MANILA, Philippines – One story that has featured prominently in recent weeks is the case of my hometown zoo in Cincinnati and the shooting of a rare silverback gorilla named Harambe in order to save the life of a three-year-old child, who somehow wandered into the gorilla enclosure.
Public opinion is coming down on one side or the other. Some people are on the side of Harambe, and blame the parents for lack of proper supervision of their child. They are signing online petitions for “justice for Harambe” and mourning the death of this majestic creature. On the other side are people defending the parents, under the premise of, “This could happen to anyone, and all of us have lost a child once or twice in a store.”I must admit I struggle to see this one in black or white. There is no doubt it is a senseless tragedy to have to shoot a rare species of gorilla, in a zoo that is meant to protect its very existence. On the other hand, saving a child was right to do, and I can think of multiple times I “lost” one of my five kids in a store, and had those flashes of panic until I found them playing hide-and-seek in the clothes.
The point really isn’t about whether anyone is free from making honest mistakes. We all make mistakes. The issue really is, there are times and places where perfection is the only option. While none of us are perfect, we are capable of delivering perfectly when we are disciplined and focused. And the wise man or woman knows when you “have to be perfect.”
When a parent is shopping in the safe confines of a clothing store, it is entirely human to maybe slip up and let your attention wander away from your child, giving them that split-second to slip out of sight. This is understandable, and forgivable. The environment is not inherently threatening. Perfection is not a prerequisite.
However, when it comes time to cross the street in heavy traffic, with your child holding your hand, this is a situation that requires perfection. No mistakes are acceptable. You grip their hands tight, in a grip that won’t fail. You look both ways, again and again. And then you cross. Executed to perfection. No mistakes whatsoever.
Maybe it’s controversial. But when you are in a zoo, and you are looking at dangerous gorillas and your son says he wants to “climb in” and is capable of doing so, well, this is a time that calls for perfection. You don’t mess this up. A gorilla cage and a store full of clothing racks are two different situations entirely.
The learning in all this is there are times in life when one has to be perfect. And the wise ones know when these situations arise.
Business is no different. I have been a far-from-perfect businessman. I have made more than my fair share of mistakes. I have launched products that have failed; I have missed targets, and have made the wrong judgment calls. Guilty as charged.
In business nobody is expected to be perfect and no businessperson is. The point is, however, that there are times in running the business when you have to be perfect. Do you know what those situations look like?
Here are key business situations in which you simply have to be perfect, because the best don’t flounder and err in such situations.
Key documents and presentations. This requires perfection, particularly when you are sending or presenting to senior leaders. There is no room for typographical errors. Ever. If I get a CV with a typo, it always goes right into the garbage. It’s shoddy discipline to send out a résumé with typos on it. This kind of sloppiness has no room in my business. But a resume is just one example. Any key document that goes up the management line or presentation to an important audience should be perfect. Proofread four or five times. Reviewed again and again to get the flow just right. Careers have been made, or lost, on such important moments.
The financials. If there is ever a place that demands perfection, it is in number crunching. There just isn’t room for mathematical mistakes. And the common excuse “Sorry there must be a mistake in the Excel file” — is not acceptable. Even with Excel I expect my team to double- and triple-check the math. Look it over. Does the data pass the test of reasonableness? Missing a zero or adding an extra zero can bankrupt a company. There just isn’t a place for poor math skills in business. The numbers have to add up perfectly — all the time.
“Make or break” projects. Not all projects are created equal. Some are “make or break” and are a last-ditch opportunity for the business. When I ran Poland for P&G we were a distant second in the toothpaste category. We developed a high-risk initiative to launch and try to take the lead. If it worked we might take leadership; if it failed we could lose the business entirely. Realizing the importance of this project, as CEO I personally oversaw every element of the launch plan. We checked and rechecked everything. We tested every element. We had planning meetings and update sessions on a daily basis. And when the time came to launch, we were perfect. Six months later we were in the No. 1 spot. Every business has projects so crucial the future of the company rides on it. These are projects where you don’t accept even the small errors. They have to be perfect.
In business or in our private lives, no one is perfect all the time. Failure and mistakes are a part of life and a part of learning. But there are those times and places where we can be perfect for a snapshot in time and the circumstances warrant it. Those with wisdom and experience will know these situations, and buckle down exponentially to ensure perfection is the outcome. And these are the people you see at the top of the food chain. If you want to join them, a key component is knowing when you have to be perfect, and then delivering on it.