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I is Perfect

Published: Friday, July 11, 2014 10:51 a.m. CDT

Excuse me if I’m being too personal, but honestly, if there’s one workplace problem you will never ever have to worry about, it’s being perfect.

You didn’t know that being perfect can be a problem?

Obviously, you didn’t read Joann Lublin’s recent column in The Wall Street Journal.

Not one to beat around the bush, Lublin’s headline puts it on the line: “To Keep Your Job, Quit Trying to Be Perfect.” What followed are a number of horrific stories of big-deal executives whose need for perfection threatened the existence of their big-deal careers.

Interestingly, the real problem of these execs was not that they demanded perfection from others. Shockingly, they believed that the only people who could be perfect was — you guessed it — themselves. Take the case of Paul Laudicina, a managing partner at A.T. Kearney, Inc. Laudicina’s perfectionist tendencies reached a level so extreme that the management consultant hired a management consultant to help him manage his consultancy.

“Perfectionist leaders operate ‘under the delusion that they are being efficient’ but they are not,” the consulting mentor taught the consulting mentee, who learned that “to reflect about the big ideas he wanted to convey before demanding perfection in minor work tasks.”

“Are you inspiring people rather than perspiring people?” Laudicina learned to ask himself daily. What he answered himself we do not know, but when preparing for his firm’s super-big-deal Global Business Policy Council meetup, Laudicina managed to stop himself when he found himself badgering his direct reports with an inquisition that included questions such as “Have you checked out the rooms?” and “Have you tasted the menus?”

“He says he stopped interfering after realizing his bed linen queries wouldn’t motivate his associates,” columnist Lublin writes. “Having control over their areas of expertise allows them to feel more empowered.”

Hooray! You’ve got to love any executive who thinks he’s doing his employees a big favor if he puts them in charge of checking for bedbugs.

Another case history involves Judy Murrah when she was an information-technology executive for Motorola Solutions. Graduating from college as a straight-A student, Murrah tried to continue her run of perfect grades while at work.

(Why anyone would continue to work so hard once they actually had a job, I have no idea. But then again my grades in my final year of college were four F’s and a D. Obviously, I had spent too much time on one subject.)

Taking counsel from a senior executive, Murrah learned that for her to enter the Olympian executive ranks at Motorola, she had to “break free of the need to have every detail nailed down before acting.” She also learned that “good executives make decisions on about 60% of the data.”

Be honest now: You’d be delighted if the executives in your firm waited until they had 60 percent of the data before making decisions. Usually, they spend 2 percent of their time gathering data and 98 percent of their time trying to figure out how to blame you for the eventual screw-up.

The general counsel of a Boston biotech firm is another perfectionist who believed “she would make a mistake if she didn’t do everything herself.” Surprisingly, her team members “lost enthusiasm” for working for someone who did all the work. For me and thee, this obsessive-compulsive crazy person would be a candidate for “manager of the year.” Even more surprising, the management of the company considered canning the overly obsessive general counsel because she was “not developing her team enough.”

There was, I suppose, a happy ending to this sad story. Once again, an executive coach was brought in and, after extensive in-office therapy, the general counsel learned to loosen up. Just how loose did she become? Well, “she let a junior attorney choose the frequency of her update requests on a big assignment she gave him.”

I’m not 100 percent positive that increasing the time between update requests from every five minutes to every seven minutes makes a big difference, but it is a step in the right direction, and the general counselor kept her job. I like to think she’s still on the job today, fully believing she’s heaven’s gift to management and driving her team absolutely bonkers.

If these stories of the damage done by perfectionist managers makes you fear for your job, let me assure you that having a perfectionist boss is something you will never ever have to worry about. Trust me, anyone who would hire you is no perfectionist.

Bob Goldman was an advertising executive at a Fortune 500 company, but he finally wised up and opened Bob Goldman Financial Planning in Sausalito, California. He offers a virtual shoulder to cry on at bob@bgplanning.com. To find out more about Bob Goldman, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.

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