This is an excerpt of a discussion I lead with the incredible women leaders at the Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman in February 2020.
I have been reading a lot of Brene Brown’s work on shame and vulnerability (and if you have not checked out Dare To Lead, or Braving the Wilderness, put them on your high-priority list). I mention this because when the 30 or so women walked into the room that day, I knew I needed to put down my prepared notes and simply bare myself. These were intelligent, accomplished women and they deserved more than a guarded, safe discussion. Brene’s work on vulnerability (“strong back, soft front”) was instrumental for me in being able to take a deep breath and say “yeah, okay. I’m scared, but let’s do this”.
It was one of the most rewarding and enjoyable experiences in my career...
As I look around the room this afternoon, my thought, not for the first time since Janette Goodman asked me to lead this talk, is ‘Why me?”. I see enough nodding heads now to know that statement is way more familiar to us as a group of women than it should be. From discussions with female peers and colleagues and reading about other women’s experiences, the imposter syndrome is all too common. It is a self-imposed limitation, a self-mutilation that comes from having been told at some point that you don’t belong at that table, you don’t belong in that room, you need to be seen and not heard. It is most often told to women and minorities. But it is each of us who continues to perpetuate it, by giving those memories, those thoughts, the fuel they need to live on. You need to turn them off. Right now. Priority number one. Thoughts are things and the thought that you don’t belong, or you aren’t good enough is one thought that you need never injure yourself with again.
I remember one occasion where I was told this. Several years and several jobs ago, I mentioned to my boss that I had entrepreneurial aspirations. He said to me: “you would never make it in business”. That stung. I took it to heart and carried around with me a deep understanding that I was bound for failure and I let that thought run my business, too, for a long time.
Now I can look back at that and think: this is the point where he failed as a leader. It had nothing to do with me. I deserve to be at this table. That’s why I am here.
You don’t have to own your own business to be a leader, but I will say, it does put it into sharp relief. I believe that being a leader is about trying to become your very best, authentic self, improving little by little every single day.
What do I mean by that? Let’s look at a few things.
1. High Standards
Maintaining high standards is of primary importance. Have high expectations and be courageous when it comes to following through on them. Learning how to give feedback appropriately is one of the hardest skills I have worked on. I am still working on it. I know that I have compromised on high standards in the past in order to avoid having difficult conversations with people who were underperforming, but it absolutely does not work. When a team is not performing at a high level, there is no one else to look at but the leader.
2. Asking For Help Is A Sign of Strength, Not Weakness
I used to think it was better to be all girl-macho and do things all on my own. But let me tell you about the relief I felt when I hired a business coach and started asking him for advice. For example – I did the DISC behaviour assessment and when I read the report I was gobsmacked. On it was a standard list of skills required in the business world (things like personal accountability, employee development/coaching, teamwork, etc). For each person, the same list of skills is ordered A – Z in order of individual strengths. Last on my list is project management. But that is the job I have been trying to do for more than a decade! And wondering why I wasn’t getting ahead! Instead of working on my very worst area, I have elected to start working on things I am a little bit good at – things that I have great potential to improve. I hired a project manager.
3. Be Selective of Who You Listen To
We all need good coaches, advisors or 'mastermind groups’ we trust to bounce ideas and concepts off. But also recognise you can’t listen to what everyone says. Steve Jobs said, ‘don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice”. Ray Dalio says find the most believable person you can, on any given topic and ask that person. Find the balance.
4. It All Starts with Imagination
I strongly believe that you create your own reality by what you think and imagine. If you have not read James Allen’s As A Man Thinketh, I strongly recommend it. The book is titled after the quote: “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he”. Think of the universe as being infinitely abundant. Because it is. I can imagine the business I want to own, and how it will help people – our clients, the people they serve and my team.
5. Down with Self Limiting Beliefs!
There is no point in imagining all the success in the world if underlying it all is doubt. Our job in this life is to identify and release the self-limiting beliefs we have all picked up along the way, from before childhood until this moment.
At another mastermind retreat, our coach asked us– write down what you would do if you had no self-limiting beliefs. I wrote down my dream list of things, like sailing the world and have more fun and freedom and then he said: what is your biggest self-limiting belief? My answer hit me like a 2X4 on the side of the head, and it was so real I really didn’t want to share it with the group – who are all men more than 10 years younger than me. When it came around to my turn to share, I was still debating whether I tell a little white lie or not, and couldn’t, so plucked up the courage and blurted out “that I am not good enough”. And there the answer hung in all its naked ugliness. I looked around the room and everyone was nodding at me – it resonated with each of them and we had a great conversation about it 6.
6. Being Brave
Brene Brown talks about this a lot – having the courage to stand in your own space, your true authentic space, without feeling defensive, or aggressive, or avoiding difficult conversations. This is a big one for me. As I said, I have a strong need to make sure that everyone else is okay and happy. I used to conflate “everybody being okay” with avoiding difficult conversations. That is one of the biggest of life’s lies, in my opinion. Things are not better when difficult conversations are not had. They are better when you can stick with it, holding steady, and working through the issue to the end, however uncomfortable it might be.
7. Sometimes, It Sucks
Accept that leading is difficult and that most times you will get it wrong. Keep trying. Never give up. The success you want is always right in front of you. Failing is just an experience that helps you get it right the next time – you just must keep making a next time.
Being an entrepreneur has been one of the most challenging and most satisfying things I have done in my life. Through being an entrepreneur, I have been able to accomplish a lot of pretty cool things:
- Learning how not giving up, when every fibre of my being has wanted to. And that is hard. Has anyone done an endurance sport? You know how you feel when you get to just past halfway, when you are exhausted, but the finish line is still an agonisingly long way away. That is the time that grit is required. Lots of it. Grit is good.
- Being strongly vulnerable, especially in the face of negative feedback or difficult situations. I don’t like getting negative feedback. I used to take it all very personally and would agonise over it. Now, I try to listen, and I consider as much as possible the person giving the feedback and their intent behind it. Then I ask myself the question: is this a person whose opinion I value because I can see and respect them and their behaviours? Or, do I take the pieces that resonate with me and spend time with those few things, ignoring the rest?
- Being okay with failing, learning the lesson and getting back to it. A person who has not failed has not tried hard enough. Simple as that. Never judge someone who has tried and failed.
- Celebrate successes. Sometimes it is easy to just jump over success and not really give it the credit it deserves. Stop and smell the flowers. It feels good!
- I learned how to ask for help. But I select the person I am asking very very carefully now – I have asked the wrong people many times before and when you do that, you might get the answer you want, not the answer you need.
- Provided countless results for our clients, through our advising and implementing strategies that work
- Provided incomes and meaningful opportunities for team members, helping them grow and thrive
I think the most successful entrepreneurs start businesses because they want to create something that makes life better somehow. They see something they think they can do better, bringing their own special talent and uniqueness to it. I have always been in the services business and I love it because it’s so relationship based. Services business are best when there are meaningful relationships – with team members, clients and vendors. There is something extraordinarily human in the service of entrepreneurship. Ray Dalio in his book Principles says one of his main business principles is having meaningful work and meaningful relationships.
I totally agree. And the only way I can see to get there, is by supporting each other as women, as leaders, and giving each other a leg up.