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 the sports teams, join all the school clubs, always have smile on my face, etc. This over-achiever mentality carried over into my early career, as well. I never wanted any of my bosses or colleagues to think I didn’t know how to do something or couldn’t do something that they asked of me. I “had” to be a flawless employee, get the next promotion, be the most balanced working mom, etc. I would have rather died than tell someone, “I don’t know,” or “I can’t,” or even worse, “I won’t.” I just hated the thought of possibly disappointing someone.
It took becoming a mom, 25 years as a working professional, creating my own business and a great therapist to realize that perfectionism sucks and often feels insincere.
In 2021, I started my own strategic consulting business after many years of working in corporate and marketing strategy leadership roles for several amazing organizations. Although it was a bit frightening to take this next step in my career, I ultimately made the decision for two main reasons:
- I hoped to utilize my expertise and skills to collaborate with a wider variety of businesses.
- I wanted to have more control of my schedule so I could spend precious time with my two school-aged daughters.
Fortunately, my business is doing well and these two 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, more vulnerable (open to disapproval) on a day-to-day 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 also having to meet the expectations of an employer. I can relax a little 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 this, 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 deliverables to clients. Surprisingly (to me), being able to tell a prospective client what I can and cannot do has been remarkably well-received and made me a better consultant. Being 100% up-front with them and not over-promising feels genuine, and builds trust. It’s important for me to explain what I can do for an organization and what the outcomes will be; it’s also just as important to explain what their role in the process is and what they shouldn’t expect from a strategic planning project with me.
I wish I had realized this years ago! This frank and open conversation with clients early in the process is freeing and removes unnecessary pressure from the situation. I believe it would have had the same effect if I had taken this approach with my former employers. It feels great to know that I am going to walk into a situation with a client, and shine when it comes to helping them get organized around a strategic plan and playbook to help bring their ideas to life. It’s also nice that they realize that I am relying on them to be the experts in their business, and I don’t have to have all the answers.
Let me provide 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 team enthusiasm. The “creating consensus” part was right in my wheelhouse; 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 that I would be the right person to “pep up” his team.
This led to a great conversation where the two of us talked through exactly what he hoped 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 across the country) to get to know each other better. So, I did some research and created an approach for how we could all get to know some fun facts about each other throughout the strategic planning process. It wasn’t an awkward icebreaker at the beginning; it was genuine sharing woven into the two-day meeting. Now, I use this same process with other clients, as well. I never would have gotten here if I hadn’t told this client that I didn’t feel confident about something he asked of me.
When I created my business plan for Cheetah Strategy, I developed a list of values that I wanted my company and my clients to embody. These traits have proven to be true guideposts 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 trait also immediately moves to your values list, whether you work for yourself or someone else. Having my own business (and being the “face” of the organization) pushed me to reflect more on myself. Through this self-development work and learning, I realized that it’s more than okay to be my true self at work. I only wish I had uncovered this sooner.
Emily K. Howard is the founder/president of Cheetah Strategy, a brand & business consulting firm that provides companies with accessible strategic thinking and extra brainpower. She served previously as vice president of corporate strategy at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, Vice President of Marketing, Communications & Tourism at Visit Albuquerque, and in senior leadership roles with McKee Wallwork and Esparza Advertising. The Executive’s Desk is a guest column providing advice, commentary or information about resources available to the business community in New Mexico. To submit a column for consideration, email email@example.com.