Recently, a highly respected Nigerian non-executive board director from my organisation offered me his observations on my performance as the general counsel of the bank. My immediate inclination was that I was about to get negative feedback. “Uh-oh” I thought. So I promptly informed him that it wasn’t necessary for him to do this as I was well aware of my faults – I was new to the role and was still learning. After all I am only “human”. He reassured me that it was constructive feedback and that we should meet so he could share his thoughts. With a heavy heart, I agreed.
However, I was pleasantly surprised, but delighted in equal measure by his comments. He said, “Lesley, do you notice that whenever you speak in board meetings, every director in the room gives you their full and undivided attention. They stop whatever they are doing and just listen”. He further stated “You speak with so much passion, knowledge and conviction in everything you say that you come across as very credible and competent. You have earned the trust of the board. Therefore, it is important for you to use your position and influence carefully as that is an asset, which, if used wisely, can really help to change culture and build confidence in an organisation. That is good leadership”.
Following on from this, he then shared with me some wonderful African proverbs designed to subtly describe areas where I could enhance my performance but communicated so eloquently so as not to cause offence. I now know so many African proverbs that surely, I could write a book and it would become a best-seller!
This encounter gave me good cause for self-reflection. We are always being told that it is still so challenging for women to have a voice in the boardroom and that we suffer from imposter syndrome. So, what was it about my characteristics that enabled my board director to come to his conclusions about my performance in the boardroom?
After much careful consideration, I believe it simply came down to confidence, careful preparation, good communication and not being afraid to take part in the conversation. I now truly appreciate the significance that “confidence” can have on you both personally and professionally, and how this perception of you can impact on the people you may want to influence.
I recall being told over dinner once by a male friend that he had never met a woman like me before. He said he thought I was “supremely confident” whilst most women he knew, were not. But am I? I don’t see myself in that way as I am just being me and following through with what I believe I can do; having the courage of my convictions and just getting on and doing it. I don’t put up with obstacles in my way and if there are barriers that I can’t influence, I just go around them or take a different direction to ultimately achieve my goal. Life is too short not to take up opportunities that come your way. Only having one or two competencies on the job spec never prevented me from putting myself forward – and I have taken that approach throughout my career.
From my perspective, a lot of this can be whittled down to confidence and self-belief and not putting limitations on yourself of what you can achieve personally. I am a big believer in self-help, making time and effort to invest in you and acquiring the new skills needed to enhance your life portfolio.
One point I do want to address is the concept of “imposter syndrome”. More often than not, this term is characterised as being a trait applicable to women and with associated negative connotations. In my view, I do not think it is a weakness to have feelings of uncertainty, particularly when taking on a new role or a different capacity, such as parenting. We are all only human and it is normal to feel unsure when you undertake new challenges. It is important to acknowledge and accept these feelings as this will help you move forward. But what is key is acknowledging they are feelings and not objective truth. It can even help to distance one-self from the thought and say, “Hello feeling,” to further underline it’s not objective.
Of course there is always an element of risk in any new role, especially if you haven’t done it before but we should all be wise enough to know where to turn if we need help. Don’t be afraid to reach out for support from colleagues, friends and external professionals. That is the best approach; it is ok to make mistakes. It’s the best way to learn – just don’t keep repeating them.
If you want a seat at the table, then I advocate that building confidence and self-belief are the first steps. Take that first step.
And also, expect the best from others. My Nigerian board director really surprised me with his great leadership and generosity of spirit. I sense that the environment is becoming a more progressive one.
FBN Bank (UK) Limited