If you're a CEO who has to call all the shots -- or if you work for one -- dotting all the i's and crossing all the t's might be the least of your problems
Not many young women go into electrical engineering, but Chris, a pseudonym, had studied hard in that field and graduated summa cum laude from Stanford University with a GPA of 3.85. Then she joined the best engineering firm in San Francisco. Shortly afterward, Chris's father had a heart attack. During his recovery he asked her to run the family business -- a Cadillac franchise -- and she agreed.
Over the next three years Chris swept the showroom floor, signed payroll checks every Friday, settled a labor dispute without a strike, and negotiated real estate leases. At age 27 she succeeded her father as president of the company. Over the next two years she grew the family's dealership to $100 million in sales, primarily through the acquisition of a Porsche and Lexus franchise.
But in spite of all her achievements, Chris wasn't happy. Here's how she felt about herself during those years:
"I was faking it. In a male-dominated industry where owners running dealerships had infinitely more experience than I, I acted my part well. But I needed to control every detail of the business. Despite our business growing from 20 employees to over 200 employees during those years, I thought, 'No one else can do it as well as I can,' so I wouldn't delegate tasks, and my employees suffered. They couldn't experiment or try new ways of doing things. But since there was a great market for selling cars, we did very well."
To keep on top of all the details she felt she needed to master, Chris began working longer hours in the hope that putting in 15-hour days would help. (It didn't.) As her workday grew longer she let her personal life lapse, forgoing friends, regular exercise, and even social activities for weeks at a time. Her work habits became more rigorous, too: she developed an attitude of zero tolerance for mistakes, large and small (both her own and others'); everything had to be done perfectly. She started losing perspective about her employees and the work they were doing -- she'd leave increasingly abrupt, angry messages for all her employees, and she started viewing little things (such as opening the mail) and big things (such as selling the business) with the same urgency. In her eyes everything was priority #1 all the time.
At this point Chris began experiencing severe migraines and chronic stomach pain. The symptoms frightened her, and she asked me for help.
The first thing I did was talk with her key people. To an individual they said it had become impossible to work with Chris. Her unyielding demands and constant micromanaging left them feeling ineffective and unable to get anything done. I came to the conclusion that Chris had three basic choices. She could continue with the status quo, radically change her behavior, or sell the business.
After quite a bit of soul-searching, Chris chose a variation of option three and sold a portion of her business -- the Porsche and Lexus dealership -- while keeping the Cadillac franchise. She reasoned that by emptying her plate somewhat, she'd be able to relieve the stresses that were consuming her.
Here's what I think would have happened if Chris had chosen the first option, maintaining the status quo. Most likely, as long as the economy was booming and the economic rewards were big enough, her employees would have endured her management style. But when the boom times ended -- as they inevitably would -- Chris's best employees would have been ripe recruiting targets, and she would have lost her best people to bosses who didn't micromanage and who offered more freedom and flexibility to their employees. In the end Chris would have been left with only her mediocre employees.
The remaining option, a radical behavior change, is a tall order for anyone but especially for a perfectionist. Control makes people like Chris successful at school, at work after college, and in business. People like her thrive on control. Since it's what makes them successful, they reason, it will, no doubt, keep them successful. So they come to depend on it. In truth, of course, it's never quite so simple, since the cost of complete control is very high and the repercussions are often deep and insidious. For those who work alone it's possible to dot every i and cross every t, particularly if your health is not a high priority. But for those who work with employees, that practice is a guaranteed morale killer and a surefire way to alienate creative employees.
So, on balance I thought Chris had made the right decision. Though in reality she made only a 10% change, it seemed like a 100% change to her employees. But I'm skeptical that she'll ultimately win her battle with the stress that her need to control has brought on, because, though she's managing a smaller business, her day-to-day responsibilities haven't really changed.
If you work with a person like Chris, try not fighting her need for control. Meet with her twice a week; keep her updated by voice mail or E-mail on pending projects. Take notes, especially if she's talking about priorities, so that you won't forget what her priorities are. Never say, "Sorry, I didn't get to it." And flood her with information. By keeping her informed but never actually letting her get involved in the details of your tasks, you make the perfectionist feel in control -- even if she's not -- so you can do your job.
Now, what if you're the perfectionist and recognize yourself in this story? Then I'd take a page from Ricardo Semler, who restructured his family's manufacturing business in South America and chronicled the transformation in his book Maverick: The Success Story behind the World's Most Unusual Workplace. He advises perfectionists to change or die.
For example, in a 1989 article in Harvard Business Review, Semler gave perfectionists this counsel: "If you normally go home at 7:00, start leaving at 6:00. If you take work home on weekends, give yourself a month or two to put a stop to this pernicious practice.
"Take a half day, maybe even an entire Saturday, to rummage through that mountain of paper in your office and put it in three piles."
In Pile A, Semler wrote, should go important matters that require your undivided attention. "If you put more than four or five items in Pile A, and you're not the president of your country, start over," he advised.
Pile B should be "items that need your personal attention, but not right away. This pile is very tempting, everything fits. ... Load this stuff on your subordinates, using the 70% test. ... Ask yourself: is there someone on my staff who can do this task at least 70% as well as I can? Yes? Then farm it out."
Pile C should contain "items that fall under the dubious rubric 'a good idea to look at.' " Those include newspapers, magazines, and internal memos that you try to keep up with on a regular basis but don't. If you toss out Pile C, "you'll have time to do what's really important -- like think." Remember, control of your time is an exercise in selfishness.
"In dealing with Pile A," Semler continued, "always start with the most difficult or the most time-consuming. Everything else is just everything else."
Silly as it sounds, said Semler, "buy another wastepaper basket. ... To help you decide what to toss and what to save, ask yourself the question asked by the legendary Alfred P. Sloan Jr.: 'What is the worst that can happen if I throw this out?' If you don't tremble, sweat, or grow faint when you think of the consequences, toss it. ...
"Ask yourself Sloan's question about every lunch and meeting invitation. Don't be timid. And practice these three RSVPs: 'Thanks, but I can't fit it in.' 'Thanks, I can't go. But I think X can' (if you think someone should). 'I'm sorry I can't make it, but do let me know what happened."
Early in the 16th century Machiavelli wrote that it was an act of humility to recognize that there are forces we cannot always control. That is as true today as it was then. For the perfectionist -- as well as for the rest of us -- success depends on mastering those matters over which you do have control, not on struggling with those matters over which you have no control. The challenge is to know the difference and behave accordingly.
Dr. Pierre Mornell is the author of Hiring Smart! from Ten Speed Press. He's also a psychiatrist and consultant who helps companies evaluate and select high-level executives.
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