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Help for Perfectionists

Wisdom is to know what time it is

DONNA IS A perfectionist. That has been a good thing throughout her career. It’s how she worked her way up to become Vice President of Operations. It’s also why I was asked to coach her before her career progress stalled.

The proud perfectionist

“Yes, I am a perfectionist,” she said. “That’s what I expect from myself, and what I expect from my people and my organization. How could I be satisfied with anything less?”

“Do you mean,” I asked, “that every task, every objective is worthy of perfection? That there are no times when ‘good enough’ is good enough?”

“Not for me,” Donna asserted.

Donna’s direct report, the President of her division, did not agree. “Donna does excellent work,” he said. “She’s professional, dedicated, and talented, but she’s working below the level she should be. She must delegate more. Too many deliverables are last-minute. She lives in a ball of stress and her team feels it, too. Donna is ambitious to take my place one day, but she’ll never get there unless she changes.”

Leader or excellent performer

This is a common story. The reason most people begin working their way up the rungs of the ladder is by being great doers. They’re recognized as performers and promoted. The mistake they make, now in leadership roles, is continuing to emphasize their excellent performance. They fail to realize that they must adopt a new definition of success.

They think, “Success is determined by how much I do.” Now in a leadership position, it should be, “Success is determined by how much gets done because of what I do.” Without that adjustment of perspective, they’ll continue trying to be the best doer in the department and hit a ceiling, perhaps crash.

This is especially hard for perfectionists like Donna. They are hard wired to persevere until the final I is dotted and T is crossed. They do excellent work, but with many downsides.

When perfection is a problem

“You and I both know,” I said to her, “that your passion for perfection is what got you here. You do produce excellent work, and everybody knows it. But let’s think it through: At least theoretically, tell me some of the potential negative results of inappropriately pursuing perfection.”

Slowly at first, then picking up steam, she came up with this list:

  • Procrastination

  • Being overstressed

  • Wearing out subordinates

  • Poor prioritizing

  • Failing to delegate enough

  • Allowing subordinates to operate below their potential

  • Disorganization

  • Poor leadership

Donna still didn’t want to let it go. “The work we do is important. The rest of the company depends on us to deliver, and it has to be right.”

“I don’t doubt that,” I replied. “There are times when perfectionism is appropriate. When I get on a plane tomorrow, I want the captain to be a perfectionist. If a surgeon is going to perform an operation on me, I want a perfectionist. But everything is not worthy of perfection.

“For example,” I continued, “let’s say you are working on a report that is ninety-five percent perfect. You can only get that last five percent by putting in two more hours of work. Is it worth it? Is that a good use of your time? Consider also what you are not doing because you’re devoting those two hours on details no one will notice and no one cares about.”

I’ll know,” Donna replied, then she sighed. “Okay, I see what you’re saying. But sometimes it really is necessary to drive for one hundred percent. How can I know?”

What time is it?

That is an excellent question. To answer I used an unlikely analogy: A folk-rock song from the 1960s written by Pete Seeger and recorded by the Byrds called, “Turn! Turn! Turn!” The lyrics, taken from the ancient book of Ecclesiastes, in part go like this:

To everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven;

A time to be born, a time to die;

A time to plant, a time to reap;

A time to kill, a time to heal;

A time to laugh, a time to weep;

A time to build up, a time to break down;

A time to dance, a time to mourn;

A time to cast away stones, a time to gather stones together.

I quoted those to Donna, then continued. “I was thinking about those lyrics one day, and I was feeling a little irritated. So what? I thought. There’s a time for this and a time for that. What am I supposed to do about it?

“That’s when it hit me, and I came up with my favorite definition of wisdom: Wisdom is to know what time it is!

“Now back to you. In your work, are there times when aiming at perfection is appropriate? Absolutely! But are there also times when ‘good enough’ is good enough? Yes! The main thing, Donna, is to stop and ask, ‘What time is it?’ Rather than working compulsively and automatically, I am confident you’ll know what to do if you’ll stop and consider that question.”

Thoughtful rather than automatic

Donna was thinking intently by this time. “So you’re not saying I have to quit shooting for perfection,” she said. “You’re not saying it’s wrong. You’re saying it’s not right all the time, and that I should stop and think about it.”

Donna got it. I asked her to begin making a list of issues where that insight should be applied. She wrote in her journal these lines:

  • Is it time for perfection, or time where good enough is good enough?

  • Is it time to do it myself, or time to delegate?

  • It is time to work on this, or a time something else is more important?

  • Is it time to work at my desk, or time to do some LBWA? (leading by walking around)

  • Is it time to speak, or time to ask questions and listen?

  • Is it time to decide on my own, or time to ask others for help and input?

“That’s a great start, Donna,” I said. “What do you have to do to make sure you stop and ask those questions?”

Donna’s initial action plan was to read over her list of questions every day and keep it before her. After a few weeks, she no longer needed the list. She only needed a short question on a card taped to her computer asking, “What Time Is It?”

Free to work ON the business

At a later session, I celebrated Donna’s successful changes, and offered a further step. “The next challenge before you is an important Sherpa Coaching concept: Making sure you are increasing the percentage of time you are working on the business versus working in the business."

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“Working in the business refers to the tasks, projects, desk work, emails, and so on that we all have to do; essentially, applying your skills to your things-to-do list.

“Working on the business refers to those functions leaders must increasingly emphasize as they rise. Things like developing as a leader, developing and coaching your people, listening and communicating, motivating your people, setting expectations and holding people accountable, and clarifying priorities. You have to invest time on strategy and initiatives to grow your business.

“These are the things perfectionists never get around to doing, yet they are absolute essentials for someone who aspires to executive leadership. You must create and protect space on your calendar for them.”


The simple practice of thoughtfully considering her investment of time and energy dramatically changed Donna’s habits. She was less stressed and more confident. She delegated more, and her team was operating at a higher level. Most importantly, Donna made sure that she was spending a higher percentage of her time working ON the business. She was now on her way, preparing to assume a President’s role one day.

Many of my clients have struggled with the same issue as Donna, and have found help through the same approach. All over the country, there are people working in widely differing industries and positions with a small card on their desks, asking a simple but profound question:

“What Time Is It?” Li

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