· Features

Senior female executives: perfectionism or permission?

Many impressive senior female executives still aren’t giving themselves permission, despite their success. These women end up undermining their leadership over time. They pay a high price in terms of their own energy, wellbeing and sense of achievement. This is not good for them or for business.

Take Marian, a commercial director in a division of a global medical appliances business. On her appointment Marian inherited a team of ten direct reports. Most had long service and a depth of technical and product knowledge. One of them, David, had also applied for Marian's position. Marian felt rather overwhelmed and was not enjoying her new role.

During coaching, we discovered Marian was driven by strong perfectionist tendencies. Her internal motto was "Is this best in class? I have to be top". She felt she should be able to lead her team because her predecessor had done so. Yet, David was difficult and demanding. In her view he was not measuring up, but she believed that she should coach him to better performance and get him over his disappointment and competitiveness towards her. Her PA was constantly letting her down in very small ways but it all added to the pressure.

Perfectionists believe that pushing themselves hard means they take real responsibility and that this constant drive is the secret of their success. They are their own worst critics. To be top they continuously focus on the next goal, barely taking a moment to recognise a win. This constant pressure protects them from experiencing the humiliation of not measuring up and feeling that they have failed. Perfectionism is exhausting.

In the spiral of perfectionism Marion had completely lost touch with being able to give herself 'permission' to get what she needed in order to be great.

To loosen the grip of the perfectionism we investigated the real impact in terms of her energy, self-esteem and effectiveness. Only then could we focus on recalibrating her sense of permission. Marion learned that she could give herself permission to stop and take the 'balcony view'. She let go of the team model that she thought she should be able to beat. Despite resistance, she restructured to get a direct report model that worked for her (not somebody else). She realised that David was too high maintenance for what he was delivering. She performance managed him. He did not step up or stop being so competitive so she let him go. She hired an Executive Assistant to be a high-powered PA and handle some project management. Her effectiveness increased fourfold, her stress levels dropped. She felt much more motivated and so did her team.

When Marian looked back she was shocked at how miscalibrated her sense of permission had been. She now spots the triggers for her perfectionism and accepts that the road to the goal would not always be straight. She learned that giving herself permission to get what she needed was the way to truly leverage her leadership impact, protect her own energy levels, resourcefulness and resilience.

Kate Lanz (pictured), executive director, Sandler Lanz