Embracing Our Imperfections.

Embracing Our Imperfections.

By Hubert Joly

When I became the CEO of Carlson Companies, which owned Carlson Wagonlit Travel and other brands like Radisson Hotels and TGI Friday’s, the head of HR, Elizabeth Bastoni, asked me if I wanted to work with an executive coach. You will not be surprised to know that I was reluctant. I had no problem with coaching for my tennis game or skiing. But my job was another matter. In fact, if you had told me at that time that a fellow executive was using a coach, I would have thought, What is wrong with that person? What problem does he or she have? In my defense, executive coaching at the time was perceived as remedial. So why should I get a coach? Elizabeth explained that Marshall Goldsmith helped successful leaders become even better. His list of clients was impressive. Suddenly, it was as if I had been told: I see you love playing tennis and you’re good at it. Would you like to continue to improve your game?

Of course I wanted to get better! So I started working with Marshall. I learned to look at feedback as “feedforward” and to choose areas I wanted to work on. It is a subtle but important distinction: I was not focused on fixing a problem, but rather deciding what I wanted to get better at. This is how I learned to thank people for feedback, tell them what I was working on, and ask them for advice. I learned to check in with them, hear from them how I was doing, and ask for more advice. I learned to embrace the feedback I used to put aside.

Through the experience of someone close to me who was dealing with depression, I later discovered that psychologists echo Father Samuel’s words on perfection, vulnerability, love, and human connections. Perfectionism, it turns out, is not good for you: abundant research has linked it to depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and even suicide.2

All those years, I expected others to be impossibly perfect, while ignoring my own vulnerabilities. This severely limits human relationships—and therefore collaboration, effective teamwork, and leadership. Employees are more inspired by vulnerable leaders than leaders who project unreasonable strength and perfection, because we relate and bond through our imperfections. Brené Brown, who defines herself as a “researcher, storyteller, Texan,” has spent the past two decades studying vulnerability, courage, shame, and empathy. She explicitly lists connection as one of the gifts of imperfection—along with courage and compassion.3 What stands in the way of connection, she has found, is shame, or the fear that there is something that, if others see and know about us, will make us unworthy of connection. People who felt a strong sense of love, connection, and belonging, on the other hand, were those who had the courage to be imperfect and who embraced vulnerability.4 All this taught me that there can be no genuine human connection without vulnerability, and no vulnerability without imperfection.

I have also learned from other business leaders about how the quest for perfection hinders rather than advances great work. Alan Mulally, the former CEO of Ford, was kind enough to share how, early in the company’s turnaround, he had encouraged his colleagues to openly admit when and where they had problems.

When Alan became CEO in 2006, Ford was expected to lose $17 billion that year. And it did. As he put it, the company did not have a forecasting problem: it had a performance problem, part of which was a corporate culture in which admitting problems was seen as a sign of weakness. Alan implemented a “traffic lights” color system for reports on key performance areas, which were discussed every Thursday during his Business Plan Review meetings. All the members of the leadership team had to color-code the weekly status report against their teams’ goals: green when everything was on track; amber when things were off the rails, but there was a plan to get back on track; and red where performance was off, and the team did not yet have a plan to get back on course.

Alan told us how, in the first few weeks, everything was green. The company was facing a substantial loss, but looking at the charts, everything was going according to plan. “You know, we are losing billions of dollars,” Alan pointed out. “Isn’t there anything that’s not going well?” Mark Fields, who would later succeed Alan as CEO, was the first to take a risk and admit that not everything was perfect. He was then in charge of Ford’s Americas operations, and he had a problem with the highly anticipated launch of the Ford Edge in Canada: testing had revealed a grinding noise in the suspension that had not yet been resolved, and he had decided to put the launch on hold. At the next weekly meeting, he characterized the launch as red and explained that they had not yet figured out how to solve the problem.

According to Alan, eyes went to the floor, and the air left the room. But Alan began to clap. “Who can help Mark with this?” he asked. Suddenly, someone raised his hand: he would send his quality experts right away. Someone else offered to ask suppliers to check their components. Alan, himself an engineer, did not jump in. He relied on his team to collaborate, rather than insert himself. The problem with the Ford Edge was resolved quickly.

It took a few more weekly meetings, but eventually more red and amber appeared on the charts. By then, everyone on the team trusted that they could openly acknowledge problems and would help each other turn red into amber and then green.

Alan Mulally’s story illustrates another problem with the quest for perfection: no one can ever have all the answers. In healthy work environments, no one will be afraid of saying they do not know. Yet as obvious as that sounds, many people still believe that saying “I don’t know” is viewed as weakness. I remember as a teenager, one of my parents’ friends, who was a businessman, asked me a question. I cannot remember the question, but I remember saying to him: “I don’t know.”

He looked at me and said: “Young man, I hope you will never say that in the business world, because this is admitting a weakness, and you should never do this. This will limit your potential.”

I have wrestled with perfectionism, but even back then, this made no sense to me. If I did not know, well, I did not know! What was wrong with that? I could always learn and find out. I was not pigeonholing myself by saying I am not good at math, or I am not a visual thinker. I was not saying I cannot know. I just did not know. If someone asks you about last month’s market share or what section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank act is all about, there is nothing wrong with saying, “I don’t know. Let me look into it!”

Alan Mulally thwarted perfectionism so problems could be acknowledged and resolved. Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos points out that perfectionism also impedes innovation by making us afraid to fail. “I believe we are the best place in the world to fail,” he wrote in a letter to shareholders. “Failure and invention are inseparable twins. To invent, you have to experiment, and if you know in advance that it’s going to work, it’s not an experiment. Most large organizations embrace the idea of invention but are not willing to suffer the string of failed experiments necessary to get there.”5

Learning about the benefits of imperfection would profoundly transform how I approached my role at Best Buy, and without it, the transformation might not have gone the way it did. Once Best Buy successfully emerged from its turnaround and embarked on a growth strategy, we worked hard to shift a collective mindset away from perfectly hitting targets and toward what Stanford University professor of psychology Carol Dweck defines as a “growth mindset,” or the idea that talent and abilities can be developed through effort and learning. Mistakes and failure are essential to learning, but they do not sit well with perfectionism, which is instead associated with a “fixed mindset”—the view that abilities are innate and fixed. Carol Dweck points out that wanting to be seen as perfect is often called the “CEO disease,” as it afflicts many leaders.6 Unfortunately, the need to establish superiority by exhibiting effortless perfection means there is little incentive to take on anything challenging—and therefore to learn—for fear of failing.

So much of business life is driven by the quest to be “the best” or “number one”—a symptom of Dweck’s fixed mindset. Many companies, Best Buy included, have a system of scorecards and rankings to measure and reward performance. Rankings are everywhere. Being the best is even in Best Buy’s name. It is a disease—one that, according to psychologists, feeds a growing and self-defeating quest for perfection.7 The problem is, the idea of being the best implies that the world is a zero-sum game. There is room for only 10 people or companies in the top 10. You can only become number one by knocking off someone else. And then what do you do when you become number one? There is nowhere else to go but down. Of course, there is competition, and competition is important. But competition against oneself, or doing better tomorrow than we did yesterday, takes us much further than obsessively measuring ourselves against others.
We all work—and lead—best when we embrace vulnerability, learn from failure, and strive to be our best rather than the best. For it is in these imperfections that we can truly and deeply connect with others.
Every Wall is a Door.

Every Wall is a Door.

Based on a text by John Kramp

“Every wall is a door. Let us not look for the door and the way out anywhere but the wall against which we are living.” 

Since hearing these words, I’ve been pondering the implications of this idea for leadership, business, and life.

Implication 1: Assume the wall is the door.

When facing a wall, my first assumption is that the wall blocks my progress. But what if that wall is actually a door that leads me to something unanticipated? What if that wall actually provides the only door to where I need and want to go? Overcoming my initial reaction to walls as hinderances to progress will require me to think differently. But if I change my assumptions and view each wall as a door, I will definitely react, think, and act different.

Implication 2: Ask how the wall is the door. 

I know walls when I see them. Until now, I’ve never forced myself to ask, “How is this wall the door?” Yet in my experience, walls have often been doors. Professional challenges have often directed me to breakthrough solutions. Business crises have forced me to consider options I would have never evaluated. Painful changes have ended up opening new possibilities. I’m not saying it’s always easy to figure out how the wall is the door. I do believe it is helpful and power to ask the question.

Implication 3: Consider why the wall is the best door. 

If a wall includes a built-in, clearly visible door, I’m going through the door. As I do so though I submit my journey to whoever decided to place that door in that location. But what if the door-maker’s path limits me? What if his door points me to the easier path that leads me far from what I might have otherwise discovered? Isn’t it possible that the better things, the scarcer treasures would be less visible to the common traveler, hidden on the other side of the wall with no apparent access? I can view the wall as my best door because it will lead me to what is different, overlooked, and potentially valuable.

Implication 4: Count the wall a good gift. 

What if the wall opens the path to opportunities? What if the wall is the only lens through which to see what would otherwise not be seen? What if the wall is purposeful, personal, a friend, and a guide to direct you to good places? If so, I should welcome walls, not because they block me but because they point us in the direction of discovery.

Implication 5: Prioritize walls over doors. 

In business, differentiation rules. So how did the entrepreneurs, the builders of small businesses, and visionary leaders of great corporations find their breakthroughs? They went through a wall. This doesn’t mean they blew up the wall. More than likely, they did not discover a door in the wall others had overlooked. Instead, they faced the same wall others had seen and saw something different — a way in which the wall itself was a door to an opportunity. Open doors offer little of value. If you want a sustainable difference for your business, pick a wall.

The Hope of the Wall

A few years ago, I hit a professional wall that resulted in a new direction in my career. The experience unsettled me initially and caused me to question many things. Looking back, I now see how that wall was my door. Days now are far different from my life on the other side of the wall I hit, but I love life on this side of the wall. Much remains to be done. The path forward is less predictable. But all is well with my soul. For me, the wall was the door.

What about you?

Is the wall you are facing today your door?

Stepping into Possibility.

Stepping into Possibility.

Text from Meg Kelley

I sat at the edge of the dock and watched the lake’s waves gently crest and fall, undulating in sun-tinted hills and valleys that stretched as far as my eyes could see. The flow seemed in unison, geese flocking all in the same direction as the tide came in, storm clouds in the far distance drawing near.

As my legs dangled there, warmed by the still-present sun, clouds beginning to cover the sky in a cotton blanket, my toes just grazed the surface. I witnessed the reverberations of this tiny action, small ripples in all directions of where skin met water and water met skin. A smile crawls across my face.

I considered all the times that I focused on the splash. When faced with an approaching deadline or a problem to solve, I’d throw myself into one well-thought-out, perfected direction to make the thing I wanted most happen. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t, but every time I could guarantee I’d be exhausted.

When faced with a decision to try something new or let go of something old, I never bothered to witness what would happen if I just inched a toe in, allowing a tiny action to take it’s course over and over again. Dipping just a toe in could change everything. I might not be able to swim across the lake in one day. But the physics, the butterfly-effect mechanics of it move forward from just my willingness to show up, be present, and step in.

Being the type-A planner and over-thinker that I am, trying to start something without having fully charted a course usually stops me in my tracks. Shouldn’t I have this totally mapped out? Aren’t I just inviting a ton of mistakes and last-minute choices? Don’t I first need to research everything everyone else has done in a similar situation?

While some choices do require a lot of planning, maybe it doesn’t always have to be that complicated. Maybe the way to do a lot of things is that simple: You start trying to do the thing. You see what happens. Instead of using check-the-box, step-by-step processes, you focus on how you feel. You turn back when it no longer feels like you. You accept that perhaps there isn’t an end. It’s just a continual process of showing up more fully and finding the baseline joy in being yourself, even when it doesn’t feel easy.

It’s one thing to say, “Go on ahead, step your toe in,” but it’s another thing to actually get started in the face of second-guessing and resistance. How do you begin making even the tiniest of progress forward? What if you don’t even know what forward looks like? I don’t have the answers to any of this. But for me, it never hurts to get quiet and ask more questions.

Often, I reflect on these in my journal. Here are a few of my favorites:

1. What am I awake to now that I wasn’t before?

If I listen closely, there are voices I have failed to listen to, there are angles and curves and depths to this water where I can learn more, and places where my heart can break open wider to not just set my own self, but others around me free. I try to think about the one, tiny action-oriented thing I can do to acknowledge and uplift those voices and places. That’s forward motion.

2. How am I holding on too tightly?

Lately, I feel like I am just hanging on to my well-being by the tips of my fingers. But every few days, I hit on that joyous, spacious, floating feeling and wonder how that happens. Mostly, it only happens when I am okay with things not going how I want them to go. Even if I feel like things are out of control, I find comfort in knowing I can paddle my own boat, right here, in this body I have right now, no matter how many waves are crashing into me.

3. How am I focusing on the barriers?

If I pay attention, I can see that I’m actually not an incredibly unlucky person who has bad things happen to her, but a person who focuses on only the supposedly bad things that happen to her. This isn’t about self-blame, but rather, reframing the regret of past events or the anxiety about the future as the blocks I’ve created in my flow. These are barriers in the water that I am choosing to narrowly focus on, instead of noticing that water moves around and through things every day. I may wobble, shift, and change, but as I slowly come out from the other side, I’ll be more resilient, centered, and transformed.

Overall, these questions help me explore the fear of stepping into the unknown, and instead of looking solely at the risks of what could go wrong, to focus also on the opportunities that the unknown presents. Keep in mind: You can always pivot, turn back, or flat out quit. You aren’t trying to end up somewhere exactly, you’re taking one step into the water of possibility, with your curiosity as your compass.

If asking these questions makes this notion sound simple, perfect, or complete, as if it will feel effortless—it won’t. It is akin to a tidal force—we have to continually sink back into our own knowledge in order to reach forward. There’s no shortcut here around yourself, which is perhaps the most difficult challenge to confront of all.

But I know this: If you never step into the water, you’ll never know where the ripples take you. Maybe, even if darkness approaches, I can dip my toe into this water, and maybe, the effect of my ripples are somewhere out there, as you read this, navigating to you. It seems like a good possibility, and one worth smiling about.

. . .