Build a team you can trust: It’s impossible to do it all yourself — and that’s why delegating tasks is such popular advice. Whether you’re a busy professional or a mom of young kids (or both!), effective delegating is essential. But for perfectionists, delegating can backfire — we might assign a task to someone and then spend hours correcting our team member’s work! So I’ve learned to invest time upfront in training my team and giving them the information they need to successfully complete their tasks. At the same time, I try to match people to tasks they naturally excel in and listen to their ideas for improving their work. This investment pays off as I can ultimately delegate more and hover less.
Many successful people are perfectionists. At the same time, they have the ability to say “Done is Better Than Perfect” and just complete and wrap up a project. What is the best way to overcome the stalling and procrastination that perfectionism causes? How does one overcome the fear of potential critique or the fear of not being successful? In this interview series, called How To Get Past Your Perfectionism And ‘Just Do It’, we are interviewing successful leaders who can share stories and lessons from their experience about “how to overcome the hesitation caused by perfectionism.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Katerina Manoff.
Katerina Manoff is the founder and CEO of ENGin, a rapidly growing nonprofit bringing English fluency and cultural exchange to a generation of Ukrainian youth. ENGin’s free peer-to-peer English language program is transforming foreign language education in Ukraine and revolutionizing virtual volunteering in the US and beyond. Before starting ENGin, Katerina worked for a variety of nonprofit and for-profit educational organizations; she began her career as an investment banker.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I was born in Ukraine and came to the US when I was 7, which was probably the defining moment of my childhood. I was a sensitive, awkward kid and often struggled to find my place. For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a passion for helping children. My classmates wanted to be astronauts or doctors or teachers, and my big dream was to open an orphanage in Ukraine.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
You have to make your own happiness. I don’t remember where I first heard that, but it’s pushed me toward some of the best things in my life — a unique career path, my marriage, once-in-a-lifetime travel experiences.
Of course, I recognize the privilege I was born with — it’s a lot easier to make your own happiness when you’re not hampered by the structural inequalities that so many in this country face. But even for those of us lucky to have all these opportunities, it’s easy get stuck ruminating on all the obstacles in our path, excuses for why we can’t do XYZ, and comparisons to others who seem to have what we don’t.
I tend to get stuck in this mindset sometimes — Why am I failing at everything? Why does everyone else have these Instagram-perfect lives? I sit there and feel sorry for myself, which does not help at all. But reminding myself that I have the power to make my own happiness takes me out of that rut.
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
I’m a huge fan of The Lean Startup, and the nonprofit spinoff, Lean Impact. I read The Lean Startup in college, and it was groundbreaking. I’d been hearing so much of the traditional advice for starting a business — hundred-page business plans, extensive hypothetical market research. That didn’t resonate with me at all. I’m very much a doer — I like to jump in, experiment, and learn along the way. The Lean Startup shares that philosophy, and builds on it with practical advice for how to start a company. Lean Impact takes those ideas and adapts them to the nonprofit world, which was super-helpful for me as all of my recent work has been in nonprofits. I use the lessons I learned from these books almost every day.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
- Attention to Detail: We hear a lot about the importance of vision and passion. I think that’s true, but I’ve also met (and worked for) leaders with inspiring visions who couldn’t execute on them. So when I launched ENGin, I was laser-focused on execution. I dug into the Google forms and spreadsheets and step-by-step operational processes to ensure that we could deliver an amazing experience to our students and volunteers. Even now, when we have well over 5,000 participants in the program, I am close to all the operational details. I read and sometimes respond to emails from participants, help draft social media posts, double check that the tech is working correctly in our onboarding processes, and so on. This not only ensures program quality, but helps me stay informed, so I can make major strategic decisions with a clear understanding of our participants, our capabilities, and what’s happening in the program every day.
- Cross-Disciplinary Thinking: In school, I would always look for connections between different classes — I was trying to do interdisciplinary learning before it was cool. That same trait has helped me a lot in my career, especially since I’ve had a variety of jobs with lots of potential for cross-pollination of ideas. The idea for ENGin was actually inspired by two of my prior jobs. I was on the leadership team of a selective nonprofit program for Ukrainian students, and had noticed that many of the rejected applicants struggled with spoken English. I dug deeper and realized there were no accessible, affordable options to learn to speak English fluently. At the same time, I was freelancing as a college essay advisor, where I got to know high schoolers and learned about their strong interest in flexible high-impact volunteer opportunities. It seemed natural to connect the Ukrainian students who wanted to improve their English with English speakers looking for volunteer hours. And so, ENGin was born.
- Empathetic management: I work hard to be a good manager and support my team, because I know that ENGin could not exist without them. I have had some terrible managers in the past, which was difficult, but taught me so much. Now that I’m on the other side, I try to hold on to those experiences so I can understand my employees’ perspectives and make their jobs at ENGin rewarding and enjoyable.
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. Let’s begin with a definition of terms so that each of us and our readers are on the same page. What exactly is a perfectionist? Can you explain?
I’d define a perfectionist as a person with high standards for themselves and their work — someone who notices the little things and is reluctant to let them go. For a perfectionist, even minor shortcomings or imperfections can spoil an entire project, so, if they can’t do something perfectly, they often won’t do it at all.
The premise of this interview series is making the assumption that being a perfectionist is not a positive thing. But presumably, seeking perfection can’t be entirely bad. What are the positive aspects of being a perfectionist? Can you give a story or example to explain what you mean?
In many ways, my perfectionism has served me well! As a student, I set high standards for myself at school, which helped me succeed academically. I was accepted to a top college and did well in my classes, which helped me get a coveted investment banking analyst job. And, in the professional world, my perfectionism has helped me do high-quality work.
In my personal life, my perfectionism comes into play a lot when I’m planning travel or even a weekend outing with my family. I am always striving for the perfect day or the perfect trip, which has pushed me to plan some truly incredible experiences with the people I love.
What are the negative aspects of being a perfectionist? Can you give a story or example to explain what you mean?
The flip side of having high standards is the inevitable stress and frustration when you can’t meet them. It’s a delicate balance. To a certain degree, perfectionism improves outcomes. But when your standards exceed your capabilities — which they inevitably will at some point, due to skill gaps or lack of time or bad luck — perfectionism becomes paralyzing. And when that happens, you sacrifice your physical and mental health trying to do the impossible. Or you give up and do nothing at all.
One of my first solo ventures was a website for new moms in Houston, where I was living at the time, and it almost didn’t happen due to my perfectionism. I came up with the idea when my baby was born and I noticed how hard it was to find local resources for new moms — mom groups, baby activities, breastfeeding support. Houston had a few parenting websites, but they were focused on parents of older kids. So I thought, why not publish an online directory of everything an overwhelmed new mom might need?
So I had this great idea, and then I sat on it for MONTHS. I was constantly delaying publication to add more listings or play around with the format. And when I forced myself to finally publish the site, in all its ugly half-finished glory, people loved it! It turned out to be a valuable resource for thousands of families — one that, thanks to my perfectionism, might have languished as a draft forever.
From your experience or perspective, what are some of the common reasons that cause a perfectionist to “get stuck” and not move forward? Can you explain?
I think we notice the small imperfections and get fixated on them. Attention to detail is such an important skill, but taken too far, it can actually be an obstacle.
I think sometimes we also dream big — we have all these wonderful ideas and we’re reluctant to let go of them because they truly have potential.
I think we also get a lot of joy in a job well done. So, if our perfectionist tendencies have led us to successes in the past, we tend to keep repeating them because we want that rush of accomplishing something amazing, meeting our own standards, and impressing others.
Here is the central question of our discussion. What are the five things a perfectionist needs to know to get past their perfectionism and “just do it?” Please share a story or example for each.
- View it as a first draft: As a perfectionist, it can be so hard to show something to others before we feel it’s ready. We’re hyper-aware of all the flaws we haven’t fixed and all the details we haven’t added. This was the situation I faced when launching ENGin. There was so much to create — an appealing website, marketing materials, clear application processes for students and volunteers, training materials, systems for responding to questions and solving problems, and so on. I could have spent months setting up the program. But I didn’t have that kind of time — I was pregnant and just a few weeks from my due date, with the COVID pandemic erupting and no childcare lined up. I knew I had to launch quickly with a half-finished, very-far-from-perfect program. So, to feel comfortable with majorly lowering my standards, I made sure to communicate very clearly that this was a brand new initiative and we were still figuring things out. I thanked people in advance for their patience and apologized for the inevitable inconveniences. It’s such a simple strategy, but for me it made a huge mental difference in viewing our work as a first draft that I could (and did) improve significantly over time. In addition to setting clear expectations and helping make sure we wouldn’t be judged for our shortcomings, this set up a great opportunity to collect feedback from our first students and volunteers, which helped shape the way we improved the program in the months after launch.
- Know your audience: I constantly need to remind myself that most people do not share my high standards. At ENGin, I’m working with high school and college students, and their priorities and perspectives are very different from mine. I dedicate a lot of time to collecting feedback and suggestions via surveys and focus groups. This helps me avoid spending time perfecting aspects of the program that aren’t important to the participants. This tip has been relevant in my personal life as well. I can get carried away trying to find the best playground to take my kids, or keep the playroom perfectly organized, keep my kids’ clothes clean…but when I think about my audience, I realize the kids really don’t care about that stuff, which helps me let go a bit.
- Believe positive feedback: I don’t know about you, but half the time, when I get a compliment, I don’t believe it. For the longest time, I stressed about ENGin’s website. I’d made it myself, so I was worried that it looked unprofessional and was not representing the program well. But when we asked for feedback from students and volunteers, they said the website was great. What’s more, when I’d have calls with potential partners, advisors, and others, they’d often start the conversation by saying that they took a look at our site and thought it was professional, clear, and engaging. At a certain point, I realized that it made more sense to believe all of this positive feedback rather than invest our limited resources into revamping our site because I thought it wasn’t good enough.
- Do less: If you’re working on a project where high quality is truly essential, why not cut down the scope of the work? When we were planning our social media at ENGin, we felt that we couldn’t compromise on our standards — to our audience, social media mattered, and low-quality posts could turn away potential students and volunteers. At the same time, creating good posts took significant time. So, we rethought our content plan to post less frequently. This way, I could indulge my perfectionist tendencies with each post without becoming overwhelmed. I’ve successfully used this strategy many times since — in our curriculum materials, our website, and other initiatives we’ve launched. Delaying pieces of a project, spreading them out over longer periods of time, or canceling them entirely are all good ways to do less.
- Build a team you can trust: It’s impossible to do it all yourself — and that’s why delegating tasks is such popular advice. Whether you’re a busy professional or a mom of young kids (or both!), effective delegating is essential. But for perfectionists, delegating can backfire — we might assign a task to someone and then spend hours correcting our team member’s work! So I’ve learned to invest time upfront in training my team and giving them the information they need to successfully complete their tasks. At the same time, I try to match people to tasks they naturally excel in and listen to their ideas for improving their work. This investment pays off as I can ultimately delegate more and hover less.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
I dream of harnessing the power of human connection to transform an entire country. Right now, we have 2,000 volunteers working with 3,000 students. What happens if we exponentially increase that? A community of 100,000 ENGin students would make English fluency and intercultural competency the norm in Ukraine, spurring economic growth via new jobs, tourism, global connections and more.
And if we show that we can do this in Ukraine, why not in other countries? By taking our approach of safe, long-term peer-to-peer connections to unprecedented scale, we can create a model that can be replicated worldwide.
Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!
John Wood, the founder of Room to Read and author of Leaving Microsoft to Change the World. His book and his nonprofit work have been such a huge inspiration to me as I pivoted from stable and high-paying jobs to launch ENGin. He’s basically done everything I dream of doing — rapidly scaling a nonprofit to help millions of people, effectively selling his mission to build a base of supporters, and becoming an author and speaker to share his ideas with a wide audience. I’d love to meet him and learn from his experience.
How can our readers follow you online?
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!