There is nothing like a shocking mistake to knock your confidence at the start of your career.
Two years out of university, Sharon Weintraub was working as a trader at an investment bank in Chicago. “Literally the first big trade I did in the commodities business — it was going to be high profile, everybody at senior level was going to know . . . and it got done backwards,” she says. “We lost money, because buy and sell was inadvertently reversed.”
Ms Weintraub could have been fired, but instead she went on to build a career in trading before joining BP. Today, as chief executive of the energy multinational’s eastern hemisphere trading and supply business, based in Singapore, she is candid about this formative moment.
“In every new job you make mistakes,” she says. “You have to have the resilience to handle setbacks.” Then, as you become more competent and start to deliver results, your self-confidence grows.
Now, when starting a new role, Ms Weintraub always prepares a 90-day plan first, listing questions such as: “What people do I need to talk to, who do I need to meet, what do I need to read…?”
A strong support network is also vital to help develop skills and gain self-belief. “There is always a feeling of being an imposter,” she says. “We are never going to be experts on everything, whether you are at the start of your career or very senior.”
While everyone feels insecure at times, it is best not to show it in public, she adds. That is the time to turn to trusted colleagues or mentors. “Recognise how to ask for help, without showing the insecurity that might be going on in your mind.”
The inner critic, and being able to silence it, is a key point for executive coach Susan Room. She held corporate roles at Danish facilities group ISS and at global property partnership JLL, before taking a career break and retraining as a coach specialising in the voice (see panel below).
Having been the only woman in many meetings, she knows what it feels like to lack confidence in male-dominated spaces.
“Presence is an intangible thing, people say you either have it or you don’t — I believe it can be coached,” says Ms Room. “You can walk into a room looking as if you own your time and space — as if you deserve to be there.”
Her coaching starts with the inner critic: “Whatever we are thinking is going to affect our voice. If we have a clear, confident mindset, then the voice is going to be in a good place.”
She encourages women to externalise what their inner critic is saying. “This [inner] voice is often very harsh, and irrational. You can begin to challenge it.”
Women in male-dominated workplaces often worry that they will be judged in a different way, says Sian Beilock, president of Barnard College at Columbia University and author of Choke: The Secret to Performing Under Pressure.
“Recognise that it is OK to feel this way, but you have the power to change it,” she says. “Remember the reasons why you should be at the table.”
It is useful to think about theories on how the brain works thanks to human evolution, says Prof Beilock. The so-called lizard brain, thought to be the first part to develop, reacts quickly to danger and helps us escape. Another part regulates emotions, overrides self-doubt and refocuses the brain.
“Make sure your ‘lizard brain’ is not calling the shots,” she says. When the alarm signals start, teach yourself to calm them down.
“We can harness that inner voice for our success,” says Prof Beilock. If you feel nervous about giving a presentation, she says, “reinterpret how your body is reacting: sweaty palms are not a sign you’re going to fail . . . it’s a sign that you are awake and ready to go.”
Body language can help the switch into a more confident mindset.
“If I am sitting in a meeting, I drape my arm over the back of the chair, to come across as having a relaxed physical posture,” says Ms Weintraub. “You find your mental state changes.”
If you feel unconfident about giving a speech, practise in front of other people to learn how you will feel in the actual situation, says Prof Beilock. If no one is available, video yourself — “get used to there being all eyes on you.”
Ms Weintraub remembers that she initially “panicked” ahead of a keynote speech to a thousand people. But, having prepared for it, “I enjoyed it so much I volunteered to do it again.”
Susan Room’s tips for feeling more confident
How you think
If your inner critic is saying you are not good enough, focus on the evidence and rationalise what it is telling you. Start to challenge it.
How you appear
Breathing affects how you feel and your presentation. Be aware of tension in your body, and release it. Stand tall and composed, and relax your belly. Allow your rib cage to expand and contract. This releases oxygen to the brain and improves your speaking voice.
Make eye contact with people in order to build trust and rapport with others.
What you say
Be aware of unhelpful speech habits, such as filler language — ums and ahs — and inflections such as “uptalk” (when the voice rises at the end of every sentence). Avoid over-embellishing, over-explaining, repetition.
Be able to say no, politely. Acknowledge a request, then firmly and respectfully say no. Ideally, offer an alternative solution.
Speak up and say what you think. Other people may have been in the business for longer but they do not know everything.
How you say it
First of all, listen. How you listen, and what you listen to and for, informs how you say something.
When you speak, think about pitch, tone, volume, pace and intonation.
Pitch — Relax any tension in the body and breathe. With deeper breaths, you are less likely to speed up to get your words out, as your pitch will be more controlled.
Tone — One simple word, such as ‘really’, can be articulated in many different tones. Be thoughtful about tone of voice, as it can result in different conversations — and avoid conflict.
Volume — Whether high or low, it is more important to have vocal energy, and to speak without trailing off. Think of a washing line, which needs two fixed points. For your voice to be heard, your words need to land clearly and convincingly.
Pace — We tend to speed up when anxious. Have the courage to pause a bit more often; it can raise your confidence, while giving you time to think and listen.
Intonation — Bring energy into your voice, by letting the pitch go up and down, and varying volume.
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