Georgina Lupu Florian, CEO of Wolfpack Digital, and I have taken different paths in our lives and careers. Our challenges and stories, though, have been very similar. Our aim in co-authoring this article is to help women in leadership find new paths through advancing their thinking. While this article is about women in leadership, it isn't just for women. It is for sponsors, mentors, line managers, and organisational leaders who work with women. Lastly, it is for both men and women who want to make a difference in the workplace.
Last week, when Georgina Lupu Florian, CEO of Wolfpack Digital, came off the stage at The Woman - The Leadership Conference, all I could say was "What an incredible leader”. She spoke about vision, entrepreneurship, business, technology, teams, people, culture, and psychology with a coherence I rarely see. In addition to sharing her story, she offered personal insights and wisdom you read about in books. Since I have worked closely with Gina for a while, I know that her speech only represents a small portion of what she is capable of.
Her first question when she returned to her place was, "How was it?". She wanted to know how her speech impacted the audience. This isn't because of self-doubt competence-wise. It is because she was the only Tech CEO in the room.
Gina and I often observe remarkable women who are unaware of their greatness. We see women who have pioneered their fields. They not only have difficulty seeing how great they are, but they also doubt themselves. This reminded us of what Bertrand Russell says: “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts."
Women's upbringing undoubtedly contributes to how they see themselves in the world and the workplace. It impacts the roles women dare to take and the risk they allow themselves to embrace. It also influences the mindset and the level of self-doubt they experience when playing such roles.
However, research shows that several other factors, unrelated to self-esteem, influence the level of self-doubt. On the opposite, they are related to being exceptional. Such situational factors are:
1. You are working in an organisation or industry that focuses on top-notch performance. Science, technology, and academia are perfect examples of cultures where "you have to get it right". Not getting it right can have consequences, especially for your reputation and future career prospects. If the field also requires a level of creativity, the stakes become even higher. Creative areas require a level of vulnerability for the very nature of creation. By making our work and creations visible, we expose ourselves to a thorough assessment of our work. And in competitive fields, many critics are willing to share their opinions.
2. You are one of a kind in your environment. Operating outside our cultural settings, like working or leading in other cultures with different norms, having a foreign nationality from all others, or simply being the only woman on a senior leadership team, significantly impacts the sense of belonging we experience. Without a sense of belonging, self-doubt is just a step away.
3. You represent an entire social group. Women in senior leadership roles not only carry their torch, they often assume responsibility for all the other women walking the same path behind them. The pressure that comes with such a responsibility makes women highly vulnerable to self-doubt.
The level of self-doubt one encounters while traveling a path less taken is well known to those who have done so. Undoubtedly, having some self-doubt helps you learn, grow, examine your alternatives, and make the kind of decisions that are essential when navigating uncharted territory. However, having too much self-doubt can keep you stuck. While there isn't a set formula for getting rid of self-doubt, there are people, routines, and habits that can help us get there. The most significant ones are listed here.
1. Role models
It's critical to have role models and to see others like us trying and succeeding so we can gain the emotional strength to overcome obstacles. Seeing others succeed creates an internal belief that we can do the same. It's best when we can evolve incrementally, although some of the biggest jumps happen when we find the courage to face a relatively high amount of discomfort. That means putting ourselves out there, just like our role models did.
2. Context & Practice
Having the right context to succeed is essential, reaching beyond individual potential and limitations. This context can be built intentionally by organisations and communities, and being aware of it will ultimately create the space for pioneers to thrive and inspire change, empowering others.
Besides leveraging the context in organisations, we also have the power to create the right context for ourselves. Take public speaking, for example. You can periodically exercise speaking in front of others to significantly reduce self-doubt about being a speaker, making it more familiar and comfortable every time you do it. You will also become more comfortable talking about yourself, your work, and achievements - a habit that keeps many women back in their careers.
When you are a pioneer in your field and one of a kind in a set context, it can feel lonely, scary, and without clear directions to what you are doing. There is no reference system or model to look at how to approach it. That's why you have to trust yourself and your inner compass. And self-trust is built with validation from people you trust and select intentionally to give you perspective and moral support. With support from others, you can create your own reference system.
When discussing the right approach to embrace the challenge of being a change-maker, we believe that the winning mindset is that of looking at it with curiosity. You can choose to see your journey as an adventure and a huge opportunity to shape things and set the right tone in uncharted territory. Because in uncertainty, there are plenty of possibilities.
Exploring these possibilities does not mean you will get each one right. But every mistake uncovers a 10x learning value that can inform your next step. You don't have the power to avoid errors, but you can extract the most from each one.
5. Gender awareness
Women are generally known to be very harsh on themselves. This is something we personally know very well! So one of the challenges of women change-makers have is not to be so judgemental and critical of themselves. Very often, that keeps them stuck.
In addition, studies show that women are held back by different behaviours than men. For instance, they do not like to take credit for their accomplishments. They expect others to notice and reward their contributions, overvaluing expertise vs leadership and influence, not creating the necessary alliances early in the process and trying to be flawless.
You can leverage gender awareness to make the most of the behaviours and expertise you already bring to the table. Don’t assume that if you can do it, everyone can do it. And, if you recognize any behaviours that hold you back, you can work with support from trusted people on transforming these behaviours. One step at a time.
We've been told that the people in our community have been motivated and given hope by our actions and journeys. They are aspirational individuals who want to alter their cultures in some way.
We didn't look for that intentionally; it was a side effect of our choices. We are aware that this also carries a substantial amount of responsibility. To avoid getting stuck, we maintain that in the back of our minds without placing too much pressure on ourselves.
Vulnerability and courage, often way beyond our known boundaries, are required for pioneering and creating change. We have discovered that, together, we have the strength and curiosity to influence the systems of the future and leave a lasting legacy that goes well beyond our day-to-day jobs.