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Episode 001

Episode 1: Don’t let perfection paralyse your career

by Gillian Fox

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Holly was a perfectionist. You might be surprised to know that perfectionism is different to high achieving.

And, when Holly sat in front of me in our first coaching session, I felt like I was talking to a woman fuelled with fear. She was overwhelmed and disappointed – in herself and others.

One work experience had almost tipped her over the edge.

You are listening to Your Brilliant Career. I’m your host Gillian Fox, executive coach, women’s career expert and entrepreneur. The podcast that teaches you how to get the most out of your career. We talk tactics, tools and stories that all help incredible women like you achieve the success you deserve. If you want to learn more about how to create the brilliant career you’ve always wanted, I encourage you to check out the RISE program. It’s my four-month career development program. Through a combination of individual executive coaching sessions and group workshops, you’ll discover how to overcome obstacles, create opportunities, and reach new heights in your career.

Hi everyone, it’s so exciting to be here with you. It’s our first episode and the launch of Your Brilliant Career Podcast. Now, this was inspired by all the thousands of women that I’ve coached and trained over the years!

Holly was just one of them and someone I coached a couple of years ago in fact.

Like so many of the women I get to coach, Holly was super smart and talented. She was impressive on so many fronts.

She had a great job too in marketing and led a small team in a tech firm.

Holly loved an opportunity for visibility. So, she was pretty ambitious, but there’s nothing wrong with loving an opportunity for visibility. I talk with women about this all the time. About the importance of making your value visible and creating those opportunities.

So, for Holly, when it was time for the division to deliver their marketing plans to the exec team, Holly got this great gig – it was the opportunity was to present for 15 minutes. So, a big deal to have that visibility with the execs at this time in her career. She wanted to nail it of course so she prepared rigorously – this is what Holly did – she wrote her presentation script, perfected her slides – several iterations later – and stood in the loungeroom and she practised out loud. She knew every word off by heart!

She even decided her outfit for the day ahead of time – and can I tell – she would have looked a million bucks because Holly always had a lot of style. She always looked terrific.

Basically, there was nothing left to prep. She had it all covered. She was set.

What she didn’t expect on the day was for her presentation to be cut from 15 to 5 minutes and for one of the execs to ask a left-field question, completely off-topic really. Holly found it hard to answer on the spot, and she felt compromised by the reduction in time.

Now, of course, you’re probably thinking this, but this is the kind of stuff that happens in business all the time right, and you can’t prepare for it. It just unravels. There’s a component of our work where unexpected things happen.

But Holly was not happy. The presentation in her mind had not gone to plan. She felt she underperformed. She was actually angry at herself, and she was also angry at the team would you believe, because she felt they should have managed the time better and briefed her better.

So, not only was she upset with herself, but she also caused a bit of disruption with her peers. I think they felt they were reprimanded by her. So, it was very disruptive all- round.

The bottom line is the situation certainly didn’t warrant that level of drama. But it was too late. It was all in full swing thanks to Holly’s response and the person who suffered the most of course was Holly, this hugely capable and good human being.

The whole experience for her led to a flood of self-defeating thoughts and behaviours. It left her depleted.

Holly was a perfectionist – and you might be one listening. I have certainly owned that space myself.

And I said at the outset, you might be surprised to know that perfectionism is different to high achieving.

It’s increasing among women, with one third in the corporate workplace suffering from it. So, if you do consider yourself a perfectionist – you’re certainly not alone.

But the worst part….and listen carefully to this because this is important, the pressure of perfectionism is exhausting and it’s not helping women like Holly or perhaps you.

All the mental anguish involved in pre-emptively measuring, judging and comparing is one of the greatest career show stoppers I’ve seen…and that’s why we are talking about it today.

Episode 1 – How perfection can paralyse your career.

Probably a lot of you listening right now, are smart women who have an appetite for their career. You want to do well.

My observation is that smart career women are tired of the generic tips they’re so often served out in panels, or training – such as speak up, fake your confidence, get your network moving.

The women I work with, they want to go deeper. They want to know ‘how’ you achieve these things. They want the practical, accessible, the relevant steps they need to take.

And this is what I hear all the time form the women I talk to and work with in the RISE program. And I get it, I really do. You need more than the intellectual theory. It’s just not enough.

The truth is we all want to feel inspired, valued, connected AND supported and that’s my goal with this podcast – to give you the tools, the insights, the motivation to create Your Brilliant Career.

Today’s topic is something I’m incredibly passionate about because I see it all the time in the women I coach. Like hardly a week goes by that it’s not staring at me.

So many of the amazing women who join our RISE program – for those who don’t know and want to join our RISE Program – it’s our four-month career program for women. It’s where we explore business relationships, how to cultivate ‘real’ confidence and the style you need to get what you want in your career.

But what’s interesting is that when I’m working with these women, they believe that being a perfectionist is their secret weapon. That it drives them somehow, helps them to maintain their high standards. They believe that they would not have progressed to where they are without it. So for them, perfectionism is like this pillar of their success.

But let me tell you the inside story…. Let me tell you about the anxiety these women feel while they are producing some of their results. The intense fear of not being good enough and the worry and immense frustration that comes from themselves – their own behaviour – or others not delivering to their standard. That’s a big thing too.

Now, in coaching Holly, my goal was to make her aware that this relentless drive for high standards was stopping her from producing her best work. From actually having her best career. And she really wanted it all.

Now intellectually this all makes great sense right – but if you are perfectionist – this is hard to accept. It’s challenging because many clever women look at their track record and think to themselves – well these high standards got me here. I just need to keep pushing even if it causes me stress and discomfort, it will be worth it.

Now what I like to do here in the coaching is a bit of wake up, if you like a bit of a circuit breaker, to get the coaching participant to look at the impact of their behaviour. And this wasn’t hard to do with Holly because she was so vocal. So, think back to the Holly’s scenario, you’ll remember she was quick to vent her frustration with her peers and blame!

So, I asked her to think about her reputation. Now we all have one of those don’t we? It’s earnt from our everyday behaviours – not just the ones we showcase when we’re

Your Brilliant Career Podcast Ep. 1 – Don’t let perfection paralyse your career 4 doing a dazzling at work. It’s the culmination of all the behaviours we showcase all day every day.

So, in asking Holly to think about her reputation and her career, which she values enormously, I wanted her to consider the impact of how people saw her, particularly her peers when she behaved like that.

I asked her what does she want to be known for? How does she want to be experienced?

Of course – she responded with, well… I want to be seen as professional, or capable, trustworthy, someone who is a high achiever and gets stuff done. And then I asked her… do you think your colleagues would use those words when they experience you that way? When you’re blaming them? Or when you are in your head experiencing the discomfort or frustration generated by your own perfectionist behaviours?

Of course, the answer was no. That’s not the reputation Holly wanted. She was proud, very ambitious – but this strategy was a good catalyst for creating change.

Now, fast forward two years – Holly’s actually had two promotions. Amazing! But what I actually think is even more valuable, is the incredible relationships she’s cultivated in the business since then. So, she has been able to build a lot of trust with key stakeholders and she has earned the reputation as someone who is actually okay with setbacks. She doesn’t wobble. It’s a very different version of herself because today’s setbacks just don’t rattle her cage in the same way.

Perfectionism versus high achiever

You see Holly was a perfectionist – but today, she is a high achiever – and there is a difference and let me explain.

The key difference is their motivation. While, yes, admittedly, both the perfectionist and the high achiever they want to succeed. The difference is many perfectionists can take this drive to be successful too far and then they find themselves solely motivated by fear.

What is interesting is that perfectionism can drive the smartest of people to want to achieve an unattainable ideal.

Now think about Holly – she wasn’t a seasoned leader when she presented to the exec – it was a whole new experience to stand up there in that business context – quite nerve-racking really when you think about it. So how could she be perfect? Impossible right! An unattainable ideal.

Now, high achievers are different. They excel at some things for sure, but they don’t believe that they need to be unreal at everything – particularly if something is new.

They also value constructive criticism, and they believe they can do hard things, and that setbacks are okay. That they won’t weaken you.

I am a recovering perfectionist

Now, I know the fear that consumes perfectionists all too well because I am a recovering perfectionist and I’m very happy to share this story with you.

For many years, I sat with that discomfort. Immensely disappointed in myself sometimes and I believed – ‘if you can’t do something properly, don’t do it at all’. That was my mantra. This principle ruled my life for years. I thought it was absolutely normal and I can’t even begin to tell you the fear that I operated with some days and how it caused me to miss out on a lot of opportunities in my career and it wasn’t until I truly understood the idea that I could be a better version of myself with less fear in the tank, that things started to change. This idea of hustling, pushing, relentless high standards, and working so hard, it was exhausting and well, it just wasn’t who I wanted to be.

I remember one day attending a conference. I used to love attending conferences in the first few years of starting my business. I just loved the whole newness of stepping into that space.

At this particular event, I was particularly inspired by one of the speakers and I desperately wanted to ask them a question at the end, you know how they do their talk and then throw to the audience. I had workshopped in my head how to phrase the question and I was already to go…. BUT I literally couldn’t get the question out. Why? Because I just didn’t think it was going to be good enough. That I was going to be good enough. So, I said nothing.

Now, my plan was to ask the speaker a good question and then during the break go over introduce myself. But that didn’t happen. This is the extreme mindset of the perfectionist. All or nothing.

Now if your inner perfectionist is hearing this story and saying, ‘well maybe I shouldn’t have asked the question. Maybe I would have made a mess of it’. That’s true. There’s always a risk isn’t there? But hear this. If the worst-case scenario is that I stumbled through a question, would it be worth it? Could I cope? Could I stomach that outcome? Of course, I could. Regardless, if I went ahead, I still would have connected with this brilliant speaker and got an answer to my question versus achieving nothing, which was my reality.

So, hear this…perfectionism isn’t a friend. It might appear a friend sometimes because you think it takes you to high standards, but it’s not. And further, perfectionism is not necessarily about being ‘perfect’ either. I mean ask yourself this question…is it ever really possible to be 100% ‘perfect’? No!

So, if it’s not about being ‘perfect’, what does perfectionism mean? It’s a good question, isn’t it? What does it mean? Well, I had to look this up, and according to the Centre for Clinical Innovations, perfectionism is the relentless striving for extremely high standards for yourself and sometimes for others too.

It involves constant judging of your self-worth. And the cruncher is that perfectionism is defined by continuing to strive for demanding standards despite the negative impact it can have on us all.

I do remember those negative impacts. As a perfectionist, I have to be honest here and describe myself as a bit moody – and I believe my moodiness – I can reflect and have clarity on this now – came from my own disappointment in myself. As a perfectionist you rarely allow yourself to feel good about your accomplishments, but today, I revel in my accomplishments. If anyone was to hear my internal narrative, they would hear me cheering myself all the time.

I find myself saying things to my husband and son such as ‘my podcast is going to be so good’, which is crazy right? They just laugh. But I know they love this version of me because she is more courageous, open, more innovative, flexible …less moody. And in my view, she is achieving so much more.

So, once I got over my perfectionist behaviours and got out of my own way, so many things started to shift for me. Business opportunities opened up, revenues grew, people I wanted in my network suddenly came into my network. It was exciting – it’s still exciting.

I can always spot the perfectionist and you know why, because they are the ones who are hopeless at accepting compliments from others. I wonder how good you are at receiving compliments. Can you say thank you when praise comes your way? So simple, right – but so hard if you’re a perfectionist.

Now, when it comes to your career, and someone says – great job on the proposal – and you deflect that compliment by saying – oh, it really was a group effort and Tina did most of the statistics, instead of saying thank you – you throw that compliment away. It’s gone. It’s disappeared. You’ve single handedly closed it down. And the irony is most of us want to make our value more visible and be acknowledged for our hard work – so accepting compliments, it’s important. They’re not indulgent. It’s not an indulgent behaviour.

I had to laugh at myself last week. I was exercising with a good friend of mine. She’s a lot fitter than me so I love training with her – in fact, she has been the best lockdown exercise partner a girl could ask for and we work hard every Wednesday and Friday morning together. Last week we were wrapping up the session with a few side planks and my friend, who was facing me, said – ‘Gil your abs look really great at the moment’.

And in my head my response was ‘really, no – I’ve been eating all week’, but instead I say thanks because I figured what a cracking compliment. I can assure you I don’t get compliments of that nature very often at all, so I was going to hang onto it. It was a terrific confidence boost for the day.

So, here’s a few ideas to try if you’re grappling with wanting to overcome your perfectionist tendencies.

Now, my first tip is about asking some better questions. So often the filter for a perfectionist is about what’s not going right. So it’s quite a negative filter capturing all the data, all the facts that is backing up a negative story.

So, we want to very consciously switch that around, and invite different and better information into your head.

So, the question that we can use to do this, is ‘what did I do right today?

I know it sounds unnatural when you’re hear it, but I was surprised to learn from the National Science Foundation, that most people have 60,000 thoughts a day. Of those thoughts, 80% are negative, and 95% are exactly the same repetitive thoughts as the day before.

So, we can see that we already have this natural tendency to focus on the negative and for perfectionists particularly, play the same story over and over again.

So, shifting the question around and inviting your mind to consider other possibilities makes good sense and it’s so easy. Another question I personally use when I’m challenged is – what is perfect about this situation?

Now, it might sound a little extreme, but if you dig deep enough, there is always something perfect – you just have to look for it.

Now, for some of you listening, there is a good chance that you have invested in the identity of being a perfectionist because, possibly, I’m just assuming here. It’s easy to have a lot of positive connotations with the word “perfect” – who doesn’t want to be perfect? But perfect doesn’t exist.

Wanting everything to be perfect means that we fixate on the negative parts of our work or ourselves. Imagine if you continue to do this for the next two decades – imagine how exhausted you will feel. Good careers – and you hear me say this all the time – take motivation, take energy – you need to manage yourself.

In one of my favourite books, Daring Greatly, Brené Brown – she says, “Perfectionism is a twenty-ton shield that we lug around, thinking it will protect us, when in fact it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from being seen”.

So, we need to become more aware of the limitations of perfectionism – when we use our awareness – it’s not as hard as you think to pull ourselves out.

And finally, this is such a fabulous final message for you all – allow yourself not to be perfect. I know it sounds like a wild idea…. but it’s kind of fun on the other side – full of possibility. I dare you to give it a go.

That’s a wrap today. Thank you so much for listening. I’ll see you next time – cheers.

Thanks much for listening to today’s episode. If you’re loving what you’re learning on the podcast, sign up for our free training session on how to land your next promotion. This course is going to give you a close look at the 3 reasons why people don’t land their next promotion and what you can do differently to ensure you succeed. I think you’ll love it… Head over to yourbrilliantcareer.com.au/free training. I look forward to seeing see you there.

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