Eighty percent of my coaching practice is comprised of women leaders and trailblazers. We face a unique set of challenges and expectations imposed upon us via social media, our families, our cultures, and our religions.
We continue to break those molds, rewrite the rules, redefine ourselves, achieve great things, and change our worlds. But, there is one key place I still see women getting stuck. It's on the internal limitations we impose upon ourselves. These are far more discreet. Thus, harder to identify. I want to introduce you to the top three ways I see women holding themselves back at work. Regardless if you're an entrepreneur, CEO, or employee, understanding the ways you hold yourself back and getting rid of those roadblocks will not only catapult you to new heights in your career—it can inspire other women to follow.
1. Erase The Brilliance Margin
I write a lot about The Brilliance Margin, which is a self-perceived measure of difference between your brilliance and capabilities to that of someone else. We often think there's a huge margin between our own abilities, knowledge, and talents as compared to:
- Our parents
- Our bosses
- Our colleagues
- Our partners
- Our friends
At some point, we come to the realization that the people we look up to and the ones we compare ourselves with don't have the answers. We do. Our brilliance exists in the unique sets of skills, capabilities, vulnerabilities, and mistakes that are intrinsically ours. We need to start owning our stories instead of constantly comparing our journeys of success and failure to someone else. When we do that, we learn that:
- Our parents are fallible humans who have been “faking it until they make it" through the unknowns for decades.
- Our bosses aren't really that much smarter than us, and yet they hired us to complement their shortcomings.
- Our partners want what's best for us but may not really know what that is (because only we do).
- Our friends don't have it all figured out because if we really listen, they're telling us so (and thank goodness, because who else would we commiserate with)?
- Celebrities either inherit or stumble into their celebritydom by chance. If you don't think there are hundreds or more Angelina Jolie's and Denzel Washingtons out there waiting to be discovered, think again!
If you've created a Brilliance Margin (and chances are you have), many things can happen.
- You don't speak up because you think someone probably has a better idea than you do.
- You don't speak up because you are afraid the person will think you're an idiot.
- You don't act on your vision or idea until you can run it by them.
- You don't create your own vision because you play the role of activating their vision or ideas.
- You don't advocate on your own behalf because you don't deserve “it" yet (it = promotion, money, love, acknowledgment).
Notice that the result of a Brilliance Margin is inaction. Don't speak. Don't act. Don't create. Don't own your greatness.
Don't believe that nonsense.
If you do want to harness and leverage your own power, there are just three rules to follow:
- Be the master of your internal dialogue. How do you speak to yourself? What stories do you tell yourself about your own power or potential?
- Trust that by knowing and being yourself, you will “show up" well in the world (which encompasses how you talk, the actions you take, and how they make you feel).
- Know that not all people are your people, so it's okay if not everyone is a member of your fan club. Remember that people who are not yet awakened to their own power will sometimes find yours threatening.
Lastly, examine your key relationships: parents, boss, partner, friends. Who do you look to for approval and permission? How would it feel to give yourself permission to speak up or take action? Where in your life have you already narrowed a Brilliance Margin? What strengths and lessons can you carry from that experience into another that needs attention?
If you're ready to start narrowing a Brilliance Margin in your life, action is key, because action is the only remedy for fear.
2. Soothe the Imposter Syndrome.
The Imposter Syndrome is one of the most common disguises fear wears (and very common among high-achieving women). Introduced in 1978 by Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in a paper entitled, The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women, it's a concept describing individuals who are marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a fraud.
The best way to soothe your Imposter Syndrome is to find a safe place to talk about it. You'll be astounded how many women have this in common. Talking about it deflates its power over you. Replace your imposter thoughts with positive affirmations and start rewiring your brain, yes, own who you are in your journey, right now. You're not an imposter. You're growing, evolving, and becoming a better version of yourself. Remember that your opinion is the real one that matters.
3. Recruit your cheering section.
Who are your biggest supporters? Where are there gaps in your cheering section? Home? Career? Health? Spiritual life? Family?
Feeling supported by the right people is mandatory in business. If you only rely on your digital audience, you will feel sorely disappointed when you share news and don't get a million likes. Creating an authentic cheering section sets the stage for you to be yourself.
Here are some of the reasons women don't ask for support:
- Fear of rejection/being told “no"
- We don't want to be a burden
- Fear of judgment
One of the greatest gifts from years of working inside of organizations are the beautiful friendships and professional relationships that resulted. When I started my own business, a former colleague and friend were kind enough to review all of my original sales presentations, program ideas, proposals, and pricing.
I then hired an executive coach to support me, who also held me accountable for the internal work of creating a business while I created the parts of the business the world could see. Working through your fears and having a partner to remind you of your gifts, your “why," and generally hold space for you to work through your internal and external challenges is nothing short of a game changer.
While so many people make promises to buy your services or share their contacts, here's the truth: only a fraction of them will actually show up for you. Here's another truth: the ones who do will support you in ways you cannot even imagine. Support is about quality, not volume.
Hire support where you need to. Otherwise, from your place of power, formally invite key people to your support team: colleagues, mentors, spouses, and partners. Be specific about the kind of support you need and ask if they are willing to sign up. It is heartwarming to watch the women I coach make these requests of the people in their lives because, let me tell you, they will say yes and sign up for you in droves! You'll wish you had done it sooner.
Wherever you are in your professional life, stop waiting for permission to be great or do great things. There's no right time. No perfect boss. No “dream" work scenario where you feel on top of your game five days per week.
Be honest with yourself, remove the barriers, and get to work.
When their frustration with current fabric care options had fashionistas Gwen Whiting and Lindsey Boyd worn out, the two entrepreneurs made it their mission to start a new niche and launch their very own at-home, eco-friendly laundry detergent line.
With a mission of turning an everyday domestic chore into a luxurious experience, these entrepreneurs not only conjured up an idea for an unconventional product line, but they successfully built their business while turning down the offer of every venture capitalist to knock on their door.
Gwen Whiting and Lindsey Boyd co-founded The Laundress in 2004 after dealing with their own personal frustrations with limited clothing care options. Whiting, having worked at Ralph Lauren in design and Boyd having worked at Chanel in corporate sales, soon accumulated a stylish wardrobe of designer pieces as perks of their jobs in the fashion industry. However, the duo quickly realized that the maintenance required for upkeeping these items were far from adequate. Laundry products on the market at the time did not cater to delicate textures and fabrics such as tweed blazers, cable-knit cashmere and silk blouses. Taking their clothing to the dry cleaners also proved hopeless as their clothing would often come back with stains or even be ruined despite the overload of chemicals used to clean them. With nowhere left to turn, Whiting and Boyd were determined to create their own laundry solutions designed for specific fabrics.
Not only did the entrepreneurs develop the business expertise needed to finally begin their own company, but they also shared the same educational background that equipped them to pursue their unconventional business venture. Whiting and Boyd met in college as students at Cornell University majoring in Fiber Science, Textile, and Apparel Management and Design. The pair was introduced by a mutual friend and instantly knew they would become business partners. "It was inevitable that we were going to have a business together. We are both extremely entrepreneurial by nature, and it was one of the connections that we instantly shared" said Whiting. After focusing on pursuing their own individual careers for a while, Whiting and Boyd quickly discovered a void in the fabric care marketplace when their clients would continuously inquire about the upkeep of their designer pieces.
The entrepreneurial duo was committed to researching and developing their own eco-friendly laundry products and soon launched their own at-home solutions for specific fabrics like silk, wool and denim, which ultimately eliminated the need for dry cleaning for those particular items. Despite their products filling a necessary void in the market, it quickly became challenging for the founders to persuade people to shift their focus away from traditional laundry care options in order to try their products. However, Whiting and Boyd believed in their mission for the Laundress and bootstrapped from the very beginning, refusing all venture capital funding with the goal of growing organically. In order to be successful, they had to get creative in fundraising. "In the very early days, we funded business development by hosting a 'for profit' party at a New York City restaurant and inviting friends, family, co-workers, etc. to support our new venture. That was pre-Kickstarter and an inventive way to make everyone feel a big part of our decision to be entrepreneurs," said Whiting.
While turning down VC funding as new entrepreneurs seems unimaginable, it is as equally unfathomable to consider how these women gained national traction without social media, all the while hustling to fund their business. For Whiting and Boyd, who started their business before social media existed, it was imperative that they promote their brand by leveraging the resources they had available to them. The CEO's were one of the first to sell consumer goods, let alone detergent, online with the goal of reaching a national audience. Despite having limited retail distribution, they leveraged the power of their website and became featured in publications on both a national and international scale. "Before social media platforms existed, we nurtured our own Laundress community with engaging content on our website, step-by-step tutorials on our blog, and one-on-one communication through our Ask The Laundress email," Whiting explained. With technology evolving and the birth of social media platforms, the founders expanded the conversation about their products from website, blog and email to platforms like Facebook and Instagram.
As female entrepreneurs, Whiting and Boyd faced additional hardships as misconceptions about their mission ultimately proved to disappoint more than it encouraged them. As women selling luxury detergent, there existed a preconceived notion that funding would be more easily attainable based upon their gender.
"Everyone thought it was easy to access capital as female entrepreneurs, but it was actually very challenging. We had this unique and disruptive idea within a very traditional space and it was hard to get people on board at first. It's been a continuous journey to educate people in fabric care and home cleaning," said Boyd.
Reflecting on their journey as entrepreneurs, the founders express no regrets about refusing to accept venture capital throughout the process. "Over the years, we could never quantify the cost benefit of VC funding so we continued to grow organically and remain independent by funding ourselves with credit cards and loans," explained Boyd. While their decision proved fruitful, the duo expressed their consideration towards other entrepreneurs who may not be able to fully fund their business as they grow. Because funding is a situational experience, entrepreneurs must ultimately do what is best for their business as no one path is optimal for every entrepreneur or every business.
With an increasing amount of women entering entrepreneurship with their own unique set of products or services, the CEO's offer up one piece of advice on how female entrepreneurs can be successful in their endeavors.
Whiting: "Our advice to anyone looking to build their brands: Have a strong business plan and vision. If you are not disciplined to write a business plan first then you are not disciplined to start a business. Get your ideas down so you ask yourself the right questions; it helps you get organized and plan next steps."
Boyd: "Create quality products without sacrificing the ingredients—no cutting corners. What you create should be the most important piece. Stay passionate, and trust your instincts and follow your gut—something woman are awesome at!"