Wednesday, February 27, 2008

I am not perfect

One of my mentors has a habit of ending almost every conversation I have with him by saying, “Look, I know you’re not perfect.”

He first said this to me when I was just out of law school, desperately looking for any job outside of the profession for which I’d prepared for three years. “Look, I know you’re not perfect,” he said, as he handed me my offer letter to work for The Boston Consulting Group.

I was mortified. I took this to mean, “Look, we’re hiring you because it’s 1997, and all the business school students we really wanted to hire are foolishly joining the internet gold rush (where most of them will suffer and perish, as the original prospectors did in the 1850s), so we’re digging at the bottom of the barrel and we’re left with you. And you’re not perfect, but you’ll do.”

When I started work, I took pains to dodge him in the hallways, taking the long way around so as to avoid passing by his office. After all, he had called me on my secret from the get go.

But despite my best efforts, the day finally arrived when I had to work on a project with him. The toughest SVP in the office. The guy who was reported to be able to reduce even inanimate objects to tears.

I worked harder and exhaled less than I ever had before in my life. No matter how pretty we made things (“Look! Look! Three-dimensional bubble pie charts showing the size, potential, and fit of each market segment with the market share of our client and each of its eight competitors highlighted in different colors!”), he was never impressed.

Because, as I learned the hard way, my job was apparently about something other than impressing him with my mastery of powerpoint and the topic at hand. It turned out that it wasn’t really about me at all – it was about the clients who needed us to help them figure out what really mattered and what to do about it. “D’oh!”

I worked differently after that – and it was much more fun to truly engage with others in fixing a problem than worrying about whether I looked like an idiot. The quality of our work reflected my newfound sense of purpose – so I was surprised when, during my evaluation, I was again reminded, “But look, you’re not perfect. Are there things you could do better? Yes.” There must have been some affirmations that preceded the revisiting of my imperfections, but I can’t recall what they were.

Sometime later, as I sat down with this mentor to tell him that I was leaving BCG to move to Seattle, he was generous, gracious and wise. He empathized with the challenges of loving a job that required so much travel and time away from our families. But I have to admit that I was distracted by the drinking game-like challenge of waiting for the magic words to appear in our conversation. And appear they did. “Are you perfect? Of course not. But I think you could have a bright future here.” I had to smile to myself in hearing these now familiar words.

This same mentor is now an investor in Julep, one of the first people to believe in the vision and my ability to make it happen. Just the other day, I confessed to him that I was paradoxically feeling more and more stressed with each milestone we passed. Now there’s more at stake, something to lose, people counting on Julep in many different ways.

He had a different view. “Look, are you perfect? No. But now you've got a business with some appeal, so you’re in better shape than you were last year, and I figure that you’re going to do a better job than most of the people out there in this space.”

People talk about damning with faint praise, but it turns out that you can also profoundly reassure with the same.

Here is someone whose voice continues to strike such terror in my heart that I have been known to physically fall out of my chair at the sound of it. And he’s been VERY CLEAR on the fact that he is aware of my flaws. And yet.

Now I understand his insistence of my imperfections as a grounding credibility booster. This guy doesn’t blow smoke. Not even the smallest puff. So his vote of confidence matters. Its weight is not compromised by false compliments handed out willy nilly.

And what a relief not to have to waste precious energy on the impossible project of appearing perfect. This has been a huge gift.

Of course, one might observe that there might be kinder, more direct ways of establishing such credibility and trust.

But look, he’s not perfect.