It wasn’t the first time Molly had been told she wasn’t showing confidence in the monthly board meeting. She’d lost a lot of sleep thinking about what to do differently and was frustrated by a lack of answers.
With significant experience and notable achievements, Molly certainly had the credentials to sit in the C-suite. So it wasn’t a case of “imposter syndrome” – she truly believed she belonged. But for some reason, her inner confidence wasn’t translating outwardly in the way she’d hoped.
In our experience coaching and working with new or up and coming executives, Molly’s story is an all-too-common one. They’ve been bold, become trusted experts and proven leaders in their field, and earned their seat at the table. So what’s missing?
There’s a secret many executives (female and male) don’t realize. At their level, it’s no longer about what you know or what you’ve done. It’s about how you show up.
What Molly is missing is what we at Conversant call “Authentic Confidence”. To understand what this is, it’s important to discuss the full spectrum on which it lives.
Pretense: This is the “fake-it-till-you-make-it” stage. You won’t let your lack of knowledge or experience stop you from diving into the unknown and you believe in your ability to figure it out as you go.
Sincerity: With a bit more experience and knowledge under your belt, Sincere Confidence can feel blustery and dominant. It’s based on your need to win and driven from your belief that you can take on anyone and anything.
Accuracy: You’ve done this, achieved that, have certifications in X and a decade of experience in Y. There’s no question you know your stuff and you believe that’s why you should have influence and a seat at the table.
Authentic: You are aware of what you have to uniquely contribute to a given situation and do so in a way that is appropriate to the context. You are confident in what you don’t know and comfortable not having all the answers.
Your ability to listen and ask questions, connect the dots, hear what isn’t being said and read the room – these are the things that actually earned you a seat at the executive table.
What successful executives do well is effectively communicate vision, tackle big problems and consistently draw the best out of their organizations. To do this, they must show up from a place of Authentic Confidence.
Understanding Your Unique Contribution
Getting to Authentic Confidence requires deep work and honest introspection. Knowing your unique gift and how to use it appropriately in context goes beyond simply understanding your strengths and weaknesses. If it were that easy, it wouldn’t be what so many people struggle with and yearn for.
To start exploring what your unique contribution is, pay close attention to why people naturally come to you. What problems or questions are they wanting your input on, particularly those things outside your defined responsibilities.
For example, one executive we worked with realized that she was the go-to person when people had trouble working with one another. She was an empathetic listener who helped people articulate what was on their mind. Through her insightful questions, she helped them figure out the necessary steps to take. This is an incredibly valuable and unique skill – to be able to listen and hear where people are disconnected and where they could be connected if they wanted to.
No Wasted Moments
It’s common for people in executive leadership positions to think about themselves as the same person they were yesterday. They often believe what worked for them as an individual contributor or a manager will work for them now. But it’s easy to forget the weight your title holds, especially to those looking to you for inspiration, direction and confidence.
For executives, there are no wasted moments. People listen to every word you say (or don’t say) and watch everything you do (or don’t do). More importantly, they create a story around those words and actions, and it’s frequently a less generous story than the one you want them to tell.
Authentic Confidence also requires you to be acutely aware of your actions and how they align with your internal beliefs and emotions. Those in executive positions cast a bigger shadow. Things once considered trivial now get noticed.
Let’s look back at Molly’s story. She was constantly getting feedback that she didn’t appear confident in board meetings even though she truly believed she deserved her seat at the table. So what’s the disconnect?
In working with Molly, we realized it was her actions that told a different story. She was only speaking up on topics where she was already considered the expert – even though she had much to offer in other areas. She waited to be asked her opinion instead of offering her insights proactively. And often people wouldn’t think to ask her opinion, in part because she was literally NOT sitting at the table. Instead, she had chosen to sit along the edge of the room, waiting for an invitation to take a seat at the table.
Molly was thinking of herself as a subject matter expert, relying on accurate confidence based in work she’d already done. She wasn’t being authentically confident in what she had to offer as an executive. And that translated into her actions and led others to think of Molly as a subject matter expert instead of the leader in the business she knew she was.
It may sound counter-intuitive to consider vulnerability a key aspect of Authentic Confidence. However, we believe your ability to be vulnerable is a large part of what defines your graduation to the Authentic side of the spectrum.
Those who truly show up with Authentic Confidence know what they know, are aware of their unique contribution and recognize they don’t have all the answers. They are curious and open to learning. They recognize the value they bring to the organization, opening themselves up to not have to have all the answers.
In today’s culture where distrust of our institutions, corporations and leaders is at an all-time high, the ability to be vulnerable goes a long way in building trust.
Credibility, Influence and Impact
We know stepping into your Authentic Confidence, discovering your unique contribution, and being vulnerable with your peers and those you lead is not easy. But we believe these are all key factors determining an executive’s success as a leader. This deep work is in fact a large part of what our Conversant’s Credibility, Influence and Impact program is about.
We’ve helped hundreds of executives over the years through this program find their Authentic Confidence. You can learn more about that program here.