In their ground-breaking book, The Confidence Code, authors Katty Kay and Claire Shipman detailed the myriad ways in which a lack of confidence holds women back relative to men. We apply for promotions later, we communicate more tentatively, we sometimes avoid taking career-shaping risks.
But while building confidence is critical for all women leaders, it is non-negotiable for women entrepreneurs. Whether you are negotiating a deal, closing sales, pitching investors for growth capital, or convincing top-shelf talent to take a salary cut to join your startup, your confidence is the x-factor you need to secure buy-in, create followers and bring your entrepreneurial vision to life.
I'm willing to bet this isn't the first time you've read about the connection between confidence and success. In fact, "build confidence" is a recurring refrain in almost every conversation I have had with both female founders and their advisors.
But the problem with the "build confidence" advice is that a) you can be highly confident in certain areas of your life and less confident in others, and b) not all types of confidence result in business success.
The key question, which most people never ask, by the way, is this: In which areas do I most need to build confidence in order to grow and scale my business?
In my years of interviewing and researching high-performing female founders, I've identified three core areas where your confidence translates into high impact ROI for you and your business.
1. The confidence to ask for blunt feedback.
One of the most insidious, and rarely discussed, forms of unconscious gender bias is the tendency for people to hold back on delivering tough feedback to women entrepreneurs so as not to upset them.
Serial entrepreneur Cindy Whitehead, who built and sold two pharmaceutical companies and nailed down $1.5 billion in exits in the process, says feedback is a critical ingredient for entrepreneurial success and women founders must cultivate the confidence to ask for it as often as possible. "We can't have an absence of candour," Whitehead says.
Challenge yourself to instruct your advisors, team and confidants to give you their direct, blunt feedback. It might sting in the beginning, but in the end you and your company will be better for their honesty.
2. The confidence to admit you don't have all the answers.
Lawyer/grain farmer turned fintech entrepreneur Emma Weston had little expertise in either blockchain, software engineering or financial technology platforms when she co-founded AgriDigital, an ERP-style solution that merges commodity management, supply chain financing and traceability.
What she did have, however, was deep domain knowledge on the payment security and traceability challenges farmers faced when selling their food into the global supply chain. Convinced of the need for a solution, Weston embarked on a path of humbly seeking advice, "asking the dumb questions", and surrounding herself with as many brilliant subject matter experts as she could. "You can't grow if you feel like you need to have all the answers," she says.
Observe the sense of insecurity or inadequacy that might come up when you don't have the information or know-how you need in a particular area. Replace the insecurity with curiosity and the confidence to ask for help.
3. The confidence to eschew "work-life balance."
Work-life balance: three words which, when strung together consecutively can elicit both longing and guilt in the hearts and minds of hard-working female founders. But as much as grocery aisle headlines may instruct us on the primacy of work-life balance, the realities of running a thriving company - especially during a high growth phase - can wreak havoc on your schedule.
Daily Harvest founder Rachel Drori, who secured $43 million in second round funding for her clean smoothie manufacturer in 2017, and counts Serena Williams and Gwyneth Paltrow among her investors, found the confidence to drop the superwoman cape early on. She chose the two things most important to her, her children and her company, and chose to focus her full attention on those priorities and ignore everything else.
Drori advises female founders to embrace tradeoffs. "You say to yourself, you know what, I understand that I'm going to have to make tradeoffs and that this is not going to be easy and there's definitely going to be sacrifices. And it is one of the first things that that you have to do."
Identify two or three critical priorities for you at this time in your life. Focus on these areas and give yourself permission to let other areas of your life take a backseat.
As a female founder, you're taking risks both big and small every day. By cultivating these three types of confidence, you'll give yourself a foundation of resilience that will enable you to keep on scaling.