Hey Leader: Whose Expectations Are You Trying to Meet?


Sometimes, a question can strike you with such clarity that it remains with you for life.

The following question was posed to me early in my management career and is one that has provided deep insight up until this day:

“Whose expectations are you trying to meet?”

The Super Syndrome

After another exhausting week, I attended a community seminar based on the Superwoman Syndrome by Marjorie Hansen Shaevitz. this seminar’s topic referred to women holding themselves to unrealistic expectations to simultaneously be the best career women, mothers, spouses, community members , etc.

Today it could easily be the Superman & Superwoman Syndrome as advertising and media routinely throws images of being the best parent, partner, leader, global conscious servant, etc. Just look at Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.

If they can raise their kids, solve world issues, be block buster professionals and stand by each other why can’t we all?

Just forget that they are exhausted and have a few personal challenges.

Getting Really Real

Eventually Something Has to Give

At work everyone wants something from you: your boss, your peers, internal customers, external customers, the Board, the stockholders.

They all act as if “No” is not an option.

But in the real world, if you treat all their expectations as equal, then you will most certainly burn out and never meet many of your stated goals. The old adage “you can’t please everyone” is true.

If you try to meet everyone’s expectations at least one of those attempts will result in lower than anticipated quality and both of you won’t be feeling too great about the outcome.

If you can’t physically and mentally do it all, what is going to move to a lower priority? If you let your stakeholders define this for you, you will continue in the land of the tyranny of the urgent. Whatever is the next thing screaming for attention will get your time.

Gaining Real Focus

Stop the Spinning

If you are already spinning from the long list of things you supposedly “have to do,” then your response to my advice to take time to analyze your work is going to be “but I don’t have time.”

Which is more painful; making time to narrow your focus and be able to say “no” to some requests, or continuing to spin at the pace you are at?

In all likelihood if you continue without taking a more strategic view your pace of spinning will increase because the number of people asking you for support will increase. By always saying “yes” you have reinforced them and others that you will always be there to help regardless of the request.

You have essentially created your own problem.

Getting Real Results

Get Out the Pen and Paper

List all the activities you are doing and the ones you anticipate doing this year.

  • Which of these services, products, activities are essential to the company meeting it’s vision?
    • Which of these am I the sole source for (no one else in the company can provide this)?
  • Which activities, products, services are not related to the vision?
    • What drives me to provide each of these activities, products or services?
    • What could happen if I stopped providing these?
      • What would really happen if I stopped providing these (75%+ confidence that it would occur)?
    • What could I, my key stakeholders and my company gain if I stopped these activities?
      • Which of these gains are of higher value than the activity itself?  (this will serve as your compelling reason to stop offering this service or support)

Gaining Real Perspective

Letting Go

If you are still reluctant to take something off your plate that is not of high value, ask yourself these questions:

  • What personal need(s) does providing this service or activity fulfill?
  • What makes this need so compelling for me?
  • Is there another way to fulfill this need with the more critical activities, products or services?

Here is a great example:

Jack is in a support function. He spends 2 hours each week in one of his key stakeholders staff meetings. He started attending to learn more about the stakeholder’s business and to be present in case some need related to his function was raised. Rarely does this need show up. He already has learned about his stakeholder’s business but he keeps attending for reasons of visibility, status and perceived customer service.

After doing the exercise he realizes that spending the 2 hours each week on the projects directly tied to the vision, will bring him greater visibility. He talks to the senior leader about his rationale for no longer attending and offers to sets up a 15-minute monthly check in meeting to ensure their needs are met.

Three months later, Jack’s increased quality and creativity on the strategic project is gaining him visibility at the executive level and meeting his personal desire for greater status.

Gaining Real Satisfaction

Expectations vs. Vision

Shifting from trying to meet everyone’s expectations to meeting the company’s vision and your personal vision will keep you a valued asset to the business and yourself.

Whenever someone asks you to do something, instead of immediately answering yes, respond that you need time to assess priority.

So how has this process, or something similar, or something different helped you to manage your time and energy? Have you changed to become more realistic in setting appropriate expectations? What can you do in the future to better examine your personal set of expectations and use that model to better understand and help others? I would love to hear your thoughts!


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Carlann Fergusson

Carlann Fergusson is owner at Propel Forward LLC
She provides seminars and consulting on Strategic Leadership Challenges
Email | LinkedIn | Twitter | Web | Skype: carlann.fergusson

Image Sources: nathanjmorton.files.wordpress.com

L2L Contributing Author


  1. wbenoist on March 13, 2013 at 7:59 pm

    Hi Carlann,

    I managed a computer help desk for 15 years and know first hand how difficult it can be to say “no” to someone. You want to provide exceptional service to the end user, but when they are requesting help outside the scope of what is offered, you need to weigh the request against the needs of the organization.

    One solution we adopted was to provide avenues to other resources when we could not accommodate. Not everyone was thrilled with that response, but it helped alleviate the sting somewhat.

    • Carlann Fergusson on March 14, 2013 at 9:37 am

      Great suggestion to offer other resources. You’re right that not everyone will be thrilled at first until they can see what other things your team can now do that they had to give up a little. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Vanguard Organizational Leadership on March 14, 2013 at 11:34 am

    Leadership is about customer service, so the expectations are that you will provide the best customer service – leadership — possible for complete satisfaction. At my most recent employment, our motto was:

    Customer Service is our Purpose, Quality Service is our Goal!

    Every leader I had working for me, the expectation of what was that everyone is a leader at their level in the organization, live the motto in provide service in their particular job.

    While I agree with the reflection ideas in the article, leaders are expected to meet everyone’s expectations at some time in their job. An effective and productive leader must be ready to meet the challenge in every situation.

    • Carlann Fergusson on March 14, 2013 at 2:47 pm

      Thanks for sharing your comment. I agree leaders must be ready to meet challenges. It’s more an issue of bandwidth.
      When I wrote it I was thinking of the multitude of leaders I worked with while inside companies and now externally who are suffering from burnout from trying to be all things to all people. It is disheartening to see how they want so badly to be more strategic but feel they cannot take anything off their plates and even their weekends are spent catching up on emails and other tactical issues. I’ve been there myself as a senior leader and had to remind myself that not every request needs to be met. Wanting to be a servant leader needs to be balanced with being a strategic leader. A leader can have the best customer service but if they don’t take time to assess if their division’s work is tied to the vision of the company, they may be seen and treated like a pair of hands and not a strategic player. This can lead to “nice to do” work” instead of work that make a real difference to the bottom line. All of life is a balance including leadership. Leaders shouldn’t have to feel guilty pushing back by saying no if it is in the best interest of the overall organization.
      I do appreciate your sharing a different perspective to ensure others don’t take the article as “drop customer service” since that is not the intent. Thank you.

  3. Rich Bishop on March 15, 2013 at 5:11 am

    Great article, Carlann. I think that many leaders struggle with this… especially those of us that are parents. We have children, spouses, co-workers, bosses, and a thousand other people pulling on us for our time. It is important to prioritize and MAKE time for the important things. You did a good job of breaking down exactly how we should go about this.

    For every thing you say “yes” to, you’re saying “no” to something else. A leaders has to be able to give some things up in order to gain more of the valuable things.

    • Carlann Fergusson on March 15, 2013 at 12:38 pm

      Thanks Rich. Really good summation in your last paragraph.

  4. Scott Hunter (@scottleadership) on March 18, 2013 at 3:42 am

    Prioritize! Prioritize! Prioritize! Indeed the way to go to effectively lead and creating a conducing working environment for those around you as well.

    A great read.

    -Scott Hunter

  5. Bruno Bottarelli on March 19, 2013 at 1:49 pm

    Political Leaders make their decisions based on expectations of their electorate…..much like a Keynesian Beatuty Contest….