I work with a leader who is sloppy: a bit disorganized, he forgets things and at times drops the ball. He is also extremely successful and admired. The thing is, his sloppiness is interpreted (accurately) as big thinking and creativity. It occurs to me that I don’t know any women in senior positions who are also sloppy and successful; that bothers me.
Higher levels of perfection
I met a leader recently who explained her strategy: to make sure she was always the best prepared person in the room. She was trying to succeed by over-delivering, all the time. Carrie Paechter, professor of education at Goldsmiths, University of London, believes this need to over-achieve starts young. She describes how many young girls are turned into ‘projects’ by well-meaning parents; preparing them for a male-dominated world by teaching them to strive for excellence. To succeed, they learn to believe, they have to be perfect.
Perfect across more areas
In her book ‘Wonder women’, Deborah Spar, President of Barnard College, describes how women aren’t just expected to be perfect in some things; but in everything: to have successful careers; to be loving and educational mothers; Martha Stewart-style domestic goddesses; and to have catwalk-slim bodies. She argues the pressure is an unintended consequence of feminism: just because women can have it all, they feel pressure that they should. The fact is, none of us considers whether a man can (or even should) have it all.
The case for sloppiness
But is perfection a smart strategy? In modern organizations, we have an almost infinite set of demands on us, and a very limited amount of time and attention. A need to constantly over-achieve and display perfection sucks time away from what’s important (but less visible and urgent). Happiness and success don’t come from doing everything, but through making tough choices; prioritising some aspects of our work or lives more than others. The executive I mentioned at the start is successful not despite his sloppiness, but because of it. He is willing to let certain aspects of his work slip, in order to free up thinking power to focus powerfully on the biggest, most important issues. In doing this, he has to accept that he will often be the least prepared person in the room. However, he also allows himself to bring the kind of focus and strategic insight that can deliver lasting impact.
Perfection is career-limiting
Susan Colanuono, CEO and Founder of Leading Women argues that a big reason high potential women are not achieving the seniority they deserve is because they are not perceived as sufficiently strategic. She suggests that there are three critical areas where future executives are judged: personal performance, the ability to engage others and the quality of their thinking about the company, the market and the financials. I would suggest that pressure to over-focus on perfect execution, and perfect relationships (keeping people happy) is leaving no room for the big and broad thinking which differentiates great senior leaders.
Clearly gender equality is about more than sloppiness. However, the unreasonable burden of perfection placed on many of our most talented women – by society and by themselves – is a massive career disadvantage as they get to more senior positions. As women try to do it all, their days get squeezed impossibly: research shows that, on the planet, the most time-poor people with the least thinking time are working women. Choosing to focus on one thing, and be sloppy elsewhere is never an easy choice; but the social pressures on women can make it feel socially unacceptable to even try and choose.
We need to stop teaching our daughters and high potential women to be perfect; and teach them to be focused, and therefore sloppy.