Being an Imperfect Leader

Jennifer Clevenger
VP Engineering, Data Enablement
Automatic Summary

Embrace Imperfection: A Guide to Being Unapologetically Imperfect

Hello, everyone. It's Jen Clevenger here to talk about an incredibly important topic: being unapologetically imperfect. It's a discussion we need to have, especially in these tumultuous times. Many of us have fallen into a pattern of feeling imperfect because everything that we knew before now feels upside down. In the chaos of the everyday, it's important to embrace the fact that, like everyone else, you too have been thrown into an unfamiliar situation and are just figuring it out as you go.

Leading While Imperfect

I'm currently a VP of engineering at Etsy, heading our data enablement group. So, am I good at my job? Absolutely. Am I perfect at it? Absolutely not. My journey has taught me that it takes a great deal of courage to look our imperfection in the eyes and proclaim, "I am unapologetic."

At work, we often associate perfection with success. However, I've learned that being both imperfect and successful is not only feasible but also liberating. It enables authenticity, vulnerability, and personal growth.

Debunking Myths

Being successful and making fewer mistakes is not synonymous, contrary to popular belief. Let's debunk three myths about perfection and success.

  • Leaders don't make mistakes: This is a common misconception. In truth, leaders are humans who learn from their errors and adapt accordingly.
  • Leaders have seen all problems before: Every challenge encountered is unique because all its variables are different. It's crucial to understand that new obstacles are inevitable and necessary for growth.
  • Imperfection leads to failure: Surprisingly, perfectionism itself often leads to failure. Struggling for flawlessness can cause stress, depression, anxiety, and hinder personal growth.

Unapologetically Embracing Imperfections

Embrace your mistakes, learn from them, and grow from your experiences. Your errors are stepping stones that lead you to your success. Also, consider the role of your work culture in your professional growth. Choose environments that celebrate mistake-making as an opportunity for learning and foster a blameless culture of growth.

Your imperfections give yourself permission to fail and learn. They help create meaningful connections and an environment of open learning and growth. So, encourage being unapologetically imperfect – it's an integral part of your journey to success.

Final Words

Remember to confront your mistakes and grow from them. It's crucial to create a positive work environment that encourages growth through learning from mistakes. Embrace being unapologetically imperfect: don't apologize for being a human who learns and grows. The journey of self-improvement never ends, and there's beauty in that imperfection.

Video Transcription

Hello, everyone. How are you? My name is Jen Clevenger. Super happy to be here today. It's really hard. I can't see anyone. Um, so this is a very odd experience for you, for me, for me, not for you probably.But anyways, I'm here to talk to you about a topic, um, that I believe is incredibly important. Um And, and that topic is being unapologetically imperfect. Hi. Thanks for the, hi in the chat. Now I feel a little bit more. Um, like I'm not alone. It's good to see you. Um, anyways, I, I picked this topic because I think it's a really timely topic for me and perhaps it is for you too. Um, you know, over the past few years since the pandemic, maybe it's been like three years. Hi, from Raleigh. Um I have never felt so imperfect, right. So, like everything that we knew everything that's familiar, um sort of turned upside down and in this chaos, I have learned to embrace that. I'm kind of like fumbling through life, figuring it out as I go along, I drew this picture to go along with, you know, how I felt. Um But if I reflect and take a step back. I think it's actually true that even without the pandemic, right, I've always kind of felt like I have been fumbling through life, figuring it out as I go along. It's life. So, yeah, I am doing my best.

Um But it's not perfect and the topic of this talk, you know, I'm not, sorry, I'm not sorry, I am unapologetic. So, so maybe if I just take a step back, what do I do for work? Um So I'm a VP of engineering at Etsy. I run our data Enablement group. So that means, oh, you don't see it fully, you don't see the screen fully. Let me see what I can do. Thank you for that feedback. Is that, does that look different? I'm just kind of like stretching the screen to see if it will get bigger? Let me know. Oh, awesome. Thank you. Can you see it fully now? Thank you for the, I'm gonna keep my eye on this chat. This is a great little tool. Um So I'm a VP of engineering at Etsy. I run our data enablement group. Um So that means our teams own Etsy's data engineering platforms and services. Um And I also own our experimentation platforms and science teams. So am I good at my job? Yeah, sure. I'm awesome at it. Am I perfect at it? No, absolutely not, not even close. I'm completely imperfect. Um And honestly, that's OK, it's more than OK, you know, when we embrace our imperfections, we allow ourselves to be authentic and vulnerable, which can be incredibly liberating.

Um But it's also the path to growth. Um And I'm not gonna lie, it has taken a really long time for me to get here, you know, to this place to confidently look my imperfection in the eye and say these words out loud, right, to accept in my heart that I can be both imperfect and successful. I think those things, those things were really, really difficult for me to put together in the past. Um And honestly, I think it is particularly difficult for members of our marginalized gender identity community, right? Um And we need to work together to debunk this myth that being successful is only for people who execute perfectly. I feel very strongly about that. Um So we have 15 minutes together, 1520 minutes together today. Um And I thought I would share three myths that I used to believe were the paths to success, three myths and to make it fun. I'll also share three of my own personal stories around mistakes that I've made at work. Um Hopefully, by the end of this talk, uh I, I think uh my hope is that you will feel somewhat entertained by my missteps and stories, but more importantly that you will walk away, feeling some, somewhat emboldened to embrace your own perfections at work.

Um And instead view your mistakes as an important part of your growth and your journey to kind of self discovery. All right. So let's dig in myth number one, leaders don't make mistakes. Something I always thought was true. The other day, a colleague of mine paid me a wonderful compliment. And she said, um you know, hey, Jen, I've observed that you never make the same mistake twice. And my, my immediate gut reaction was, oh my, oh my God. Am I struggling right before her very eyes? You know, can she see my mistake so plainly, it was mortifying. I felt mortified in other words, rather than take this lovely compliment for what it was meant to be. I was kind of horrified at how visible my mistakes were. And this is because for so many years I had bought into this myth that leaders don't make mistakes. I believed leaders always knew what they were doing, you know, and that simply isn't true and I can prove it to you. I'm gonna tell you a story who doesn't love to hear a story about other people's mistakes. Um My daughter told me the other day that she loves to watch other people cry. Um You know, it's like kind of a very horrible but very human sentiment, right? Humans love drama. So, so here we go. Um So my org has grown a lot in the past few years. We were once a very small, I, I used to run just data engineering, we were three teams.

So the three managers and I used to get together every week, we'd make decisions together, we'd discuss hard topics together. Um And we sort of led my overall org by consensus, very consensus driven, very collaborative. In a little less than a year. We had grown to more than eight teams. I had hired five more engineering managers, plus a director. Um Many of whom didn't report to me directly anymore. And along the way, um my role changed and what was needed from me as a leader changed. Um And my mistake was that I failed to notice and change along with my changing org. So if you will, my growing management team, including my new managers, who I had always thought of as peers, you know, sitting beside me making decisions together, collaborating, it now felt like they were actually if you will picture it, you know, kind of standing across across the line from me, looking at me, it was a different dynamic, it's subtle, but it was an important change.

Um that, that sort of wreaked havoc in, in, in my leadership team. It made it really difficult to execute. I made a bunch of mistakes, kind of misreading and not seeing this change in dynamic before I realized that my role in this job had changed so gradually that I hadn't even noticed it and my teams had grown and changed and the things they needed from me. As a leader had changed, changed and I wasn't doing them so to put it bluntly, you know, my peer style engagement with my role. Um And with my managers was creating a weird and very confusing environment and dynamic for my leadership team. I had always leaned into leadership by consensus. Um But the effectiveness of that strategy had quietly, had quietly slipped away. Um It seems silly, but it was a real moment for me and it forced me to make a fairly large shift and change in my leadership style and how I do my job and I did shorten the story. But believe me getting to this realization and taking the steps that were needed was really messy.

And dare, I say, imperfectly executed on my part, you know, early in my career, when I looked up at the leaders around me, I never saw myself for a multitude of different reasons as you can imagine being a female in tech. Um But one of the things was that I always felt like I was still learning, you know, still making mistakes. Um And I didn't have all the answers and I felt relatively clumsy, you know. Um But now I can say, as a confident leader myself, I've realized that a great leader is not defined by flawless execution. That's not the thing that gets you there or that makes you successful. You know, this colleague was pointing something out to me that I'm now very proud of. I make mistakes. I learn from them and I don't make the same mistake twice. That's amazing. You know, that is success. All right. Let's see. Myth number two, I have seen all these problems before. You know, leaders have seen all the problems before. Um For me, nothing has challenged this myth more than the past few years. For sure, my job, you know, if my job is to lead teams in humans. Um then in the past few years, I've learned, you know, how to help people navigate the fatigue of living in a post pandemic world.

You know, I've learned about quiet, quitting the great resignation right on the back of that, like layoffs and, and sort of how to deal with this, like consistent low level of stress and right on the border, mental unwellness that has been going on for years and years just below the surface that manifests in a multitude of different ways.

All surprises, you know, as a manager, as a, as a, as a person who's in charge of, of humans. These are, these have been all new, all brand new problems to solve. Like even for me, as a person who has been in the workforce for almost 20 years. And, and honestly, the reality is then every year actually pandemic or not, things change, the job changes, the industry changes, the business changes, the people I work with changes and I changed. So no matter the year. I think it's actually always true that I or any leader will not have seen any of these damn problems before they're always new. So, um let me give you a fun example from a few years ago. So I had mentioned that my org had more than doubled in size over a short period of time. And this was all during a very difficult set of years during these years, I decided to execute a fairly large reorg of my teams or reorganization of my teams. Nobody told me to do it. Um I made the call because I believed it would set us up better for this growth that we are experiencing. Um I didn't have a playbook. Um I didn't have that much support. So like I didn't have strategy and operation support or anything like that. So I sort of fumbled my way through it to get it done, you know, everything from ideation, like deciding to do it to designing the outcome, getting consensus. So everyone would be on board.

Um You know, both up and down the chain all the way down to the I CS, figuring out how to split the teams who would go where, like which humans would change, which teams they're on and why and then all the way down to like how do you roll it out and communicate it. Um It was a lot of moving pieces. It was a lot. I like this example because we all know that reorganizing teams within a department is not a new problem to solve. You know, I'm not reinventing the wheel here, but it is a problem that had not, I had not tackled before, like in this particular situation with these specific teams and humans and preferences, like in this environment. So that actually makes it a new set of problems because all the variables, all the inputs are different. Um So was it super smooth? Did people love it? No, it was really difficult. It was not nice and neat. Um And it was fine. I think the outcome was good. I still believe it was absolutely the right thing to do for our growth at the time. And I think we're better for it today, but it was not perfectly executed. And I learned a lot and I think the important thing in my opinion is that in the end, you know, I spent a lot of time talking to people openly about what went well, what could have gone better? And I took those learnings with me.

Um I honestly think that it is a huge part of my job um to transparently accept if I've made a mistake, big or small, they both matter. This makes us more empathetic with each other. And it also emboldens people around us to struggle like visibly struggle, which is good um to take risks, learn and grow. You know, it's a part, it's a huge part of my job as a leader um to create that environment for people. I want to lead by example, on that one, it's important. All right. Myth number three, final and last myth imperfection leads to failure and sudden death. I would argue, you know, actually, I think you'll predict what I'm gonna say that the opposite is true. Perfectionism actually leads to failure, um not sudden death, but certainly to anxiety, depression and a drop in mental wellness. And there is an enormous, enormous amount of research about this topic. So I'm not gonna pretend that I'm the expert that came up with it or anything.

But I just think it's so important for us to understand what a real stumbling block. Perfectionism can be for so many people in their careers like it is paralyzing. Um And I should know, you know, like I'm a person who, who is like this, who, who is like this, it's mentally exhausting to always be worried about being discovered as imperfect, you know, invisibly making mistakes. And at the end of the day, it stunts your growth and learning. Um Carol Dweck uh in her writings about a growth mindset. If you haven't read her book, I highly recommend it, speaks at length at, speaks at length about this topic, you know, that your talents are not innate that you're not born with them. They are grown and developed through hard work and through learning from your mistakes, you know, and the Harvard Business Review. I'll just give you one more tidbit did research across 40,000 college students and they found that I'm gonna read this quote, um, from their research, fear of failure is a function of a person's excessive standards and desire to do things.

Well, their fear is if they don't do it perfectly, they will expose some inner weakness or frailty. I felt so seen by that sentence. That's why those with higher perfectionism generally experience more stress in their daily lives and this stress can create other mental and physical health problems.

Ah Boo So perfectionism is the thing that leads to failure, right? Like mind blown. So in my quest to continue to convince you that being imperfect is OK, let's talk about one last mistake that I've made. Um I've probably been uh I probably had one of the most engaged organizations at Etsy for quite some time. So, um you know, we take this yearly engagement survey and data engineering is the the team I kind of grew up with at Etsy um has always scored really high. People are happy, we enjoy autonomy are solved heart problems together. We're aligned. Um We have fun, et cetera, et cetera last year. Um My org, my organization scored like unapologetically low on the engagement survey. And when I dug into it, I saw a strong theme around a perceived loss of autonomy driven by stifling top down leadership. That's me, my leadership, you know, and I was like, I was crushed by this feedback, um loss of autonomy like that, that is not the culture I believe in. That's not my leadership style. You know, I fancy myself the type of leader that wants to give people autonomy that invests in humans and people so that, you know, we can solve hard problems together through ownership and accountability, yada yada, but clearly like something had gotten lost in translation bad enough that it showed up as like the theme in the engagement survey, something I had done or not done in the past year had led my teams to feel this way.

It's like opposite of the, the culture that I wanted to, to build. So I had fed something out. You know, this was my mistake. I really do believe that a lot of people are afraid to make mistakes or admit that they have misstepped because they don't want to appear, you know, weak and experienced unworthy of their role, right? Those are all things or like they don't know what they're doing. And if you're like me, you have all these feels it's normal. Um And something that I do to force myself to get over that a little bit is something my little sister taught me called exposure theory. Be. So, you know, when I make a mistake, I confront it, head on, I admit it out loud. Sometimes I'll like point to it a lot. Then I ask people for feedback, you know, about how they're affected or impacted or what I could have done better, what could have gone, you know, worse, uh, and what I, what I could do differently next time and then, and then I do that I do the thing, you know, and, and then kind of like all those in my mind, all those gen haters out there that might have scoffed at my mistake, you know, will instead see me growing and improving at such a clip that they'll like, wish that they made mistakes as often as I do.

So, don't be perfect. Don't be perfect. OK. I'm gonna wrap it up. So now that I'm done exposing myself as a mistake maker, I'll summarize and leave you with these two final thoughts. Um If you didn't get it already from my examples, embrace your mistakes, you know, don't hide from them, learn from them. Your mistakes are actually your key to your success, right? That's where the growth is so lean into them. I'm not saying be irresponsible or anything but like, yes, do mistakes and do mistakes, do make mistakes um and learn from them be perfectly imperfect. Yes. Uh And I didn't say this next one explicitly, but your work culture matters. You know, I learned this magic of leaning into my mistakes so late in my career because like I had never really worked in a company where I could be my honest, whole self at work before. In other words, like at my other jobs, people were hiding their imperfections from each other. So I naturally did the same, you know. Um But today I work at a company where we learn blamelessly from our mistakes together and we get better together, right? Belonging to a culture.

Like this is one of the reasons that I even feel confident enough to write a talk like this and say it out loud in front of so many people, people at Etsy created that environment for me by example. And I want us all to remember that we also have the power to create that for others and ourselves in our place of work. So your work culture matters be a part of creating that culture in your workplace. When we are unapologetically imperfect, we give ourselves permission to make mistakes, to fail and to learn from our experiences. We're also able to create more meaningful connections with each other. You know, if you show that vulnerability solve problems more easily, learn faster, all because we're not spending all this time trying to hide our flaws from each other, you know, it seems so simple. Um But I know it can be hard, but I encourage you all to embrace being unapologetically and perfect. Don't apologize for being a human who is openly learning and growing and, and the last thing I'll say is I actually wrote this talk for, for two reasons. One in the hopes that someone will see themselves in my experiences and in these words and feel emboldened to be just a little bit more unapologetically imperfect, you know, and to live a little more unself consciously if you will.

And two, I actually, I wrote it for me because, you know, I'm still a human after all and I still sometimes feel inadequate and imperfect. And on those days I'll like unfold this little pep talk and I'll read it to myself too. We're doing awesome and that's it. Um Thank you for all of the tips in the chat during my talk. So I knew that my little screen was too small. I think we only have one minute left. But if anyone has any questions, you can type them in the chat and I will type you back as quickly as my little fingers can, can type. But if not, thank you so much for coming and I really appreciate, I appreciate all of you. The book was um Growth Mindset by Carol Dweck Growth Mindset. It's an awesome, awesome book. Thank you so much.