Level Up Your Career

Be Bold, Be Confident and Bravely Build Your Career

This article is sponsored by The University of Chicago Booth School of Business Executive MBA Program

An interview with Kelly O’Brien, an executive coach on the Global Career and Leadership Development team at The University of Chicago Booth School of Business Executive MBA Program.  She is certified through the International Coach Federation and has over 12 years of experience supporting professionals through leadership and career growth.

What is confidence?

According to O’Brien, the basis of confidence is knowledge of oneself.  “Knowing who you are and what you value, understanding and using your strengths, and setting boundaries for yourself” is the foundation of self-awareness and confidence.  Sometimes you must project confidence you may not feel inside, which can be difficult.  However, if you practice acting confidently despite fear or uncertainty, you will eventually start to believe in yourself and the confidence you project will become genuine.

What role does confidence have in success in the workplace?

“Your level of confidence impacts the way people view you and the way they interact with you, which in turn impacts how well you can get things done at work”, says O’Brien.  Essentially, you must believe—or at least act like you believe—that you are capable and worthy   When you do, that confidence radiates and encourages others to invest in your ideas and initiatives.  Confidence at work also comes from being willing to make yourself vulnerable and take risks, knowing you can handle the outcome of your decisions.  Even if something does not go the way you thought it would, believing in your ability to manage the fallout empowers you to take chances.

Do women suffer from low confidence more frequently than men?  Why?

According to O’Brien, many people of both genders lack confidence, but women often are more comfortable talking about it.  However, O’Brien also notes, “At the core of many women’s lack of confidence are the stories they tell themselves or have been told over time: that women should be cautious, polite, and self-sacrificing.”  Also, women have historically been socialized to not appear overly confident or assertive, to ‘take up less space in a room’.  Over time, these cultural norms are shifting, but every woman must consciously assess her own susceptibility to negative self-talk, and then focus on positive messages instead.

What are some actions women can take to build confidence?

  • Ask for specific feedback from a range of people whom you trust, both those who know you very well and those with whom you interact occasionally or have not known as long. Include direct line managers, colleagues, and mentors.
  • Keep a confidence diary. Observe the experiences that seem to erode your confidence.  Isolate the situations and try not to over-generalize.  Collect data and pay attention to the specific elements of an interaction or event that caused you to feel less confident. Then analyze your data and develop a strategy for improvement.
  • Practice in a safe environment, then increase the riskiness of the situation. For example, if you are anxious about interviewing, O’Brien recommends that you practice first with a close friend, then a peer, then a mentor, and then perhaps a newer contact working in your target field, increasing the perceived threat of the situation as you go.
  • Develop your strengths into superpowers. Often, people focus their development efforts only on improving upon their perceived weaknesses.  O’Brien suggests having a two-pronged approach instead: first making sure that you have basic proficiency of competencies that are necessary for success in your current/desired career path, and then supercharging the things you already are good at doing.  As you become the ‘go-to’ person on your team for a specific skill or build a reputation for proficiency at something distinctly yours, your confidence will grow too.
  • Build a network. Establishing a curated network of individuals who know you well and respect your work can help you feel supported, which increases confidence.  A strong network forms a mental safety net that provides a sense of employment security because you know that options exist beyond your current job.  That feeling of security contributes to confidence and courage to try something new or take a risk in your current position.  O’Brien recommends that your network comprise contacts who can share insight, mentors who can provide guidance, and sponsors who can help connect you with opportunities.  An ideal network is diverse in industry, function and demographics, and has a mix of close connections and casual acquaintances.

A parting thought from O’Brien: “Remember, at the end of the day, people are people. Bosses and interviewers have struggles and self-doubt too. The power dynamic you perceive is probably less imbalanced than you think it is.”  So look the person or the situation that erodes your confidence in the eye, take the risk, and let yourself shine.

Are you ready to be bold, confident, and bravely build your career? Download our confidence tracker.


Take Charge of Your Future 

For more leadership guidance, consider participating in the Rise Leadership Program. This three-month virtual program is dedicated to helping mid-career women move their careers forward by focusing on their own leadership strengths. Rise is built on the premise that leadership starts from within. Learn from leadership experts and executive coaches as you develop an authentic leadership style that suits your skills and personality. Interested in being part of our next cohort? Apply now! 

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