When is it okay to declare yourself an expert? How do you gain the needed confidence to own your role as a key influencer in your niche?
“Good to hear from you, Roberta, how’s the job hunt coming along?” I asked my childhood friend when she called me recently from Ohio.
“Well, it’s pretty certain that we’re going to need to leave Ohio if I want to find my next position,” she replied.
“Why is that?” I inquired.
“Well, the jobs I see listed here in Ohio are jobs I can do, but every job I see listed in New York, Boston or DC are jobs I would be excited to do, so those are what I’m pursuing,” Roberta admitted.
“What if instead of looking for a job, you pursued a thought leadership strategy that brought folks to you?” I asked.
“What would that look like?” she asked.
“What if you started a blog, or guest blogged, tweeted or wrote a few columns or whitepapers about what you’re an expert in?” I suggested.
“I’ve thought of that, but I’m not sure that I would have enough to say that I could write something every day,” she replied. “Besides, I have to admit, I’m not always comfortable putting myself in the ‘expert’ category – I either think there are lots of other folks who know what I know, or I think that what I know is pretty obvious.”
“Are there people interested in hiring you for your expertise?” I asked.
“Yes,” she agreed.
“And don’t you have a masters degree in your field of specialty?”
“And you’ve worked in your field for a long time?”
“About 25 years,” she admitted.
“It’s probably okay to declare yourself an expert at this point,” I said with a laugh.
Our conversation went on to other topics, but when I got off the phone, I was wondering to myself why we do that – why are we not ready to declare ourselves experts when, to the outside world, we have already arrived?
Courtney Stanton, a project manager at a video game company in Boston identified this phenomenon as all but ubiquitous among the women in her industry when she put together the No Show Conference, a brand new game developer conference, and reached out to others in her industry to participate.
“When I’d talk to men about the conference” she wrote in her blog post following the event, “And ask[ed] if they felt like they had an idea to submit for a talk, they’d *always* start brainstorming on the spot. I’m not generalizing — every guy I talked to about speaking was able to come up with an idea, or multiple ideas, right away…and yet, overwhelmingly the women I talked to with the same pitch deferred with a, “well, but I’m not an expert on anything,” or “I wouldn’t know what to submit,” or “yes but I’m not a *lead* [title], so you should talk to my boss and see if he’d want to present.”
When my friends at the National Women’s Business Council and I started the first venture conference for women,Springboard, we saw some of that same behavior – we would speak to great women entrepreneurs and recommend they present at the conference, but some would demur and we found ourselves having to convince obviously qualified CEOs and founders to pitch.
Find Your Presumptive Bravado
Patti Smith, the 70’s rock legend who opened the door for Madonna and Lady Gaga, was asked for her secret to success, and she replied, “There was something in me, some kind of presumptive bravado that told me that, ‘I could do that.’” (emphasis mine)
So what does it take to have, (or encourage others to have), presumptive bravado? External validation, nomination and support, including champions and fairy godmothers.
Credentials, awards, a book contract, an invitation to speak or present – often it is the external designation that can overcome the inner critic. It was certainly true that when Wiley accepted my book proposal, I could no longer doubt that I could write a book. It became an imperative.
In politics, and in venture forums, it helps to have others nominating or designating candidates. When we ran the first Springboard conference, we asked bankers, lawyers, accountants and early stage investors to nominate women to present at the event. This helped us to uncover a number of folks who wouldn’t have heard about or otherwise chose to present.
What Courtney found when organizing the No Show Conference and what we found when organizing Springboard, was that you need to offer potential presenters mentoring, practice sessions, and one-on-one slide deck reviews with people who have presented before at these sorts of events. Support looks different in every situation but is critical to overcome the common ‘I can’t do this’ thinking.
Champions & Fairy Godmothers
Unfortunately, the world is not always set up with the support we are looking for. You may not have any idea who can nominate you or you may not have any relevant credentials for what you’re attempting to do. If so, finding your presumptive bravado might involve designating a friend or colleague who you can rely on to say ‘yes, go for it’ every time you get an opportunity.
For me, it is my friend and mentor Sam Horn, who always stands as my champion, who says ‘You can do this, I believe in you,’ when I get mired in doubts about the value of what I have to say or hesitate in writing the book now under contract.
Who can be your champion? Who can stand by your side with the cheerleader pom poms and keep you going?
One small caveat here – Sara Blakely, CEO of Spanx, (who turned $5000 into a billion dollar company) would advise that we don’t look for that external validation from a family member or really close friend, because they are often too protective, and may discourage us from taking a risk in case it might not work out.
This happened recently with a woman entrepreneur I am advising. She went to one of her closest friends to share her plans to leave her corporate job and start a new business and the friend spent an hour over lunch telling her not to take the risk. It took me several hours over the next month to undo that advice. If you must share your idea close to home, start the conversation by saying something like… ‘I know you’re going to be worried about what I’m about to tell you, but what I need from you right now is support, not doubts.’ Ask them to think of themselves as your fairy godmother and think about what they can do to produce the pumpkin, mice or glass slippers to make your idea possible.
Go for it!
As my friend Eunice Azzani always said, “If you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much room!”
The time is now – to find your own presumptive bravado and begin your own thought leadership. You do have something to say – I know you do. Let me be the first to tell you ‘I believe in you – you can do this.’ Start today!