I was asked recently, along with some other professional women, to speak on the topic of confidence at a Kerning the Gap event, which is a topic of great interest to me as an owner and managing director of a Bristol-based strategic video agency.
In recent times I have to confess to being surprised at the extent to which the next generation of young women seem to struggle with self-esteem and confidence or impostor syndrome, something I had hoped and assumed would change with the greater equality and expectations today than when I set out on my career journey.
Having been asked a number of times for a copy of my notes, I decided to put my thoughts down into a short article. If you are interested the original event video can be found here:
When preparing for the talk, it prompted me to reflect on what would have been really helpful to have known earlier in my career.
I was tempted to turn them into a letter to my 25 year old self, but I am not that good at prose, so instead here are the 12 things about confidence that I wish I’d known sooner and some personal lessons I’ve learned along the way.
1. Don’t mistake confidence for competence
This took me too long to learn! As a society we misinterpret displays of confidence as a sign of competence, and as a consequence it can lead us to believe that men are better leaders than women.
Only recently there was a tweet about how when Oprah asked Michelle Obama how she “got over feeling intimidated sitting at big tables filled with smart, powerful men”, Michelle responded ‘you realise pretty quickly that a lot of them aren’t that smart”
Whether in sports, politics or business, the best leaders are usually humble — and whether through nature or nurture, humility is a much more common feature in women than men.
I am a wife and mother of a son, so my intention is not to be down on men, but there is a paradox that some of the characteristics which enable male managers to get the job, is not just different from, but the reverse of, what it takes to do the job well. If you’re interested this phenomenom is explained in a Ted talk detailed here
Practically this plays out all the time, I’ve sat in meetings with the some of most senior people in global media organisations and known with certainly that the information they were delivering to the rest of the room, that was being used to form decisions, was out of date or just plain wrong but was delivered with such zeal and confidence by a senior white male manager in the face of any questioning or commentary to the contrary, that others in the room who also knew it to be wrong stayed silent.
Ultimately we only need look to the political arena on other side of the Atlantic ocean to see this playing out in real time.
2. Never ever accept the status quo
Rarely will you find a confident person who just goes with the flow, never questioning the ‘norm’
Why do we do what we do?? What was the set of circumstances that determined this approach, do they still exist? Has it just become the way it’s always been?
Always ask yourself, Is there a better way? I’ve found over the years that just a few well placed questions will convey a confidence that belies how you actually feel and almost always unlocks new discussions and ways ahead.
3. Keep improving and learning
The 10,000 hours principle of mastery is real, the more practice you do, the more reading around your topic, speaking to more accomplished others – not only the better you will become, the more confident you’re going to feel.
I’m still feel like I’m constantly learning and I’m always reading, jotting down titles of books, podcasts or articles that people recommend – because critical and creative thinking needs feeding!
We speak more confidently when we truly know what we’re talking about.
AND one of the ways you can come across confidently before you feel it, is by tapping into your passion. Think about how people respond on a topic they are passionate about “They smile.” “Their eyes light up.” “They smile.” “They use and move their hands frequently” “They talk quickly with a higher tone.”
Tap into a little of this next time you get up to speak and you’ll find it’s easier to take your audience with you.
4. Words really matter
It’s important to recognise that what matters isn’t what we say, it’s what others hear – so be aware of how and what you communicate:
- Start with an apology – Banish the word sorry from your vocabulary, you won’t be taken seriously if you apologise for your opinion
- Use self-deprecating humour – while it might seem humble and healthy to laugh at yourself, you’re sending a signal to others that you see yourself as somehow lacking
- Talk too quietly or fast – take a breath or an acting class and project your voice!
Ultimately these are all related to nerves, and the best antidote for nerves is preparation.
The journalist in me always has a pen and paper to hand, but I’ve noticed very often my younger colleagues don’t.
It’s hard to type notes on a laptop without distracting others or looking like you’re not paying attention.
So bring a small note pad to meetings, write in black and white what you are going to say – that way it will come out more fluently and confidently without the need for apology or undermining yourself.
5. Ask for what you want
There’s a direct and proven correlation between getting what you want and asking for it.
And yet all too often we dilute what we ask for or we don’t ask at all for fear of appearing greedy, needy or being rejected.
I have real personal experience of this finding myself alone, being grilled by a VC panel having been sent by my board to re-negotiate terms. It occurred to me (and not a moment too soon) that everybody was looking to me to deliver, and yet there I was the newest, youngest and smallest shareholder. I left that day with a larger stake in the business, an offer of more funding
And some advice from my VC to occasionally use the pronoun ‘me’ not always ‘we’
6. Identify a mentor and cultivate asking for advice
I’ve never previously had a mentor/coach but I’ve always tried to find a way to spend time with people who I admire, or interest me – and they’ve always been generous to give their time, perspective or some advice.
‘Kerning the gap” is amazing but even in the absence of a mentor, or in addition, reach out to people.
Try this with your client, partner or supplier businesses, at a seminar or conference or afterwards on LinkedIn, ask a divisional director for a coffee, ask the MD (you’d be amazed how willingly they will respond – I speak from experience as someone who rarely has somebody to go to lunch with!)
7. Ditch the guilt
Some guilt is healthy like if you haven’t paid your tax. Very often though our guilt is driven by social norms and rules that we’ve unwittingly bought into. Like that good mothers bake cupcakes for their children’s school fair.
If you’re a working mother, you’ll have had your own wrestling match with mothers’ guilt. But ultimately how can you teach your kids to go out and pursue their dreams if you aren’t pursuing yours? You can’t! not with any credibility, anyway.
So lay all the “should’s” to the side and ask yourself, what is it that you would love to do so much that even if it pulls you away from your precious bubs more often than you’d like, you know that they (as well as you) will ultimately be better off because you’ve done it?
8. Advocate for others
Now here’s a thing – on average, women make less ambitious offers and get worse outcomes than men at the bargaining table. But there’s one situation where women get the same outcomes as men and that’s when they advocate for others.
In these situations we become more assertive. It’s like the “tiger mother effect.”
When we advocate for others we take their perspective and don’t bring along all of our personal doubts and self limiting beliefs. We look at the world through the eyes of another person and we go in fighting.
Do this a few times and not only will it feel good, it may even start to rub off on how you advocate for yourself.
Seize every opportunity you can get to connect with people outside your current social and professional circle who have influence, insight and networks that you don’t.
Networking makes most people feel uncomfortable so here’s a few tactics:
One I might add came from Bridget Jones Diary:
i. Prep ahead of time 2-3 questions to get past that uncomfortable silence when first introduced to somebody – and try to avoid ‘situation questions – like who do you work for? Make sure you tap into the human – ‘what did you hope to get out of tonight’s session?”
ii. When you have made a connection and then spot somebody else you know, go to pains to introduce your new contact to them – this way you make it a little less awkward for everybody all round, and they feel even more positively towards you.
10. Don’t let the perfect get in the way of good enough right now
Underqualified and underprepared men don’t think twice about stepping in. Overqualified and overprepared, too many women still hold back. Women feel confident only when they are perfect. Or practically perfect.
The problem with perfectionism is that it’s unattainable, you’re not Mary Poppins, and linking confidence to perfection keeps women stuck.
In my early career I can recall countless occasions where I had a really good response and yet I held back for fear of not being sufficiently prepared, only to watch somebody else step in far less so but still get a great response.
Give yourself permission to be good enough. Caring a little less about every detail frees up mental space to make a more strategic contribution.
11. Any decision is better than none
Feeling insecure about our decisions can be paralyzing.
One of the practical things I do when making decisions is to envision the worst-case scenario and decide ahead of time how I would handle it.
This allows you to:
• weigh the pros and cons
• really think through what the worst-case scenario is (which is usually not as bad as you initially imagine)
• plan what to do
• decide whether or not you could handle and recover from things going badly
to take a step forward.
Successful people take risks. It’s the only way to achieve anything of real value.
12. The importance Of Self-Care
And finally this is the lesson I feel as though I learned late. I’ve always struggled with balancing the conflicting priorities of work and home. And whilst I have always been efficient, I’ve come to recognise how more focussed I feel after 40 mins of yoga, or mindful practice, or a bracing walk with the dog – and how suddenly that idea that has eluded me turns up when I’ve given myself space to breathe.
If we don’t take care of ourselves then we are less able to take care of anyone else.
So make sure to schedule yourself some self-care activities
Confidence is something that I think we greatly underestimate the importance of.
It’s actually the spark from which everything follows. Confidence is the difference between being inspired and actually getting started, between trying and doing until it’s done. Confidence helps us keep going even when we fail. But the good news is it’s a skill you can learn, and a muscle that needs regular exercising.