The confidence gap — Three tools to level the playing field

As an advocate for young, career-seeking women, Lora Sprigings, Career Coach at Smith School of Business, founded the WIL Do initiative. This is a unique opportunity for young women at Smith to candidly discuss leadership and empowerment in a small group setting while creating space for females to build confidence by supporting and encouraging one another.

By Lora Sprigings


Today, women make up almost half of the workforce in Canada; yet men are twice as likely to hold senior management positions, according to a Conference Board of Canada report. One cause for this disparity is the level of confidence displayed by women versus men. At work, women are less likely to share their opinions and speak out than men. Yet a growing body of evidence suggests that confidence matters more than competence to workplace success, and it is this “confidence gap” that holds women back. Here are three strategies to bridge the gap.

 

Just do it

In a corporate environment, where performance is often judged by how well we achieve business objectives, women’s self-imposed barriers can limit career successes.

“Fake it ’til you make it” — the advice commonly cited as the panacea to overcome our lack of confidence — rarely results in a lasting transformation and can be viewed as disingenuous. A lack of confidence can cause us to play it safe and avoid taking chances. Yet the path to greater confidence requires a depth of resiliency that’s best found through failure and risk taking. Ironically, the antidote to our inaction is often simply to act, or “Just do it” as the Nike slogan says.

The more often we sidestep our fear and take on initiatives outside our comfort zone, the greater our reservoir of courage becomes. Ultimately, it is genuine accomplishment and hard work that fuel confidence.

 

It is not always about you

One of the key challenges facing women is a tendency to overvalue likeability in the workplace. This behaviour often starts in elementary school. Several studies have found that while girls are praised by teachers for good behaviour and staying quiet, boys are rewarded for effort and speaking out. Consequently, boys develop a deep-seated resiliency or growth mindset in which criticism seems to have little to no impact on their self-confidence.

Women’s fear of criticism is further compounded by the fact that women who exert confidence are often labelled as bossy, aggressive or intimidating; as found in the 2016 Women in the Workplace study. These comments are typically not associated with men. Women are also blamed more often for failures, penalized for self-promotion and judged more critically for perceived flaws in their professional demeanour or physical appearance.

So how do women counteract this tendency to fear and internalize critical feedback? Remember, it’s not always about you. Consider the source of the criticism, understand the potential motivation and, through honest self-reflection, decide if there is an element of truth to the criticism. You can then accept the feedback and course correct, or not. Criticism is never a reflection of self-worth. It is best seen as either a gift that opens the door to greater self-awareness or a window into another person’s character.

 

Find your voice

Women are often encouraged to find a mentor to guide and support them. But with the limited number of women at senior levels, this can prove challenging. A practice that is gaining momentum is peer mentorship, where like-minded women meet to discuss challenges, and offer advice and encouragement to one another on how best to navigate difficult terrain. Women benefit from diverse perspectives as well as the sense of empowerment that comes from knowing their struggle is also the struggle of others.

Together women can affect real change: gain the confidence to participate in class, request a promotion, or as the women on President Obama’s senior advisory team did, proactively echo and credit one another’s ideas when they are not acknowledged.

It is when we work together to empower one another and stand strong in our own self-worth that we will realize our true potential and build the confidence to become fearless in our pursuits.

 

Liked this? Read more articles on preparing for senior leadership.

Learning about leadership in the great outdoors

When Gillian Riley, an EVP at Scotiabank, joined a 10-day hiking and rafting adventure organized by True Patriot Love, a charitable foundation supporting Canadian military families, she knew she would have the opportunity to mentor ill and injured veterans trying to build meaningful careers in the civilian world. She quickly realized that the mentorship went both ways.

 

 

By Shelley White

 

 


 

 

Following in the footsteps of famed Scottish explorer Sir Alexander Mackenzie this summer was a “life-changing” experience for Gillian Riley.

She recalls the moment when her expedition team reached the rock where Mackenzie inscribed his name in 1793, becoming the first European to cross Canada from coast to coast. Exhausted from 10 days of hiking through B.C.’s Coast Mountains, white-water rafting and canoeing on the rough waters of the Bella Coola River, her team stood and sang “O Canada” together. Gillian says it was an emotional moment for all involved.

“Everyone cried,” says Gillian, Executive Vice President of Commercial Banking at Scotiabank. “It was so moving; I can’t even tell you. We’d been working together for 10 days and when we got there, it was that magical feeling of, ‘We did this – and no one has done this since he did it.’ Knowing that we got there as a team, it was very, very powerful.”

 

“It was that magical feeling of, ‘We did this – and no one has done this since he did it.’ Knowing that we got there as a team, it was very, very powerful.”

 

Gillian’s expedition was one of three challenging adventures sponsored by Scotiabank this summer in partnership with True Patriot Love, a charitable foundation that supports the mental, physical and social well-being of the 700,000 military families who live across Canada. Each expedition brought together influential Canadian business leaders with ill or injured armed forces veterans, providing mentorship opportunities for the soldiers and shining a light on the challenges veterans face when transitioning from military to civilian life.

Gillian notes that the only knowledge most people have about the combat experiences of military personnel is from books and movies.

“It seems far away and foreign. But when you talk to the military, you get an understanding of what they do to protect and serve our country and the passion with which they do that,” she says. “Many of them are third and fourth generation in the military and they feel such a duty to protect this country.”

The veterans on the expedition team were open about their experiences in combat and some of the challenges they have faced transitioning to civilian life. Gillian says that hiking up mountains allowed plenty of time for one-on-one conversations with her military teammates, as well as group discussions at day’s end.

“We spent a lot of time talking. They would share their stories with the group, with people asking questions and working through issues with them,” she says.

There was also plenty of fun on the trip, says Gillian, much of it involving card games like euchre. “I got an email from one of the military fellows this week and he said the best part of the trip for him was the card games,” she says. “Also, the laughter, the humor; I haven’t laughed that much in 10 years.”

Gillian says she went into the project knowing she would have the opportunity to mentor ill and injured veterans who are trying to build meaningful careers in the civilian world. But she quickly realized that the opportunity went two ways. In her role at Scotiabank, Gillian is an experienced leader, responsible for the strategic positioning and growth of the commercial banking division and leads a large sales force. But her time with the veterans reinforced that there is still more to learn.

“The things I learned from a leadership standpoint and a personal standpoint were enormous,” she says.

One of the most important things she learned is “followership,” an essential skill in the military.

“I had a specific mentee in the program, but I think he became more like a mentor for me,” says Gillian. “One of the things he taught me early on was, ‘A good leader is a good follower.’ It’s about listening a lot, asking open-ended questions before jumping into the answers. I’ve really been practicing that, just this week even. Learning when to sort of back off, to listen and hear and not jump in to try to solve something. That’s one of the big takeaways I’ve taken back and I’ve already shared with my teams.”

 

“‘A good leader is a good follower.’ It’s about listening a lot, asking open-ended questions before jumping into the answers.”

 

Having made those connections with her expedition team, Gillian says the bonds remain in place. She has been in communication by phone and email with several of her new friends and will continue to mentor and support them as they develop and explore post-military career paths.

It’s not just veterans that stand to gain when they transition to civilian jobs, notes Gillian. Canadian companies can benefit greatly from hiring veterans, and it is a practice in which Scotiabank is already involved. The way they are trained and the skills they develop in the military could be a boon to any organization.

“When you’re going into battle, you need to be well-trained, you need to be good under pressure; you need to be very disciplined,” she says. “There is so much opportunity to hire from the armed forces and I don’t think companies always understand that. I think the more we can help companies figure out how they can bring the military in their organizations, the better.”