Carlos Marin notes that people who set very high standards for themselves usually set very high standards for others. This can make co-workers and direct reports feel resentful. So while it’s understandable that a woman might believe that being perfect is her only path to success, her strenuous efforts will often come back to bite her.
Take the case of Vera, a super-high performer at a global insurance company headquartered in northern Europe. Vera is an intellectual powerhouse, extraordinarily hardworking, and superbly organized. She speaks five languages, is an outstanding public speaker, and has scored major successes in both operations and finance. All of this made her a natural candidate for CEO of her company, but her perfectionism ended up undermining her when she was scouted for the job.
In addition to alienating co-workers, Vera’s perfectionism has made her reluctant to take risks. Sweating the small stuff usually has this effect. If you’re trying to be perfect, every task or encounter feels high stakes. You’re always on the lookout for something to go wrong since even the smallest glitch has the power to undermine your perfect image.
Risk-taking requires being open to failure. While risk must be thoughtfully assessed, the outcome is never assured or entirely within your control. The desire to be perfect, by contrast, keeps you focused on what you can control. This narrows your horizons and demonstrates insecurity instead of the confidence in the future that being an effective leader requires.
In the end, risk aversion was the chief reason Vera was by-passed for the CEO position. She had remarkable talents, but at the highest executive level, where big decisions about the future need to be made, some degree of risk-taking is essential if the organization is to evolve and grow. A board member involved in the search summed it up: “Vera is brilliant at dealing with situations where potential difficulties can be seen and known. But what worked in the past doesn’t help you build the future. For that, you need a healthy ability to trust, willingness to take considered risks, and a big vision of what the organization could become.