Commentary: Insecure overachiever? You are perfect for the job

Commentary: Insecure overachiever? You are perfect for the job

High-flying worrywarts are the reason why top professional services companies are successful, says the Financial Times’ Andrew Hill.

File photo: Man in office at laptop
Contrary to conventional wisdom, self-doubt is a key trait many overachievers share. (Photo: REUTERS/Antonio Bronic)

LONDON: Problem-solving, creativity, intellectual curiosity, energy and, inevitably, "passion" are some of the qualities sought by the world's most prestigious law firms, consultancies, accountants and investment banks.

Notably absent from any such list is the trait of insecurity.

But mention to professionals that "insecure overachievement" is characteristic of their tribe and they will give a knowing, if nervous, chuckle.

It is, after all, the very essence of what their leaders want to enlist and encourage - and those same leaders often experience it themselves.

"The best client-relationship builders in our firm are insecure. They are so hell-bent on making their clients feel good about them that they work overtime," says the chair of a consultancy.

"Partners are earning over £800,000 a year (US$1.06 million) and the average guy here will be thinking, 'God, I'm not worth it'," says the managing partner of one law firm.

"We all tend to be such insecure people that we're all scared all the time," says another senior lawyer.

ANXIOUS, PRAISE-HUNGRY PERFECTIONISTS

When I speculated a few years ago about the prevalence of self-doubt among top professionals, several chief executives confessed the description resonated with their own occasional lapses of self-confidence. You will find more than a few insecure overachievers in the media, from the BBC to the Financial Times.

And most organisations would rather employ anxious, praise-hungry perfectionists than happy but smug under-performers.

Professional services firms have acquired a dominant position in the exploitation of ambitious worrywarts, and its poisonous fallout.

Workers at Raffles Place - crop plastic bag guy out of pic on request
File photo of workers in Singapore's Central Business District. (Photo: TODAY)

Cass Business School's Laura Empson, author of Leading Professionals, from which the above quotations are drawn, cites a human resources director who went out of her way to hire insecure overachievers for a big accountancy group.

Empson suggested she was "like a drug dealer, deliberately seeking out vulnerable people and getting them hooked on the high-status identity" of the firm. The HR director did not deny it.

The book is a rich treasury of research and insight into how to manage these professionals - as well as the overconfident prima donnas at the other end of the same spectrum.

It offers plenty of important lessons for leaders in any knowledge business as they manage the tension between offering staff autonomy and keeping control.

But somehow I kept returning to the chapter on how to lead insecure overachievers.

All the interview subjects are anonymous, but their comments are widely applicable. They could be partners at McKinsey or Bain & Co, auditors at EY or PwC, lawyers at Cravath, Swaine & Moore or Freshfields - the prestigious institutions whose recruitment websites I trawled for the qualities cited above.

Empson did not study investment banks for her book, but she told me the same insights "definitely apply" to the sector, so add Goldman Sachs or JP Morgan to that list.

THEIR OWN WORST ENEMIES

I ran the conclusions past one senior partner at a consultancy, who confirmed insecurity was still a desirable attribute - provided it was channelled towards work for the client, rather than into damage to consultants' self-esteem.

It is a crucial caveat. For all their well-being programmes and work-life balance initiatives, this is also the area where big professional employers still risk falling down.

One reason is that high-flying worriers are their own worst enemies. The offer of gyms, nutritionists and "flex days" can turn the associate who does not take such perks into a victim, guilty of not looking after him or herself.

Overtime devoted to the client - the holy grail described by the consulting chair quoted above - quickly becomes overwork at the expense of the employee.

The Wider Image: Working, eating and sleeping at the office
Some young associates in top consultancy firms have taken to sleeping in the office to minimise travel, and maximise the time they spend on overtime work during peak seasons. (File photo: REUTERS/Jason Lee)

"It is true that I have sacrificed my family life," a partner in an accounting firm says, "but, ultimately, I sacrificed not only my family but also myself."

The pressure cooker may cool in future. Tragedies blamed on burnout have sounded the alarm. Policies to promote gender balance are also driving out some unhealthy practices.

It is dawning on employers that they must manage more carefully people who choose to work hard and yet feel they have no choice but to do so.

Bringing in outsiders who can challenge a culture of overwork can help. Empson says some senior partners seemed to view her interviews as therapy.

Awareness that, in her words, "our economy rests on the fragile shoulders" of insecure overachievers is a small step towards tackling the problem.

Still, professional services firms have little real incentive to stop self-doubting strivers from repeating the errors of the past.

That leaves only one consolation for professionals: The knowledge that, in any group of their self-assured peers, some - perhaps all - are inwardly as stressed as they are.

Source: Financial Times/sl

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