Building your business confidence
“Jonathan is a tremendous executive,” Marsha, the CEO, told me. “He’s bright, he’s hard working, his team loves him. He’s innovative and downright fearless when it comes to his craft. He has nothing in the way, except himself. I think we may have promoted him too early. It’s disappointing, but it’s true: the other members of my extended staff see Jonathan as a lightweight. He needs more business confidence.”
When I discussed this with Jonathan, the newly promoted Chief Marketing Officer of a public biotech company, he just shook his head. “It’s true. I think part of it is that I feel out of my depth sometimes, and part of it is that my style looks….well, soft. So it’s a perfect storm.”
He’s right. To operate at the executive level you need to *feel* confident and *act* confident.Sometimes feeling confident and acting confident line up. Sometime they don’t. You need both.
The good news is that building one builds the other; the more confident you feel, the more confident you act. It may surprise you that the reverse is true as well: the more confident you act, the more confident you feel.
3 tools to help you build your confidence: 1) increase your knowledge base; 2) get validation; 3) stand your ground.
1) Increase your knowledge base. Confidence is earned and that goes double for confidence in yourself. The way to earn your own confidence is to know your stuff. The way to know your stuff is to fearlessly seek out what you don’t know and fill in the gaps through learning from others and self-study.
In Jonathan’s case, he didn’t have a solid understanding of the business financials. When the conversation with the CEO’s staff turned to margins and cap ex versus op ex, Jonathan found himself shutting down. Wrong response. As we talked, Jonathan recognized that he needed to study up. He decided to enroll in a week-long Finance for Executives course and also to have a few side conversations with the CFO to learn the unique intricacies of their business’s financials.
2) Get validation. Confidence is an inside job, so it may sound counter-intuitive, but getting external validation is an important way to build your business confidence. When you have new ideas or are getting out of your comfort zone encouragement helps you build confidence. You need to proactively seek out supporters who will encourage you when you are on the right track and re-direct you when you are on the wrong track.
There is a fine line here. Your business confidence cannot come exclusively from getting external validation – that’s not confidence, it’s the opposite. External validation helps you build confidence when you are stepping out of your comfort zone and you need a boost (or sometimes a push.)
When you seek validation, set yourself up for success. Only get validation from people you trust who are strong allies – the ones who see your greatness. You may want to position the discussion as “bouncing something off of them” not necessarily “getting validation;” the right person will have a validating conversation with you naturally.
Jonathan knew that he needed some validation. For anything related to marketing he was supremely confident and could follow his own gut. But sometimes he had something to contribute during the CEO’s staff meeting, and self-doubt prevented him from speaking up.
Jonathan decided to leverage one of his meetings with the CFO to discuss his response to a thorny issue his team was having with IT related to control of customer data. The CIO thought IT should take the lead and, of course, Jonathan thought that marketing needed to own anything related to the customer. He asked the CFO if he could confidentially bounce his point of view off of him (they had built a lot more rapport and trust with each other because of their regular meetings) and the CFO talked it through with him. The CFO agreed with Jonathan’s point of view and encouraged him to share it with the CEO’s staff. That validation gave Jonathan a green light.
3) Stand your ground. There are moments in the life of every professional – and certainly every executive – where you have to stand your ground. Doing so demonstrates that you aren’t a pushover. That makes you look confident. When you look confident, others treat you as confident and that makes you feel – yes – more confident. See how this works?
A caveat: this does not mean that you should be inflexible, never give in, always fight for your point of view, regularly challenge your peers publicly – nothing like that. It does mean that there are times when you need to show some teeth.
Jonathan recognized that he needed to appear more confident by being more forceful in the CEO’s staff meeting. The conflict he was having with the CIO seemed like a good place to start. He decided to challenge the CIO if the topic came up again in the staff meeting.
He practiced what he would say: “Jeff, this is something we have gone round and round on a few times. I can see your point of view and I want to be a good teammate. But I simply can’t budge on this issue.” Jonathan was not focused on being influential, although of course he did want to convince the CIO to give in. He simply wanted to practice standing his ground and being seen by his peers as more forceful.
The tactic worked: Jonathan got positive feedback privately from the CEO and from a few of his peers that it was a good moment for him – one of his peers said that he didn’t think Jonathan had it in him! By the way….that validation was helpful to encourage him to continue finding moments to stand his ground.
Building your business confidence is essential in getting you to the senior ranks. Use these tools to build your own business confidence. I would love to hear your results!