Caroline Kersten & Sapna Welsh

“Can I do this? Am I good enough? Am I ready?”

I had the privilege of introducing a senior executive of a top financial services institution, Barb, as a speaker at a WELD leadership conference.  I was so impressed by her talk on the power of leaders owning both their successes and failures.  She shared that she believes gaining experience is gaining wisdom; the wisdom to do what works and avoid what doesn’t in the future (“I’m never doing that again!”); and the confidence to say I’ve done it before and I can do it again.  Yet, the confidence gap still looms above us and it is powerful.  It impacts our ability to own our successes, negotiate for our true value, and break the glass ceiling.  Do men doubt themselves sometimes? Of course, but they don’t let their doubts stop them as often as women do.

Women underestimate themselves

We recently published the results of our Women’s Transition Barriers survey which was completed by 1000+ women, where one of the key conclusions underscores that women are less likely to confidently take on risk.  This in sharp contrast to men who tend to overestimate their capabilities positioning them to be bigger risk takers. In reality, men and women perform equally well. In fact, men enjoy taking on new challenges to show what they are capable of.  This lack of confidence has a big impact on women’s careers, because it holds them back in many ways:

Women apply for a job when they feel they fulfil about 90% of the criteria. Men apply when they meet about 60% of the qualifications. The result: extremely qualified and well prepared women hold back because of lack of confidence.

Women more routinely blame themselves when something goes wrong. Men look at external reasons/causes. The result: it undermines women’s self-confidence and they will make sure (even more) that they have 100% of what it takes to do the job.

Women tend to credit external circumstances or others when they do things well. Men take full credit for their achievements. The result: women don’t own their successes or demand recognition for their achievements as much as men do. This has a negative impact on their perceived capabilities.

Women don’t consider themselves as ready as men for promotions. The result: women don’t support their own case, which makes it harder for their managers to put them up for the next step.

Why do women need to feel perfect in order to feel confident? There are many causes that contribute to this, ranging from upbringing to societal expectations and personal experiences. As per our study, women are not afraid of change yet they are afraid to make mistakes.  With change comes mistakes and with mistakes comes learning and growth.  At a time when organizations are trying to get more women in leadership positions, a more interesting question is: what can women do about it?

As Barb so aptly said: “Risk is the only portal to success and fear of failure is standing guard at the door.”  Wherever that portal may take us, women have an opportunity to practice taking risks so we can readily ask our fear of failure, fueled by our inner critic, to step aside.

Here are three tips to face your fear of failure and gain confidence:

1. Know and leverage your strengths.

 We tend to dwell on all the things we can’t do well, but hardly take time to think about all our strengths. We invite you to really think about these and create a list with all the things you do well. Ask your family, friends, colleagues too. Before you know it your list will be longer than you would have imagined. The key to success lies in leveraging your strengths while ensuring that your weaknesses don’t become roadblocks to your success.  

Barbara shared an example of a time when she struggled with self doubt because she was one of the only working female executives at her children’s school.  She questioned whether she was doing the right thing.  When she was able to quiet the inner critic, she actually became dear friends with many of the other women at the school and they became her personal support network.

2. Learn to view a mistake as a learning experience that make you grow instead of making you risk-averse.

You can’t be successful in business without taking risks. Therefore, it is important to fight the tendency to focus all of the attention on the risk associated with a new initiative, venture or investment. Rather, balance your view of risk with excitement about the potential reward.

Barb shared many personal stories ranging from declining the opportunity of a lifetime but then facing fear of failure in the face and accepting the next opportunity when it came around.  She also mentioned the power of quick course correction when mistakes are made.

Schoemaker (2011), a Wharton PhD in decision science, states that 99 percent of successes derive from failures and that it is counterproductive to view mistakes as a negative thing.  None of us, after all, is perfect.  He goes as far as to recommend that global organizations plan and promote mistakes in order to improve learning and move on to the next level.  It all starts with trusting employees enough to give them learning opportunities that will boost their confidence in their own skills.  


Trust  +  Risk-taking  +  Evaluation  =  (Tremendous) Growth


3. Find a risk taking role model

Such role models embody strong leadership.  If needed, they will challenge the status quo and do not hesitate to make difficult decisions and lead by example by putting themselves on the frontlines of change.

Barb spoke of leaders modelling taking risks and incentivizing it through giving credit for new and innovative ideas, celebrating good risks (regardless of success failure) and debriefing in order to learn from our risk taking.

Bottom line: “Whether you think you can or you can’t, you are right.” Replace your inner critic with your inner champion.

We founded Leverage HR with a simple vision: transition talented women to the top through an international, multilingual network of qualified coaches and trainers.  We inspire our clients to understand their talents and how to leverage them to maximize their personal leadership to achieve results.  Since the publication of Worldly Women, we have trained and coached countless women and consulted with some of the most notable Fortune 500, Fortune 1000 organizations, and NGOs across the US and Europe.