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

Different Perspectives Increase Bottom-Line Benefits


img_7507As I climbed a telephone pole to a high wire some 50 feet off the ground, I struggled to suppress my fear of heights. Perched precariously, I held the arm of one of our newly-admitted PwC partners while balancing and inching my feet along the wire to reach for a rope about eight feet beyond my grasp. Below, my fellow partners cheered us on: “Only a few more feet! “Don’t look down.” “Work together!” “You can do this!”

As a member of the firm’s senior management team, I join our newly admitted partners every year in Colorado Springs for this unique training. Although tethers and safety ropes eliminate any real danger, the combination of the 50-foot heights and the desire not to let each other down (or embarrass oneself), takes experiential learning to a new level. While I conquer my fears and gain a sense of connectedness from working with my new partners, the program also allows me to reflect on the importance of diverse experiences to a successful organization.

PwC is well known for embracing and celebrating different viewpoints and is a leading champion for diversity. We have found that diverse perspectives improve problem solving, cultural dexterity, strategic thinking, and ultimately (because we produce a stronger product) our bottom line.

While much of our focus on diversity centers on gender, race, culture and sexual orientation, we have also become increasingly attuned to the importance of diversity of experience. As our high-wire activities demonstrate, we value experiential learning for team building, but we are also interested in previous experiences our talent can use for the benefit of our firm.

This perspective is gaining wider acceptance. For example, Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye lauds the abilities of people he calls “tri-sector athletes,” who have public, private and non-profit-sector experience. His point, with which I agree, is that a wide range of experiences – even if they don’t fit neatly into those three categories — enables individuals to contribute new perspectives and deeper understanding to an organization.

At PwC, one need only look to the top to see the importance of diversity of experience. Our U.S. Chairman and Senior Partner, Bob Moritz, credits the years he spent in Japan with teaching him crucial lessons about diversity and cultural dexterity, and he attributes invaluable leadership and people skills to his tour in Human Resources.

To facilitate similar crossover opportunities, I created a public policy fellowship program to bring managers and senior associates from business units to our department for 6-18 month rotations. One of our last fellows, now a partner, helped educate my non-auditor team of policy experts about audit intricacies and how regulations and accounting standards play out on the ground. In turn, he learned about public policy strategy and legislative and regulatory processes. Both the fellow and my team benefitted from learning how different parts of our organization contribute to our bottom line and our business model.

Diversity of experience is especially valuable in senior public policy positions like mine, where strong strategic skills and an ability to manage competing agendas and perspectives (including political ones) are important. Approaching policy from different vantage points also creates strong, deep networks, another key component in a successful public policy career. The mentors, coaches and colleagues I have met through my different government positions have amplified my own diverse experiences by helping me to see the world through different lenses, while providing valuable advice and counsel.

The combination of skills and experience I gained while working on Capitol Hill, at the U.S. Treasury Department, and with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission are, in fact, some of the reasons I have my current job. When I was hired, the firm — and the accounting profession — were facing a new world of regulation. There was no accounting industry precedent for issues like how proactively firms should work with regulators and how to combine new regulatory requirements with existing legislative agendas. My experiences gave me important insights and skills to help the firm develop a new public policy strategy.

Americans typically change careers multiple times, and today’s Millennials will do so even more than previous generations. When friends and mentees ask me for career advice, I often encourage them to diversify: to seek opportunities that will deepen and vary their perspective on an issue or sector; to consider organizations that appreciate varied experiences; and when interviewed by a prospective employer, to explain how their combined experiences will add value.

Whether you are just starting your career, evaluating talent as a business leader, or considering your next professional move prioritize diverse experiences. From the ground floor to the high wire, diversity of experience can make you more marketable and can add significant value to your organization. #