“There’s no such thing as a perfect strategy. I think putting people first is extremely important, especially when you talk about digital transformation.” -Cathy Graham

The pressure to be perfect can be exhausting. Financial leaders and their employees often become overwhelmed and stressed out from the pressure in their organizations. This leads to an ever-present feeling of failure.

Perhaps the measure of success should be progress, not perfection. Cathy Graham, Executive Vice President of Desert Financial Credit Union shared insights on this topic with James Robert Lay on the Banking on Digital Growth Podcast.

Pursuing Perfection vs. Progress

As a leader in the financial world, Cathy Graham has seen plenty of financial executives veer off into the burnout zone. After years of pursuing perfection, they become so overwhelmed and stressed out that they can no longer make forward progress.

That’s why she believes in the 80-20 rule, which encourages you to determine which 20% of your time is producing 80% of your best results. The 80-20 rule also means that it’s okay to get something to 80% and say “that’s enough.”

In his book “Good to Great,” Jim Collins wrote, “good is the enemy of great.” But many financial leaders strive for perfection almost to a fault. This relentless pursuit can be harmful to the human psyche.

Perfectionism is extremely difficult to achieve. Believing that everything must always be at 100% is a recipe for disaster. When a financial brand is pursuing perfection to the nth degree, it takes a toll on the human beings involved.

Cathy and James Robert both noted that Brene Brown has a great take on perfectionism. She says, "Perfectionism is a 20-ton shield that we look around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it's the thing that really prevents us from being seen and taking flight."

Your Financial Brand's Mission, Vision, Values, and Purpose

One way to shed the pressure of perfectionism and make progress on your goals is to refocus on your mission. Desert Financial Credit Union makes it a point to stay focused on the company’s mission, vision, and values at all times.

This is particularly helpful during periods of crisis and transition. For example, the recent COVID-19 pandemic was extremely stressful and challenging, but Desert Financial’s focus on its purpose, to “make lives better,” helped it stay stable and continue serving its members amid the chaos. 

James Robert relates this to a famous example of a real estate developer who bucked the trend in the 1980s when news outlets were reporting an impending recession. The real estate developer purchased billboards saying, “Recession? What recession?  We’re not participating.” The campaign multiplied the company’s growth exponentially.

It takes courage to lean into a challenge and survive it. When people need courage, it helps to go back to examine your core purpose. When people can come together because they believe in a shared purpose, it’s much easier to make bold decisions that propel the organization forward.

What’s Your Organization’s Purpose?

Desert Financial has a corporate strategy called Give and Grow. As Cathy says, “That’s it. Three words. Give and grow.” It’s a simple but powerful message that serves as a rallying cry for the entire organization.

The Give and Grow campaign encourages the organization to invest in its employees and its community. In the past 4 years, Desert Financial has given back $50 million to its members in the form of year-end dividends. It has also helped employees pursue educational degrees. 

During this time, its membership base has grown by more than 10% per year. Historically, it had been growing less than 1% per year, so the success of Give and Grow is clear.

Reinvestment in a company’s employees is often cut during tough times. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, many companies axed employee training as a cost-cutting measure. 

As a result, a new knowledge gap could impact the financial industry for decades to come. Now’s the time to take a hard look at your company’s training activities to ensure you won’t be left behind due to a persistent lack of investment in education.

The Power of Adjusting Your Mindset

Years ago, Cathy worked with an executive coach who pointed out that her mindset was getting in her way. It was a powerful moment. “It changed my life. It absolutely changed my life.”

This pivotal moment allowed her to see that people sometimes play the victim and become unable to move forward. Now, as a leader, she feels strongly that people must take time for self-reflection and see if they’re getting in their own way.

A statement like, “Everyone’s out to get me” shows something is wrong. But is everyone truly out to get you? Maybe you’ve become your own worst enemy.

The goal of self-reflection isn’t to feel embarrassed or ashamed. The goal is to find hope and optimism, freeing yourself from the limiters holding you back.

Being Buried in Busy-ness

One of the most common things Cathy sees among high-achieving financial executives is a tendency to stay busy 100% of the time. Even after hours and on vacation, they’re on their phones, checking voicemails, responding to emails, and keeping their focus on work.

Are you really that busy? Or are you just feeding your ego? 

Part of being successful is giving yourself space to rest and recover from stressful periods. This isn’t possible when your phone is always buzzing and you’re always engrossed in work. Success isn’t about working 24/7.

Cathy encourages her colleagues and employees to set good boundaries in their lives. She believes in leaving mental space to enjoy your life and spend time with your friends and family. 

When you set this boundary, people get used to it and don’t hold it against you. Cathy knows people say, “Oh that’s Cathy. Those are her boundaries.” That’s fine with her. The people in her work life know she needs time to recharge and come back refreshed.

Cathy is also a member of Chief, an organization founded to empower female leaders. It encourages women to set healthy, positive boundaries in their lives and to reach out for help when they need it. Just hearing that other people are struggling with the same experiences can be a huge relief during tough times. 

Spaghetti, Duct Tape, and Marshmallows

After a lifetime of pursuing perfection, it can be difficult to know how to live without it. It takes courage to step outside your comfort zone and feel happy with accomplishing progress rather than perfection.

The fear of failure is powerful. James Robert encourages financial professionals in this position to think of failure as fertile soil. Only in fertile soil can you plant the seeds of future growth.

James Robert and Cathy are fans of a leadership exercise designed to show financial executives how much they fear failure. It’s called “Spaghetti and Duct Tape.”

The idea is to instruct the executives to build a tower out of flimsy materials like spaghetti and duct tape. A marshmallow must balance on top of the tower without falling. Executive leadership teams routinely perform poorly at this task.

James Robert says they’ll typically spend a significant amount of time strategizing and trying to put together a plan. Then, only at the last minute, they try to balance the marshmallow on top and discover it doesn’t work.

By contrast, children tend to do very well at this exercise. Why? Because they just start building. They try things out, make fast adjustments, and successfully balance a marshmallow on top. 

They’re not afraid to fail. Are you?