Why Confidence Requires Courage

Last week, I had the opportunity to work with a leadership team at a high tech company in California. The goal was to build trusting relationships across the team and to focus on future opportunities for the business. I stayed behind one of the days to observe some of the leaders take part in a “career board of directors” panel. “What is that?” you might ask. It’s a new program they’re trying out, designed to give career advice and increased visibility to junior staff within the organization. What transpired next surprised me…

A woman, let’s call her Jane, who’s 38 years old, has two degrees, and many years of experience in her chosen field, stood in front of this board—which consisted of seven senior leaders, two to three levels above her in the organization (only one of whom was a woman). As Jane spoke about what she’d accomplished in her career, and in her current role, and what she saw next for herself, the leaders listened with a tone that was about three-fourths critical and one-fourth supportive.

I was watching things like tone of voice, body language, eyebrows (eyebrows can tell you a LOT!) and facial expressions, in addition to what was actually being asked/said. “Geez,” I thought, “this woman seems super smart and successful, why are they being so hard on her? Don’t they know how awesome it would be if they validated some of her ideas and comments as opposed to critique them?” To be fair, there was some positive feedback a la, “I like that you pointed out X,” but these comments were few and far between.

Afterwards, during dinner with the team, one of the board members came up to me. “So Mitch,” he said, “What do you think her main problem was?” I literally laughed—hard. “How funny,” I said. “To be honest, I wasn’t watching her as closely as I was observing all of you—you guys are my clients, after all. What do you think her main ‘problem’ was?” I was taken aback by his reply. “Confidence,” he told me. “We talked about it after she left, and we all agreed it was her lack of confidence. For example, when we asked how long before she felt ready for her next role, she said ‘probably two years.’”

To the men in the room, this was unfathomable. In my experience, it’s very common. As women, we often wait until we’re competent before we feel confident, whereas men often feel confident before they’ve achieved full competence. What are the implications of this dynamic? Well, there are several. The most glaring—as evidenced by this story—is how differently men perceive us versus how we perceive ourselves.

The men saw Jane’s thoughtful, careful, cautious approach as a lack of confidence. I would have viewed it as a sign of humility and judged her someone I could trust. Furthermore, I would have perceived Jane’s honest reply as confidence of a different kind—the confidence to admit there are things she has yet to learn; the confidence to not think she has to be ready right now.

Confidence Requires Courage

BUT, having said all that, I also think these guys had a point. As women, we tend to like to have a long runway and I think we all need to ask ourselves: “Do I actually need that long of a runway? What would happen if I stepped into this role or this opportunity before I felt completely ready?”

I can tell you from experience (and most of you probably have had this experience, too) I’ve stepped into MANY, MANY things before I felt ready, and guess what? It seemed to work out somehow—and, in most cases, it didn’t just work out, it was downright awesome and confidence building to see what I was capable of!

When I became a business owner I didn’t feel ready, and now I have a thriving business. When I became a mother, I didn’t feel ready and now I have a thriving family! When I embarked on making the WiRL summit happen, I didn’t feel ready and here I am, yet again, making it happen. You can too, ladies! It’s worth considering: What would happen if I reached for that next “thing” before I feel completely “ready?”

I know we have a group of lion-hearted, courageous mogul moms here in our community…Inspire us with your courage by sharing in the comments some of your scary but confidence-building encounters!

About the Author:

Michelle Mitch Shepard is the Founder & Creative Force behind WiRL Leadership Summit, an online event for professional women seeking career success and personal fulfillment. An executive coach, facilitator, and leader herself, Mitch knows firsthand what it takes to succeed in todays business world, and is eager to help women accomplish their professional and personal goals. Exclusive 20% discount for all The Mogul Mom readers to WiRL LeaderShip Summit: Enter TMM20 at checkout!


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6 Responses to “Why Confidence Requires Courage”

  1. Hillary says:

    I agree with the main message of this article and as a professional woman growing her career I appreciate and am working on this very thing.
    This story kind of irked me though, because I believe it showcases a lack of leadership skills by the mostly male board. If she is a junior director at their organization wouldn’t they be taking this opportunity to build her confidence? These should be her allies, her mentors in the moment — not a firing squad.
    I feel that this was a missed opportunity by the board of directors to help grow their junior employee and potential future leader.
    “The men saw Jane’s thoughtful, careful, cautious approach as a lack of confidence.”
    Maybe this is a lack of insight on their end, not a problem of Jane’s. Maybe Jane needs to find an environment or career that values her careful approach and support her in growing her confidence.

    I’m not sure what the solution is to getting more women at the table, but I’m not sure bending to men’s ideas of power and weakness is the solution.

    • Megan Barnes says:

      Hi Hillary!
      Thanks for sharing. I think you’re absolutely right that the anecdote about Jane spoke more of the inadequacy and failings of the board than it did of Jane’s competency or even confidence.
      But I think Mitch raises a really salient point in this article about perceptions of confidence in business and how it can hold us back as women. I think changing ideas about what genuine confidence looks like will take time, but I am encouraged by the cohort of strong and influential women leading a new dialogue toward change.
      Check out Arianna Huffington’s recent movement The Third Metric: Redefining Success Beyond Money and Power, along with her recent book and live event “Thrive”:http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/03/24/arianna-huffington_n_5021116.html
      And keep at it! Each of us, as women in business, have the power to reshape our societal values around leadership, business & TRUE confidence. :)

  2. Linda says:

    Hillary’s comments are great! I loved the story and agree that as women, we can often (pleasantly) surprise ourselves by “diving in” …. but it’s a fine line for women; board members like that often interpret a more “confident” approach as “aggressive” or “unrealistic”. What a great debate topic, thanks!

    • Megan Barnes says:

      Hi Linda! Your comment is so true! We do often run up against a double standard as women – exude cautious reflection and be labeled as “weak” or “lacking confidence” – exude strength and be labeled as vixen–“b*tchy & aggressive.”

      Fortunately many women – like those in this community – are redefining the game by launching their own businesses infused with more “feminine” values of communication, cooperation & social responsibility. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Mitch says:

    Thanks for the great comments ladies. You bring up some great points and I could not agree more. The men have a responsibility in this as well. This is part of the rewarding nature of working with executive men…helping them see things differently. My experience is that they sometimes need someone (like me, or you!) to shift their perspective. I did have a coach-able moment with this leader at the time this happened and he really appreciated the insight.
    Barbara Annis writes some really great stuff on gender differences at work. Her latest book is really great Work With me: 8 blindspots between men and women at work. I like her writing becuse it portrays both genders in a very positive (and sometimes “misunderstood”) light. she will be a speaker in week 2 of WiRL summit!

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