I have an admission to make. I am not a woman. I have never, in fact, been a woman. I don’t even play one on TV. So who am I to give advice to aspiring business women on how to build executive-level confidence?
Just a guy who knows that it doesn’t matter how many X chromosomes you have, men and women build confidence the same way.
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Call me a heretic, but I think some women are selling their fellow women a bill of goods masquerading as career advice to help women break the glass ceiling. To be specific, I’m referring to 10 Steps to Executive-Level Confidence, an article by Becky Blalock promoting her new book.
Now, before I shoot myself in the foot and risk losing half my readers, let me say this. I don’t know Blalock and I haven’t read her book, but she certainly seems to be an accomplished woman and I’m sure she has some great advise to give. I just don’t think this is it.
It’s a shame because Blalock’s premise – that executives need confidence and confidence can be learned – is a good one. Indeed, confidence is entirely learned through experience. It comes from a relatively simple feedback loop whenever you attempt to do something.
If you succeed, you gain confidence because you actually managed to accomplish what you set out to do. If you fail, you can also gain confidence by realizing the world didn’t come to an end and failure isn’t so bad after all. That, of course, encourages you to take more risks down the road. It’s all good.
In any case, we gain confidence through personal experience. And here’s an important point: The more we stand on our own, the more powerful the impact. The more we rely on others, the less powerful the impact. And the more we rely on external or superficial factors, the lesser the impact still.
The most obvious analogy is that of a feeble young tree. The less you anchor it and the more it’s allowed to sway under its own power, the stronger it will become and the sooner it will grow into a tree that no longer needs support. It’s the same with people. All people. Women too.
Which brings us to the three issues I have with the article. First is its pandering premise that “Women in particular struggle with confidence.” I doubt if that’s true – that women have more problems with confidence than men. Regardless, that kind of coddling can be self-fulfilling. In other words, one way to reinforce a problem is to tell someone it’s built into them.
The truth is it’s not built in. It’s learned through experience from the day you’re born to the present.
The second issue is that much of the advice is superficial, generic, or the same old soft skills we’ve heard over and over for decades. Positive thinking, dressing for success, paying attention to body language, taking care of yourself, knowing your material cold, getting outside your comfort zone – that’s all pretty basic.
Granted, most of it is true, but it’s also gender independent and, if you’re trying to break into the executive ranks, it’s pretty lightweight stuff.
The third problem is a big one so pay attention. Relatively inexperienced leaders tend to have a limited bag of tricks that leads to one-dimensional behavior and decision-making. Experience and maturity provides a sense of balance and perspective that helps managers make better decisions, and communicate and lead more effectively.
Unfortunately, some of the prescriptive advice in the article seems to reinforce that one-dimensional way of thinking and acting. It can backfire and even hold you back.
For example, Blalock says, “When in doubt, act.” As a young manager, I did that a lot. Then I learned that, in times of doubt, the best thing to do is stop, be quiet, and listen. I can’t overstate the importance of learning to be comfortable with inaction and quiet reflection. It’s a balancing act, to be sure. Don’t overcompensate.
Look folks, this isn’t rocket science. The most significant way to build executive-level confidence is to be courageous. Stick your neck out, take risks, and set aggressive goals. Tell your boss, your CEO, the world – whoever’s listening – what you’re going to do and then inspire your team to do whatever it takes to make it happen.
When you achieve that goal, that’s a notch in your confidence belt. And when you fail, don’t whine about it, blame others, or blame yourself. Definitely don’t blame your gender. Just look in the mirror, be honest with yourself, learn from it, and most importantly, realize that you’re still alive and well.
Then pick yourself up and do it again. And again. Never give up and never surrender. That’s what builds confidence and wisdom. That’s what builds successful executives and leaders. And the sooner Blalock and everyone else quits making it about gender, race, generation, whatever, the sooner we’ll shatter that glass ceiling once and for all.
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