Beautiful and Terrible Things
My year of huge change and what it has taught me – part two of a reflection in three parts.
In part one of this blog on my first year in a new role, I reflected on the importance of belonging and how to establish it during leadership transition. If belonging was one of the big themes I rumbled with last year, then confidence was the other.
In a sense they’re two sides of the same coin; two different ways of exploring the relationship between the firm and the individual as a leader. Belonging starts with the firm, and is about what I could do as an individual and a leader to accelerate my understanding of it, its acceptance of me, and my sense of being ‘at home’. Confidence starts with me – who I am as a leader, how I’m showing up, what I have to offer the organisation, and what I’m standing on.
Day one, walking into my new role, in a prestigious organisation, complex in its structures, proud in its history, full of very smart and senior people doing things I didn’t understand … walking in there, it was easy to allow every deep-seated old-school mental model of leadership to loom up out of the shadows. I must look competent. I must be smart. I must ‘Be Serious’ (glasses on, hair up…). I must act, and be seen to act, quickly and decisively. I must, in short, prove myself.
Now of course being being confident as a new leader matters hugely. You need enough self belief to walk through the door for a start. And once you’ve made it through the door, confidence continues to matter – but not for the reasons we might immediately think of. And it doesn’t look quite like we might expect either.
The word confidence comes from the Latin con fides – meaning ‘with faith’. This means it has little kernel of uncertainty right at its heart. I describe it in my book as a sort of knowing-unknowing. Confidence implies stepping into that place of unknowing, but stepping anyway. It’s a glorious, brave and vulnerable thing to do, and has nothing whatsoever to do with absolutes or spectacles or bombast.
We know from research that there are some particular traits associated with true confidence. Confident people play – they stay curious, and try new things. They hold their nerve when the unexpected happens, and handle conflict graciously and without taking it personally. Most strikingly, confident people transcend and include – celebrating, embracing and incorporating the widest possible range of ideas and opinions.
It’s easy to see how critical all of these capacities are to a new leader in a new role, and how different to that defensive sort of faux confidence, which would have us doubling down on our own ideas and opinions, acting too soon, and being liable to wobble in the face of the slightest criticism or the first derailer.
In the book, I suggest four ways by which we might get ourselves some confidence:
This is fake-it-till-you-make-it for your own brain – ‘I’m not nervous, I’m excited!’ This worked ludicrously well for me. The more I could treat my first year as a tremendously exciting adventure that I felt honoured and just plain chuffed to be on, the better. The more I could stay curious and enjoy learning, the more I did in fact learn, and the more I was able to stay in that expansive, undefensive space, and roll with things as they came along. This takes dedication and practice, but it was worth it. Every time I lost my way on this and ended up back in that ‘I’m smarter than you’, ‘I’m right-you’re wrong’ space, things went awry.
Building your Cairn
This is about very deliberately naming and placing your own achievements together in a little bundle like the bundles of rocks you might find on a Scottish mountain. This worked for me too, but I’d add a couple of important learnings – first, nobody cared a fig about the cairn I’d built before I arrived but me. Yes it might have helped me to land the role back in the mists of time, but by Day 1, it was as if I’d fallen from the sky for all the difference my past achievements made to anybody else in the organisation. They were deeply useful to me, as a source of confidence and courage, but to everyone else, I was starting over. This was both disconcerting and liberating.
Secondly, I was worried at first that I wasn’t doing a good job of building a new cairn. My first year was meeting people, listening, learning, imagining. I wasn’t bagging big, concrete achievements; I didn’t have any big rocks to pile together. But I came to realise that I was looking in the wrong place for rocks. My new cairn, a year on, is getting there – it’s built of the pebbles of all the conversations I’ve had. Every time I’ve showed up, been willing to listen, teased out an interesting chain of thought, offered an alternative perspective, given someone time, or space, or insights, brought clarity, brought simplicity, brought passion … These things matter. Build your cairn.
This is about being true to oneself – being clear and focused on one’s purpose and on what matters. In a sense, this one has been easier for me personally in my first year, because I joined an organisation specifically because of its purpose and values and its commitment to living them.
But the learning for me here has been about staying focused. Remembering that the urgent thing, or the loud thing, or the shiny thing is not necessarily the most importantthing. I have been able to be at my most confident when I’ve been able to take a step back, see as much of the big picture as I can, get comfortable with the bits that are still shrouded in mystery as well as the bits that are flashing and shrieking. I have been able to be at my most confident when I’ve remembered specifically what value I am here to deliver, and have backed myself to focus on that.
Take Your Space
The fourth strategy that my book advocates for is around taking your space, in physical space and in time. The physical one has been interesting this year. I’ve thought quite hard about how to dress, and have on more than one occasion picked up my things and moved to a different chair in meetings, particularly meetings where I am the only woman, if I feel that will help me to participate more fully and have my voice better heard.
More interesting still has been the idea of temporal space. I keep returning in my mind to a brilliant model in How Buildings Learn by Stewart Brand (Can you tell I’m in engineering now? Do you see what I did there?!) about how buildings learning and change at different rates – you change pictures and chairs faster than you change the plumbing, and by the time you get down to the foundations, you’re dealing with pretty much geological time rather than shifting fashions.
The times this year when I’ve felt least confident and most overwhelmed are when I’ve seen the sheer magnitude of the task in front of me and felt pressure to deliver a once-in-generation transformational change by Christmas. Confidence comes from being able to pace myself, to take the time I need – to take a moment to breath, an hour to listen, a week to dream, a month to plan …
None of this is easy. It’s hard to hold the rope lightly and to be vulnerable and visible and to hold your nerve. One thing which I didn’t perhaps make enough of in the book is the importance of self love and self care as the bedrock. I have taken myself to bed and to the gym more faithfully this past year than I ever have before. I’ve eaten well, I’ve hung out with the kids, I’ve seen friends.
But it’s also worth saying in closing that the very act of having been through this year of transition has led to my confidence being at perhaps an all-time high. There’s such a joy that comes from having backed myself, having got up after being knocked down, having had the space and the opportunity to create something new. There’s such a joy that comes from being brave enough to do what I love.
On my first day a year ago, I had new shoes, a croissant, a bucket-load of coffee. I made a friend walk me to the office as if they were doing the school run. My legs were still shaking as I walked into reception and my mouth was so dry that I stumbled over saying my own name. In my pocket, I had a scrap of paper on which I’d scribbled one of my favourite quotes of all time, from Frederick Buechner:
“Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.”
Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash