Upon meeting Claire Shipman, it’s hard to imagine she lacks confidence. A frequent contributor to “Good Morning America” and other ABC News programs, she maintains her on-screen confidence even after the cameras stop rolling. However, Ms. Shipman is no stranger to self-doubt, and during dinner with BBC news anchor Katty Kay several years ago, the two came to realize even the most successful women were plagued by such feelings. What followed was a multiyear investigation into women and confidence. The result? The Confidence Code – a bestseller full of insights on women and confidence, its effect on their success and how they can get it.
BBH’s Adrienne Penta recently sat down with Claire Shipman in Washington, D.C. to dive into the topic of confidence.
You’ve said confidence is not what you thought it was when you started writing The Confidence Code. What is confidence to you now, and does your definition continue to change?
The book has made me more apt to think about the bits and pieces of confidence I see in various people, and it always looks different. I’m now much more open to noticing the different types of confidence that exist in people. Confidence is more than just some strong- or successful-looking woman who seems confident.
The definition in the book, in my mind, hasn’t changed: confidence is what turns our thoughts into action. I think the action component, the sense that, “Yes, I can do that, and I’m willing to take that risk,” pulls everything in. It leads to an ability to take risks, a willingness to confront failure. It’s not about a style.
"Confidence is what turns our thoughts into action."
A lot of the book is about becoming more confident just by doing, and you talk about how women can train themselves to be confident. What do you think the best practices are for women wanting to become more confident? What’s worked for you?
Well, I’m a work in progress. What’s worked best for me? Understanding what impedes confidence. It took me a long time to understand that perfectionism and being slightly obsessive compulsive are the enemies of confidence. I always thought: “I’m just really thorough – that’s just the way I work.”
For me, it’s been developing ways to let myself do things less perfectly and to take chances – for example, being willing to put a report on the air that I don’t think is perfect. It’s different for everybody, and I think people have to ask themselves: “What’s the area where I need to step outside my comfort zone?”
The cognitive behavioral therapy practices around rumination have also really helped me – learning how to stop yourself from and deal with overthinking. As women, we tend to rerun scenarios over and over in our heads, often focusing on the negative. The research I’ve looked at has shown that giving yourself one alternate explanation – even if it’s not a good one – can help you move on.
Katty said the criticism she’s received over social media has been good for her confidence and toughened her up. Most women don’t have the opportunity to get a lot of critical feedback in a low-stakes environment. How do women get that type of exposure so that they can be less vulnerable to criticism?
The only way you’re really going to get that is when you stretch and take risks, when you put yourself out there. You have to ask for stretch assignments and try to do things you’re not sure you’re ready for. You’ll get more feedback. Not all of it will be positive, but that’s what you’re looking for.
We have two pillars of confidence. One is about risk-taking – as we say, act more and think less. We have to be willing to say, “I’m going to try that. I may not be that good at it, but that’s how I’m going to learn and grow.”
The other is perspective. We must be able to get feedback and realize 90% of what I heard was good and 10% wasn’t. I don’t need to spend 90% of my time thinking about the 10%.
Do you have a confidence role model?
In a classic sense, my confidence role model is Christine Lagarde of the International Monetary Fund. We interviewed her for the book, and she’s just extraordinary – but also allows herself to be vulnerable. She talks about how she feels she lacks confidence in some ways because she always wants to be over-prepared. She’s so real, and she’s willing to take enormous risks. Her message about women and leadership is not always popular, but she’s okay with that. My favorite story she tells is about carrying “the list.” [Men will say:] “I’d love to put more women on the board, but we just don’t know any qualified women,” and then she pulls out this list of qualified women.
I would also say my kids are my confidence role models. My son is a great performer. I watch the ease with which he performs and think: “Wow, I still get nervous.” And my daughter is such a rebel in a good way. She’s really athletic, and I see her out there playing basketball or soccer, trying these crazy things or taking chances, and then losing and dealing with that. I kind of envy it.
How did you foster that kind of behavior in your children? The book tells us to allow our kids to fail more often and not make everything so easy for them. That’s really hard to do.
I don’t know that I fostered it to be honest. I think my daughter had that personality from birth, so to some extent the research helped me realize it was okay. My instinct was: “What do you mean? Why’d you throw away your homework again?” And you realize that it’s okay to let her do that – even if it’s hard for me right now.
When your kids fail, you don’t have to feel bad about it; you don’t have to try to fix it. What you want to do is help them figure out how they are going to take that failure and learn from it. It’s comforting as a parent to know that’s okay. It takes away some of the pain.
In school, girls excel and exceed expectations; they’re people pleasers. However, those skills don’t necessarily serve them well in the corporate world. What should we look for in the schools that are educating our girls?
Carol Dweck1 actually laid this out first. Initially, the facts mystified me and Katty. We thought, “How can our girls be excelling in high school and college and then hit this bump where they suddenly lose confidence? It doesn’t make sense.” Carol said to us, “If life were one long grade school, women would rule the world.”
The problem is that the rules change. For the first 23 years of our lives, we live according to a different set of rules than those the real world uses. We’re teaching girls to become perfectionists and people pleasers, and from an early age, they’re so good at that. Their brains are wired differently than boys, so it’s easier for them to sit still and please people. The EQ (emotional intelligence) factor is a lot stronger for them.
The focus needs to be not on how we teach them to get everything right, but on how to take risks and stretch and do things they’re not good at. We should teach them to care about the result less and to think, “Alright, what am I going to do about that result? How am I going to make it better?”
A couple of people have commented to us – and there’s interesting data as well – on the link between female success, especially in the corporate world, and participation in competitive sports. It’s the one arena where girls learn over and over again to fail, to lose and to recover.
You say we should encourage girls to be “a little bit bad” and not to fall in line. However, do you think there may be negative consequences of that behavior once they are in the workplace? Many of us have seen women who have a strong sense of self and a lot of confidence struggle with likability. How do you balance those?
People think of confidence as looking or behaving a certain way – often like stereotypical male behavior – speaking first in a meeting or dominating the conversation. That’s not the only way confidence looks. It was an epiphany for us when we got to that point. Christine Lagarde told us that, as women, we shouldn’t sacrifice what makes us exceptional as we’re trying to lead. We don’t want to just put on male armor.
Nonetheless, I do think it’s true that women who care less about what others think and who are willing to be blunt or bold are often penalized. The studies show it. One thing we found when we talked to managers, executives and bosses is that it can be really useful for women and men to have candid conversations about their operational style with superiors and people who work for them. If you’re a woman who likes to listen and analyze and not speak up first in meetings, make that a virtue. Explain to people, “Here’s the role I’m going to play, and here’s why I think I’m effective doing it.” Likewise, if you’re somebody who acts in a traditionally confident way and likes to speak up and be blunt, explain that. Talking about this openly benefits everybody.
There are interesting studies about what kind of leader is most effective in the 21st century, and it’s a blend of these traditional female and male leadership skills. Just as I would say this to men who have less EQ, women who operate in a similar way are going to miss out on some essential leadership skills. It’s just as important now to be able to negotiate, to conciliate, to actually listen. I think all of us can pick up new leadership skills, and the exciting thing is that those that often come more naturally to women are really valuable.
"Christine Lagarde told us that, as women, we shouldn’t sacrifice what makes us exceptional as we’re trying to lead."
Having a higher level of emotional intelligence seems like it can be both a benefit and a burden.
What I enjoyed most about our book and the research we did was the science behind where confidence comes from. Why is it actually at a very base level valuable for us as humans? Talking to the man who studies it in rats, the scientist who studies it in monkeys, and geneticists. As controversial as it sounds, there are things about our physiology and biology that mean our brains work a little differently than men’s.
Women have much higher EQ, and our inputs are so much greater. We’re constantly multitasking and understanding everything around us. We have the capacity to look at the environment and think: “I’m probably not the biggest expert out there.” I think we do have an ability to assess things either accurately or, of course, pessimistically. We’re conscious; we look out and think: “There probably are 100 more people who could do this job better than I could.” Sometimes we may be right, but that will impede us from acting. That’s the hard part: our read of the situation is so much broader, more intense and nuanced.
The confidence gap is exacerbated for women in the financial world. The Center for Talent Innovation recently studied women and wealth management. Its research showed that the gap between confidence and financial literacy is sizable in women who have created wealth themselves and are knowledgeable about investing. Why do you think it is? Do you think that the more educated and successful women become, the more they know what they don’t know and underestimate themselves?
There’s some of that. There’s a study we put in the book that found there’s a certain lack of confidence that comes with extreme intelligence. I have to think that when you’re already something of an expert or you’ve built wealth, maybe you do know a little too much about all of the options and things you could be doing. Then you become a little bit perfectionistic and judgmental of yourself.
I think women don’t always feel the connection to finances, the passion for it that they do around other things. There are probably a number of reasons. A lot of the investment professionals they’re dealing with are men, and that relationship isn’t always going to resonate.
The narrative may not be right for women, yet in terms of “What does this mean?” and “Why is this important for your family? Why is it important for your legacy?” We must make the value proposition clearer for women. For men, I often think that making a profit is a “win” – it’s a game. For women, I think the motivation is somewhat different.
Claire, thank you for an engaging conversation.
This publication is provided by Brown Brothers Harriman & Co. and its subsidiaries ("BBH") to recipients, who are classified as Professional Clients or Eligible Counterparties if in the European Economic Area ("EEA"), solely for informational purposes. This does not constitute legal, tax or investment advice and is not intended as an offer to sell or a solicitation to buy securities or investment products. Any reference to tax matters is not intended to be used, and may not be used, for purposes of avoiding penalties under the U.S. Internal Revenue Code or for promotion, marketing or recommendation to third parties. This information has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable that are available upon request. This material does not comprise an offer of services. Any opinions expressed are subject to change without notice. Unauthorized use or distribution without the prior written permission of BBH is prohibited. This publication is approved for distribution in member states of the EEA by Brown Brothers Harriman Investor Services Limited, authorized and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA). BBH is a service mark of Brown Brothers Harriman & Co., registered in the United States and other countries.
© Brown Brothers Harriman & Co. 2015. All rights reserved. 2015.
1 Author of the bestseller Mindset and a Stanford University psychology professor.