Up Yours: Leadership Presence and Confidence – Women’s Edition

By: Shann McGrail

Executive-in-Residence, Innovation Factory

According to various research, over 80% of women never receive helpful feedback on leadership presence. In addition, more than 50% of women report feeling a lack of confidence in themselves. These stats set the starting point and tone for the recently held third session of the Innovation Factory’s “Accelerator for Women in Entrepreneurship” program. Session participants were eager to delve in and shed some light on the seemingly mystical topic of leadership presence and confidence in a way that would be of most benefit to women.

Digging into background, practical tips, and strategies, Rose Spadafora, a business owner and certified executive coach, brought her “A-game” to the workshop. Rose kicked off the morning by asking the group to discuss what they thought confidence looked like. From table to table, the themes raised through discussions were consistent:

  • Standing strong and not being afraid to shine;

  • Knowing “your stuff”;

  • Those who are truly confident share their knowledge, expertise, contacts, and more. They take the perspective that together, the opportunities can be bigger, and there is no need to compete over “the crumbs”;

  • Know when to lead and when to follow;

  • Key words that underlie success: “grit”, “swagger”, and “calm”.

A personal, general observation I have about working with women in these kinds of sessions is that they do not hesitate to get to the deeply personal issues—and get there fast—on the way to searching for a solution. This session was no exception. When challenged to consider the question, “what gets in the way of success?” this group of women did not hesitate to tackle it head-on and offer concrete examples of what they have had to overcome in the pursuit of their entrepreneurial aspirations.

Not surprising, rising to the top of the list is that women feel pulled in multiple directions. Primary caregiving for their children, their elderly parents, or both takes up a lot of time and focus, as does considering the financial impact of entrepreneurship compared to “having a real job”. Women also citied not having access to the support they needed (which is one of the reasons Innovation Factory is supporting these types of programs). Arising in the conversation was managing the expectations and opinions of others—the “should do’s” and “helpful” advice we receive from friends, family, and colleagues on the way to achieving what we know we can accomplish. Of course, the classic “fear of failure” reared its ugly head during the session. So too did its cousin, the fear that success might bring with it an impact on existing relationship dynamics.

Pulling the discussion threads together and coupling them with supporting research and data about gender differences with respect to leadership presence and confidence, Rose shared a couple of colourful ways for women to boost their confidence and project a higher level of leadership presence:

  • It starts internally—believe you are a big deal before expecting anyone else to believe it. Women spend a lot of time being self-critical. Channelling that time and energy into reminding ourselves that we have what it takes to succeed pays big dividends.

  • According to various research, including Harvard’s Amy Cuddy, a little “fake it ‘till you make it” does a lot of good. Stand tall and powerful for two minutes (think Wonder Woman pose) and let the physical benefits translate into a feeling of confidence.

  • Borrowing from the slogan, “Just Do It”, Rose added a bit of sass which made everyone chuckle and take away the fact that action, right or wrong, is more often rewarded than inaction.

  • Rose also distinguished between internal action and external action (e.g. thinking through the pros and cons of making a purchase vs. getting out the credit card to make the investment). She emphasized that external action is the demonstration of real commitment.

All in all, the workshop discussions confirmed that no one is alone when it comes to facing dips in confidence and that there are practical tips and advice to get past it.

To close out, I would like to share a bit about an interesting topic introduced during the session and invite your thoughts. One woman shared that she had been told by a coach that she came across as “too aggressive”. I could not resist polling the room to see how many others have been given that classic bit of feedback at some point. The result of this informal hand-raising exercise was that about 75% of the room had heard that same line. The time available did not allow me to probe the room any further during the session but what I would have loved to know next is exactly who shared the feedback and under what circumstances—did it come from a man or a woman and what was the context?

In your quest to exude leadership presence and confidence, have you ever been told you come across as “too aggressive”? If so, did you internalize the feedback? Or did you externalize it with a snappy comeback? I would love to hear about it (especially the snappy comebacks 😊) so please share your thoughts in the comments section.

This article was originally posted on LinkedIn.

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