Women’s Leadership: Building & Maintaining Confidence


Speaking at PwC “Aspire to Lead” with Susannah Wellford, President of Running Start, and Cathy Merrill Williams, CEO and Publisher of the Washingtonian Magazine

Each year, PwC hosts “Aspire to Lead” as part of its women’s leadership series. This year’s event kicked off our celebration of of International Women’s Day by bringing together college students from around the world with PwC leaders for a conversation on components of success and leadership. We focused on confidence and the barriers than can undermine it, especially for women.

Our featured guests – Katty Kay and Claire Shipman — wrote a terrific book on the subject (The Confidence Code) complete with academic research on how one can literally rewire the brain to be more confident and ultimately, effective.

As I reflect on the conversation, there are several take aways that are worth sharing. I’ve narrowed down the list to those tips that have worked well for me, and that I often share with others. While seemingly simple, many of these suggestions can have a profound impact on how you deal with day-to-day ups and downs.

First, know yourself. Develop a plan for evaluating your key strengths and priorities. What do you do well and what makes you happy – at work and in life? This list will change and evolve just as you do, but it’s likely that your core strengths and interests will remain the same. Refer back to this list a few times per year – maybe as you set new goals, or as you reflect on your accomplishments from the year that has just passed.

Second, stop counterproductive rumination. Everyone has personal and professional setbacks. Little things like flubbing the way you introduced yourself at a meeting to making a major mistake at work can create a damaging cycle for many women if they continue to dwell on mistakes, no matter how small. Accept the fact that these things happen and find a process for putting these mishaps into perspective. In The Confidence Code Kay and Shipman discuss how “rumination” (essentially mulling over a situation or disappointment to the point of blowing it out of proportion in your head – something many of us have a tendency to do) can erode confidence and overall mental health over time. Johanna Barsh provides similar observations in How Remarkable Women Lead. So what can you do to stop the cycle of rumination? There are a few tried and true tactics. I prefer a process of reflecting in my journal, essentially getting what’s in my head out and onto paper – even if it’s just a few lines. Actually seeing what’s in my head, helps me put it all into perspective. I was amazed at how something so simple could be so effective, especially when used over time. As a working mom with two active, young children, time for a few lines is often all I have. Even that small investment in myself yields significant returns. Now, even online options (I like the DayOne ap) are available, so it becomes especially easy to capture a few thoughts even while on the go.

Third, develop a strong network and ask for help when you need it. There are a couple of important things to say about this. First, a strong network can help you solve problems and gain much needed perspective (especially in times of great stress). Second, by asking those you trust for their insight, you also help boost their confidence. It’s a win win for both of you. Finally, just as there are benefits from having diversified management teams and boards, the same can be true of your network or mentors. You’ll benefit from different points of view and perspectives related to career and personal decision making.

Fourth, help others succeed. Volunteer, mentor, contribute in whatever way is meaningful to you, but most of all find a way to share what you do well with others. Not only does it help the other person, but it also boosts your own confidence.

Fifth, make sure your self talk is positive (if it’s not, reframe it). This point is related to the point I made about rumination. Writing down your self talk can really help. Rather than saying to yourself, “My presentation was really weak. Why am I so stupid? you might write, “That wasn’t my best performance, but I learned a lot and now have some great insights for next time.”

Sixth, be honest with yourself about your priorities. There will always be competing demands on your time, especially if/when you embrace the responsibility of having a family. Find a way to get comfortable with those demands and learn to effectively delegate tasks that can be handled by someone else on your team who is looking to grow. By setting clear priorities (i.e. not trying to do everything yourself), you can create additional time and capacity which is critical for making sure you have the time you need to be well prepared.

Seventh, make time to continue learning and actively seek ways to build broader business and global acumen. Sign up for lectures, web- or podcasts that enable you to broaden your knowledge beyond your day-to-day portfolio (TedTalks are great for expanding your horizons and sparking your interest in ideas and concepts that you might not otherwise have been exposed to. I also like a terrific new podcast series “Smart Women Smart Power” at The Center for Strategic and International Studies moderated by Nina Easton). Develop the habit of seeking out a deeper understanding of issues beyond your immediate day-to-day portfolio. In addition to building confidence, it makes you better prepared to talk with those outside of your current network, thus giving you the ability to expand and build your relationship base.

Finally, and this point should be particularly obvious, hard work and preparation are key to helping you feel more confident. That said, as Kay and Shipman note in their book, women have a tendency to over-prepare to the point of diminishing returns. You’ll have to be your own judge of this, but I think it’s an important consideration.

PwC is back on Fortune’s 100 Best Places to Work for the 10th year running. One of the things that makes PwC a great place to work is our focus on supporting the whole person – who you are at work and at home. Many of the tips I’ve included are things I’ve learned and have employed in my role at PwC, but that I also use at home. These are also things that I like to share as part of our Aspire to Lead program. I hope you find them useful as you pursue whatever is important to you and that you remember that a set of tools can make all the difference in putting day-to-day challenges into perspective.

Laura Cox Kaplan is Principal-in-Charge of U.S. Public Policy and a member of PwC’s U.S. executive management team

Twitter: @lauracoxkaplan

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