The Productivity Paradox: Beware the Check List! Activity doesn’t always equal productivity, January 3, 2017

By Laura Cox Kaplan

I’ve always been ruled by my checklist, and the rush I get from checking things off. Never is that more true for me than at the start of a new year! I’ve even been guilty of competing with myself for how many things I can accomplish in a day, an hour, or a week.

Working with an executive coach a few years ago, it was brought to my attention that all that “to do-ing” and “box checking” could be limiting my personal growth. How could that possibly be? I’m incredible productive! Or was I?

Checklists are terrific tools for measuring success against short-term activities, and they are incredibly effective for holding yourself to account against tactical activities that must be completed. But if you love your checklist because you get a rush from every checked box and from a long tally of items you’ve completed by the end of a day, beware of using it to push “activity” at the expense of real “productivity” and accomplishment. Activity over productivity can impact personal development.

More strategic, longer term goals and objectives – the ones that help you grow personally and professionally — often don’t lend themselves to the checklist the way shorter term activities do. While there is a short-lived psychological boost from checking things off a list, there is a trade off. Here’s why: tackling the easy items on your list takes work, effort, brain space and time. If you are putting significant energy toward the short-term rush of checking things off your list, you may not be pushing yourself to tackle the really tough, longer term, difficult and stickier issues on the list. Those are the things that take more mental energy and time, but that yield greater personal and professional benefits, including a longer term benefit to your confidence from tackling something really tough. When you use too much energy on short-term or easier tasks, you deplete resources — often substantial ones — that you need to tackle the tougher issues. Plus, you may find yourself too exhausted and distracted to challenge yourself to grow and to stretch, and that can impact your ability to build new executive level skills. And, if your list stretches on for pages and pages, one of those important executive skills may be learning to delegate.

Delegating can be especially difficult for women, particularly early on in one’s career. This may not be gender specific, but I see more evidence of this problem in my conversations with women who are working their way up the career ladder.

As a former partner and executive at PwC, a firm that prides itself on building leaders who get a great deal accomplished in a day, I was introduced to the term “highest and best use.” Essentially, spending time where you, your team, and the firm (or organization) receive the biggest payoff from your investment of time and energy.

It’s not always a question of whether you can accomplish a task, but rather whether it should be you. In other words, taking on every assignment or task limits your ability to build important skills across your team, while also limiting your bandwidth to tackle new challenges. Taking a more thoughtful and strategic approach to what needs to be done is a smarter way to plan and manage a project, while also creating opportunities for team members to grow and stretch themselves in ways that can be professionally challenging and personally meaningful.

When I raised this notion of “highest and best use” with a young woman I was coaching recently, she said, “If I delegate, the work won’t be perfect and that will be a bad reflection on me.”

As women, we often hold ourselves to impossible standards that can deplete our confidence and our energy. By not learning early on in our careers how to build greater support and to reach out for help when it’s needed, we perpetuate impossible standards — standards that can get in our way as we rise to the top. We may also miss opportunities to help other women along the way as well.

The most successful women I know have learned these skills, and get the “work-life balance” ratio right by realizing that it is impossible to do everything yourself, no matter how long your to do list may be. This is especially true when you have significant responsibility outside of work and career.

Allowing ourselves to relinquish some control and adherence to perfectionism in the interest of building additional skills and capacity is an important goal. But, it goes beyond that. Learning to delegate helps others on your team to develop much-needed skills as well, and that can be an important contributor to building a more robust pipeline of talent.

“Not all check marks are created equal related to the impact they have on your personal and professional growth.”

Make no mistake – I am still a big believer in the check list, but for me, the greatest personal payoff comes when it’s used as a tool to drive and measure effort that includes more ambitious, longer term goals and objectives as well as short-term activities. The trick is to make sure you get the balance right, while also staying mindful that not all check marks are created equal related to the impact they have on your personal and professional growth. #

Closing the gender gap: Another way organizations can support female talent – March 8, 2017

By Laura Cox Kaplan

The private sector has made significant progress in thinking about the gender gap. According to a recent McKinsey study, 75 percent of CEOs include gender diversity in their list of top 10 business concerns. Despite that awareness and the attention the issue receives from many (especially at the top of organizations), it has yet to translate consistently into programs and mindsets that yield the results we are looking for.

That’s not to say that there isn’t innovative work taking place. Increasingly, organizations large and small are embracing new strategies for worker flexibility for example. Those programs have been shown to positively impact the retention of female employees. But, the results still aren’t as great as they should be. That begs the question, what’s missing?

For almost 12 years I worked as an executive and partner at PwC. While my work focused largely on political and public policy engagement, I also sat on the executive management team where we grappled with talent challenges including gender equity. The firm developed some innovative programs to address specific challenges that often occur with natural life transitions. Those programs yielded positive results, but they didn’t fix the problem.

More recently, I have been working with several non-profit organizations (including Running Start where I serve as the Republican Board Co-Chair) focused on closing the gender gap in Congress and in elected offices more broadly. This is particularly important because women make up more than 50 percent of the population, and the perspective, knowledge, and unique leadership skills that women bring to the table is especially critical as the world has become both more global and more complex. The need for more diverse perspectives to solve these complex problems has never been more important, and that is true for both government and the private sector. Further, in a 2011 research study by Jack Zenger and Joe Folkman (co-authors of “How to be Exceptional,”) found that women were “significantly more effective on 12 of 16 leadership competencies.” These were competencies the duo found – over 30 years of research –to be important to overall leadership effectiveness. Those qualities even included competencies more typically associated with male leaders, such as “taking initiative” and “driving for results.”

So, if women outshine men in these key areas, what’s the problem?

My interest in the topic of women’s leadership, and specifically closing the gender gap in the c-suite, as well as in elected office — a problem impacting both political parties — led me to develop a course at American University’s Women in Politics Institute under professor and author Jennifer Lawless. The course doesn’t just focus on what makes women unique, but also (and I believe more importantly) on the roadblocks that women often put in their own paths. Make no mistake, there are often external factors that inhibit achievement, but I firmly believe that the roadblocks many women erect for themselves are often even more debilitating and difficult to overcome.

Scientific research supports this. Dr. Daniel Amen, who studied the differences between male and female brains, wrote in “Unleashing the Power of the Female Brain,” that women’s brains actually are more active than male brains, and have as much as 30 percent more neurons firing at any given time. That extra mental capacity is a strength, but it may make women more vulnerable to over thinking, or ruminating (essentially allowing thoughts to run over and over in your head, but not in a way that’s necessarily going to yield a positive or productive outcome). Often we see rumination manifest itself when a woman makes a mistake –even a small one. If she doesn’t attempt to reframe the mishap into a more positive, proactive, and less negative experience she may run the risk of a downward spiral. When that spiral is fueled by negative self-talk, it can shake her confidence, leaving her depleted and less able to bounce back quickly.

To exacerbate these tendencies, women often hold themselves to impossibly high standards. When that standard is perfectionism, it is unattainable and can create self-doubt and what experts refer to as “imposter syndrome,” essentially feeling like a fraud or “not good enough” regardless of what is actually true.

And while common sense may tell you that individuals driven by perfectionism will be motivated to work harder and persevere, the opposite may in fact be true. When perfectionism is the ultimate (but unattainable) goal, it can actually stand in the way of taking action and stop you from taking smart risks such as speaking up, volunteering for new assignments, or even running for elected office. We often watch our male colleagues jump in while we hold back until we believe we are perfectly qualified. When perfection is our goal, it is more likely to limit us from making progress at all.

Let me take it one step further. Think about the value that comes from feedback and mentorship. The more authentic the feedback – on both sides of the table – the more beneficial it will be. But if you are dealing with a perfectionist or someone who pursues perfection as a goal, it can be especially difficult for that person to get comfortable hearing feedback, or even talking openly about areas for personal improvement. Those feelings may manifest themselves in defensiveness, making otherwise constructive feedback all but useless and limiting the person’s opportunity for continued growth (and the organization’s ability to help that employee maximize their value).

For those among us who are perfectionists or who work with perfectionists, we know it can be difficult to turn off this tendency. The trick is increasing awareness, and knowing what to look for (in ourselves and in others). This is where organizations have a real opportunity. If this trait is as common as the science and research seem to suggest, it would stand to reason that a better understanding and higher level of conversation around these tendencies would be useful and very productive. Imagine combining some of the best, cutting-edge programs with increased emphasis on awareness of roadblocks and the potential power that can come from that.

Increasing the number of women in senior leadership ranks and in elected office is a critical and worthwhile goal, but one that must be tackled across multiple fronts. The time has come to engage in a more thoughtful discussion about employee assessments (and self assessments) and how organizations and employees will benefit from more candid conversation and thoughtful awareness.

A corporate and non-profit board member and adjunct professor at American University, Laura is Board Co-Chair of Running Start, a non-profit that encourages young women to recognize their potential as leaders and future candidates for elected office