Growing up, I put a lot of pressure on myself to be perfect and great at everything.
I had to get good grades, be the best on sports teams, join all the clubs at school, always have a smile on my face, etc. I never wanted any of my bosses or colleagues to think I didn’t know how to do something or couldn’t do something they asked of me. I had to be a flawless employee, get that next promotion, be the most balanced working mom, etc. I would rather have died than tell someone, “I don’t know” or “I can’t” or even worse, “I won’t.” I just hated the thought of letting someone down.
It took me becoming a mom, 25 years as a professional, building my own business, and a great therapist to realize that perfectionism is disgusting and often feels insincere.
In 2021, I started my own strategy consulting business after many years of working in corporate strategy and marketing leadership roles for some amazing organizations. Although it was a bit scary to take this next step in my career, in the end I made the decision for two main reasons:
- I hoped to use my expertise and skills to collaborate with a wider variety of businesses.
- I wanted to have more control over my schedule so I could spend precious time with my two school-age daughters.
Fortunately, my business is doing well and both of these goals are being achieved. However, there is one benefit of owning my own business that I didn’t anticipate – the freedom to “be myself” and, therefore, be more vulnerable (open to disapproval) on a daily basis.
Although my personal standards are high, it’s a different feeling for me now because I only have to meet or exceed my own standards, not worry about having to meet an employer’s expectations as well. I can relax a bit and be more confident in my skills/experience and more transparent about my weaknesses. It feels more authentic to say, “Yes, I can definitely help you with that. However, I don’t really know how to do that, but I’m willing to figure it out with you.”
In fact, this freedom now to say “I don’t know” has made me more resourceful and creative in my products for clients. Surprisingly (for me), being able to show a potential client what I can and cannot do has been extremely well received and has made me a better consultant. Being 100% up front with them and not over-promising feels genuine and builds trust. It is important for me to explain what I can do for an organization and what the results will be; it is also equally important to explain what their role is in the process and what they should not expect from a strategic planning project with me.
I wish I had realized this years ago! This honest and open conversation with clients early in the process is relieving and taking unnecessary pressure out of the situation. I believe it would have had the same effect if I had taken this approach with my former employers. It feels good to know that I will walk into a situation with a client and excel when it comes to helping them organize themselves around a strategic plan and playbook to help them realize their ideas. It’s also nice that they understand that I’m relying on them to be experts in their business and I don’t have to have all the answers.
Let me give a real life example. The president of a manufacturing company asked me to facilitate a strategic planning session with him and his leadership team. He wanted my help in creating consensus around goals and initiatives, while also building enthusiasm in the team. The “consensus building” part was right up my alley; the “team building” part was not.
I told him that I had the experience and tools to ensure that he and the leadership team would leave the strategic planning session with a solid action plan to execute projects designed to meet their goals. I also told him that I wasn’t a very good cheerleader and wasn’t sure I would be the right person to “revive” his team.
This led to a great conversation where we both talked about exactly what he was hoping to get out of the team building part; it turns out that what he really needed was a way for his leadership team (which is scattered all over the country) to get to know each other better. So, I did some research and came up with an approach for how we could all learn some fun facts about each other during the strategic planning process. It wasn’t a hard icebreaker at first; there was real division woven into the two-day meeting. Now, I use the same process with other clients. I never would have gotten here if I hadn’t told this client that I didn’t feel confident about something he asked me to do.
When I created my business plan for Cheetah Strategy, I created a list of values that I wanted my company and my clients to embody. These traits have proven to be true guides for my work over the past 18 months:
Knowing 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 feature immediately crosses your list of values, whether you work for yourself or someone else. Having my own business (and being the “face” of the organization) made me reflect more on myself. Through this work of self-development and learning, I realized that it is more than okay to be my true self 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 additional brain power. She previously served as vice president of corporate strategy at the Pueblo Indian Cultural Center, VP of Marketing, Communications and Tourism at Visit Albuquerque and in senior leadership roles with McKee Wallwork and Esparza Advertising. The Executive’s Desk is a guest column that provides advice, commentary or information about resources available to the New Mexico business community. To submit a column for consideration, email email@example.com.