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Lessons in Executive Presence #1: Confidence

In an earlier article about executive presence - or EP - I spoke about five elements that comprise EP. They are:

- Confidence

- Character

- Comportement

- Communication

- Consistency

In this article, the first of five, I go deeper into each of the elements to help you build, develop, and refine your own personal brand of executive presence.

We begin with 'confidence'. Undeniably, confidence is the cornerstone that holds everything else together. Without it, everything becomes a challenge. Interestingly though, it's often confidence that's most lacking when you make the leap to a leadership role or when you face a significant leadership challenge.

Below are the three most common traps I see new and experienced leaders fall into. Unless your confidence is deeply embedded, these three traps can pull self-belief from under you, or derail it before it's become part of your DNA. Read on to learn how the three most common traps can snare you, and how you can turn the situation around.

Trap 1: You don't ask for help

When a leader's confidence derails, his or her inability to ask for help is almost always a factor.

To lead well, to lead successfully, you need information. You don't need to be the technical expert, but you do need to understand what's required of you, and you need to know the internal and external networks that can help you make it happen. You need help from other people. And there's only way to get it; ask for it.

For newly promoted leaders, finding it hard to ask for help is often a side-effect of prior success. They're hobbled by years of solid technical and tactical performance, and can feel like a fish out of water when faced with ambiguity or challenge. Now the connector and influencer rather than the primary 'doer', they find it hard to bring together the right people to get things done, and there's a very real risk of their trying to do all the work themselves. This slows them down and can allow a situation to get out of control to the point where their manager notices and starts asking tough questions. For new leaders, those tough questions can derail their self-belief and confidence in no time at all.

For seasoned leaders facing new situations or new environments, they're reluctant to ask for help because they are afraid to appear as though they don't know what they're doing: It's as simple as that. There's a fear of being vulnerable, letting down the guard, and asking for help. They may know what to ask, they may even know who to ask, but they're reluctant to ask for fear of being judged.

Whether a new or seasoned leader, understand that at some point, you're going to have to ask for help. Know what you do and don't know, identify gaps early on, and seek wisdom from the team. Get to know internal and external stakeholders who can help you, and build strong relationships with them as quickly as you can. Recognize when you're getting out of your depth and bring in others to help you before you drown. Despite what you may think, you'll be more highly regarded for asking for help and addressing a situation quickly and thoroughly than you will for treading water for weeks or months and delivering a mediocre result. The former builds your confidence, the latter will destroy it.

There is tremendous strength in vulnerability, so build the trust of those around you and engage people when you need them. Solving problems and capitalizing on opportunities will build your confidence rapidly. When you know you can address anything that is thrown your way - with the help of others - your confidence will be solid.

Trap 2: You believe others are more worthy.

Sometimes referred to as 'imposter syndrome', new and experienced leaders can feel less intelligent, experienced, informed, educated, or successful than the people they work with. And often that is, in fact, the case. Executives with tenure have grown into their executive skins, thus giving them the hard-earned luxury of strong executive presence. But they didn't land in the boardroom looking and sounding like that: They learned. And so will you.

If it isn't enough that your executive colleagues seem to have it together, you'll often find yourself in situations where your direct reports are more technically skilled, knowledgeable, and possibly more qualified than you. You'll notice that they seem to have all the clever questions and informed answers: And that can easily cause you to doubt your value and your place at the table. If you're suffering from a case of imposter syndrome, you may find yourself reluctant to speak up, apologetic when you do, you may hesitate, procrastinate, question every decision, and position yourself as 'less than' because that's how you feel.

Comparison with others never ends well. Whether it's education, appearance, experience, or intelligence - choose your poison - comparing yourself with other people will damage your confidence one-hundred percent of the time. When you feel under-confident, people see it and they respond to you accordingly. The way people speak to you and treat you is not a reflection of how they feel about you, it's a direct reflection of how you feel about yourself: You train people how to treat you. And if you feel anything less than confident, your feelings will be reinforced by those around you. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

To recover from imposter syndrome, it's vital that you accept that your team members and colleagues may well be more skilled and qualified than you. And it doesn't mean any more than that. Learn to use their skills, knowledge, and experience to your advantage. Lean on their expertise, ask questions to establish direction, and be prepared to sacrifice the minutiae for achievement of the vision: You don't need to know every last detail. Your value comes from being able to see further ahead and further around, and to bring the right people into the room at the right time in order to solve problems and capitalize on opportunities.

As a leader, there are times when you'll be the most experienced and knowledgeable resource in the room, and other times when you know absolutely nothing about the topic on hand. Either way, your value, your expertise, come from being able to establish a clear vision and inspire, influence, and motivate the experts around you to achieve it. Resign your place as 'first violin', pick up your baton, and conduct the orchestra. Once you acknowledge and accept the value you offer, your confidence will embed itself and the imposter syndrome will leave.

Trap 3. You try to 'fit in'.

Confident leaders have a certain 'air' about them. And you want some of that! It's tempting to want to emulate those you perceive as the most confident, respected, and influential. You may try to adopt their posture, their words, and their expressions. You may even go as far as noting how they dress, wear their hair, and even lay out their office, and try - to a greater or lesser extent - to do the same. My advice is that you do none of those things. Rather than boosting your confidence, it will most likely kill it. Trying to be someone you're not will leave you feeling weird, exposed, and completely detached from your real self. And that is guaranteed to destroy your confidence.

Instead of trying to emulate what you believe is 'the perfect leader', tap into what makes you unique and use it. Is it your accent, your cultural heritage, or your humble beginnings that make you unique? Is it your unconventional experience, your indirect route to the boardroom, or a significant personal experience?

During my Fortune 500 career, I had a colleague who took elocution lessons to rid herself of her beautiful Irish accent. She believed it was holding her back from promotion. It wasn't. What was holding her back was her constant apologizing for her accent, her lack of confidence when she spoke in public, and her over-explaining herself and justifying her point of view. Her self-consciousness caused her to miss completely the fact that her accent made her memorable, audiences enjoyed hearing her speak, and people really appreciated her 'to the point', humane approach. She engaged people in a way she overlooked because she felt she had to be someone else in order to impress and progress. Her accent and Northern Irish 'straight talk' could have given her a strong and solid, confident presence, had she only used them to her advantage.

Whatever you believe is the thing that makes you stand out and be different, the thing you believe is getting in the way, the thing you'd rather keep secret, is likely to be the very thing you should embrace and use to your unique advantage. Focus on what you offer, what you bring to the table, and what unique brand of brilliance you're gifted with. Everyone is different, so use your 'different' and stand solidly in your shoes. Stop apologizing for being who you are and instead, embrace it. You will only ever feel confident if you're being yourself. So do what you do, do it often, and do it well. Stay focused on it, become known for it, and be proud of it; whatever 'it' happens to be.

Despite somewhat popular belief, you can't fake confidence. Well you can, but it will be obvious and have the opposite effect to that intended. Instead of faking it, use the counter-intuitive approach of using your lack of confidence to build your confidence. Embrace your vulnerability, ask questions, state when you don't understand something and confidently and assertively ask for help. Be proud of who you are, and stand confidently in your own skin. Whilst you may believe others will think less of you, they'll see you as the genuine article, someone to be trusted and respected, and from that, your confidence will bloom.

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