Confidence – that quality to which we all aspire, goes beyond the showy song and dance we expect. More meaningfully, it’s the courage to show vulnerability.
As I discovered in writing ‘The Con Job: Getting Ahead for Competence in a World Obsessed with Confidence’ it’s not a comfortable place for leaders of either gender to inhabit. Plus, as Rosemary McGinness, the Chief People Officer at the Weir Group pointed out when I interviewed her for the book: It’s particularly hard for senior women to demonstrate any vulnerability. This is something they’ve had to suppress for years to get to the top with the guys. We’ve been taught ‘don’t cry, don’t show your emotions’. I’d love to see a shift with the new generation of leaders. As we come into new ways of working, I’d advocate this humble realism become part of a new definition of confidence as it will attract better quality candidates amongst both men and women, beyond those who rely on their confidence to just ‘wing it’.
To this point, Silka Patel, the co-founder of Scotland Women in Technology would be considered confident by anyone who knows her. However, even she prefers to show vulnerability when necessary and responds very well to it in others – as do most of us. Vulnerability requires a sense of authenticity and honesty all too rarely seen in workplaces that too often promote confidence. Years ago, Patel was tapped on the shoulder to become a Board Member for Technology Scotland but was cautious about her invitation onto this all-White male Board.
Patel, an Asian woman, laughs recalling: In the interview, I was getting on well with the CEO so asked: ‘Are you looking at me because the deeply technical men you already have are all at least 50 years old and all White?’ He leaned back in his chair, slightly embarrassed and said ‘I’m not going to lie to you. You do tick many of the boxes I’d like to fill. But I need someone confident and capable enough to hold their ground in a boardroom. It’s a tough crowd of alpha men.’
Patel laughs: It was a lightbulb moment for me! It made me realise the brand I’d spent years creating around being a confident woman of colour was actually working! Patel wanted to continue to break down stereotypes of Asian women in technology, so joined their Board. What made her listen to him? She replies: His honesty. I was scared of asking him for fear of the answer. But he meant well and that he probably was just as afraid of saying the wrong thing, so I believed him. He had a vulnerability, and I could see his squeamishness.
There was a willingness in him to go with an uncomfortable, but true answer. Patel was unequivocal: ‘Showing your vulnerability is confidence. She explains: When people admit they don’t have all the answers, I find that endearing. They may say: Things aren’t great financially, but I think the team we have now is the right one. But if a stereotypically confident person comes into the same situation, pretending all is fine, my alarm bells go off sounding: ‘Alpha Male, Alpha Male!’ I just don’t trust him. The funny thing is I’ll work harder for the first person. They’ve shown a vulnerability over the person who assured me that all was under control when it clearly wasn’t.
Patel joined their Board two years ago. For the first several months she watched, listened and only contributed if it was in her ‘wheelhouse’ of competencies. A few months in, she began to weigh in more regularly explaining: I’m never going to shout the loudest. I had to do it via my quiet observations and the questions I ask. After they’ve argued between themselves, they’ll turn and ask my opinion. It takes time, but it’s where their expectations of my ethnicity, gender and my focus on competence have positively played a role in getting me that respect.
Patel is willing to take the role of referee amongst a group of more ‘traditionally’ confident people – leaders who were loud, difficult at times and happy to show off how smart they are. These are the kinds of colleagues many of my coaching clients have to work with everyday. However, Patel’s only got to that point by being competent in her quiet approach compared to the argumentative styles of her peers. For her and many of the other leaders I met who also wanted to redefine confidence, this vulnerable and humble approach will be increasingly valuable as we define the new normal for our workplaces and beyond.
About the author
Suzanne Doyle-Morris PhD is the founder of InclusIQ and has been helping women working in male-dominated fields get the careers they want for nearly 20 years. She is also the author of ‘Beyond the Boys’ Club’ and ‘Female Breadwinners’ and her third book, ‘The Con Job’ is out now.
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