannot do has been a huge hit and has made me a better consultant. Being 100% honest with them without overcommitting feels genuine and builds trust. It is important for me to explain what I can do for an organization and what the outcome will be; it is also important to explain what their role is in the process and what they should not expect from my strategic planning project .
I wish I had realized this years ago! Having this frank and open conversation with the client early in the process can release and remove unnecessary stress from the situation. I believe it would have the same effect if I took this approach with my former employer. It’s great to know that I’ll be walking into a situation with a client and shine a light on helping them organize around a strategic plan and playbook to help bring their ideas to life. It’s nice that they realize that I depend on them to be an expert in their business and that I don’t have to have all the answers.
Let me give a real example. The president of a manufacturing company asked me to facilitate a strategic planning session with him and his leadership team. He wanted me to help him build consensus around goals and plans while building team enthusiasm. The “consensus building” part is in my wheelhouse; the “team building” part is not.
I told him that I had the experience and the tools to ensure that he and the leadership team concluded their strategic planning sessions with a solid plan of action to execute on projects designed to achieve their goals. I also told him that I wasn’t a very good cheerleader and wasn’t sure if I was the right person to “inspire” his team.
This sparked a great conversation, with the two of us discussing what he wanted from the team building segment; it turned out that what he really needed was a way for his leadership team (spread across the country) to get to know each other better . So I did some research and created a way for us to learn some interesting facts about each other throughout the strategic planning process. It didn’t start off as an awkward icebreaker; real sharing fused into the two-day session. Now, I use the same process for other clients as well. If I hadn’t told this client that I didn’t have confidence in the things he asked me, I would never have come here.
When I develop a business plan for Cheetah Strategy, I lay out the values that I want my company and clients to embody. These characteristics have proven to be a true guide to my work over the past 18 months:
From what I know now, if I were to add a seventh value, it would have to be the opposite of perfectionism: authenticity.
I hope this trait also goes into your list of values immediately, whether you work for yourself or for someone else. Owning my own business (and being the “face” of the organization) pushed me to reflect more on myself. Through this self-development work and study, I realized that there is nothing better than being true to myself at work. I only wish I had discovered this sooner.
Emily K. Howard is the Founder/President of Cheetah Strategy, a branding and business consulting firm that provides companies with accessible strategic thinking and extra brain power. She previously served as Vice President of Corporate Strategy at the Pueblo Cultural Center in India, Vice President of Marketing, Communications and Tourism at Visit Albuquerque, and senior leadership roles at McKee Wallwork and Esparza Advertising. The Executive’s Desk is a guest column offering advice, comment or information on resources available to the New Mexico business community. To submit a column for consideration, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.