International Women’s Day: Confidence is always key

By Paula Courtney,
CEO – The Verde Group

As a female entrepreneur who’s run her own business for more than twenty years, I’m often asked by young women — and men too — what I believe has been my #1 secret to success is. They’re often surprised by my answer.

Back in 1989, I remember being interviewed for my first job out of university as a management trainee at CP Rail. Years later, long after I was promoted and proven myself, I had coffee with the head of HR who reviewed with me the notes of that first interview, which included this observation: “I like Paula but I believe her confidence is greater than her competence.”

At the time, I thought that was a really insulting thing to say. But three decades later, older, wiser and more experienced, I realize it was the best compliment anyone could have given a 23-year-old, fresh out of school. Because I understand now that, when you’re just starting out — and really throughout your career and life — confidence is the single most important asset that anyone truly owns. You may not yet have all the skills or experience you need but, if you have the drive and desire and belief that you can achieve, your competence will eventually catch up to your confidence.

But, I hear some of you wondering, what if you’re not a particularly confident person? Or you weren’t “born with it”?
There’s an aphorism that’s popular in business, which counsels young people to “fake it till you make it.” I don’t believe this advice for one minute — in fact I positively hate it. When you pretend you’re someone you’re not, you don’t eventually discover who you and what your unique strengths are. You end up being viewed as a disingenuous person and build negative characteristics that actually undermine your confidence in the long run.

So, while you may not be born with confidence, the answer certainly isn’t to fake it. The right approach is to exercise your “confidence muscle” every single day. Confidence, in my opinion, is like a bank account. People around you and challenging situations over the course of your life will continually make withdrawals — particularly if you’re a young woman in male-dominated industry or business — so it’s your job to keep making deposits and grow your assets.

Building confidence begins with practicing gratitude

Well then, how do you exercise this confidence muscle? The first step for me has always been to practice gratitude. In fact, I believe gratitude is the foundation and bedrock of true confidence. Here’s what I mean: every day, I force yourself to write down five things I’m grateful for — they can be as mundane as “I’m grateful that it’s not freezing out today” or “I’m grateful for my friend’s advice” or “I’m grateful for the brilliant team I work with.” When you begin to believe that you’re surrounded by amazing people, situations and things, you’re slowly but surely building a positive outlook that’s the key to growing your confidence.

Negative self-talk on the other hand — saying you’re not good enough or smart enough or thin enough or pretty enough — is a complete self-confidence killer. Don’t ever do it.

Don’t just try harder — trust harder.

Finally, when I sold my company for the first time in 2000, a team of hired guns were brought in to run it — all ex-McKinsey senior partners, Harvard MBAs, Ivy-Leaguers, you know the type. Surrounded by them every day, I convinced myself they were way smarter than me. My confidence was shaken and I decided to meet with an executive coach for the first time, who also happened to be a coach for elite athletes.

In one of our early sessions he asked me if I watched figure skating (I did) and what I thought a skater does when they fall and get back up after attempting a difficult jump, like a triple Salchow or quad. I answered: “they try harder for the remainder of the routine.” He responded: “Yes, and I coach them against doing that.”

The explanation and insight he shared next surprised me at the time but it’s stayed with me for 20 years. The difference, he said, between a good athlete and an elite one is that the best athletes don’t try harder, they trust harder. In other words, don’t worry and overcompensate out of fear for a momentary failure. Instead, whether you’re an athlete or a young woman starting out in business, think about all the amazing things you’ve accomplished to get you to this place, all your skills and training and talent — trust your ability. By trusting harder in yourself, rather than simply trying harder (or faking it till you make it), you’ll continue making those daily deposits in your confidence bank account and build it stronger than ever.

Executive Vice President of The Verde Group
Dennis Armbruster