Cultivating confidence

Philip Morgan

Boy, if ever a post I've written doesn't live up to the subject line, this will probably be the one. I still want to try.Many of the 58.1% of you who said competition doesn't concern you had this wonderful sense of confidence that imbued your thoughts on the subject. Where does confidence like that come from? If you're not born with it, what can you do to cultivate it?Let me offer some ideas.SpecializeBig surprise that I'd recommend this, huh? ;-) Let me elaborate a bit.Specialization both increases and reduces your confidence. For most people, it looks like this:ImageThe decision to specialize requires courage, and it can often bring on a short-lived but intense bout of imposter syndrome. That's what causes the dip in confidence right after you decide to specialize. The words you'll hear inside your head usually go like this: "Who am I to claim to be a specialist in __________?"This happens if you specialize horizontally, and it also happens if you specialize vertically. Doesn't really matter, most of us get a visit from Mister Imposter Syndrome. But he doesn't hang around forever, and pretty quickly imposter syndrome is replaced by this growing feeling of confidence as you gain repeated exposure to similar people, problems, and processes.On average, you deal with 6.17 clients per year (this number sourced from a previous survey to my email list). If almost all of those clients were in the same vertical, then in 2 years you'd work with ~12 clients who have kind of a lot in common with each other.After that kind of repetition, how much better would you be at the following?

  • Knowing your clients "blind spots".
  • Knowing what moves the needle for your clients business.
  • Knowing what makes your clients eyes light up in a sales conversation.
  • Knowing what turf the IT department is afraid of ceding.
  • Knowing what your clients should care about but actually don't care about.

This list could go on and on. Don't you agree that just a bit of repetition could make you far better at what you do and therefore more confident?ResearchThere are limits to what experience can teach you. There are limits in terms of how quickly you can learn, and there are limits to what you can learn from experience.Research is a way to move past those limits, and it surprises me that I don't hear more people talk about this as a core part of their business.Here's what I'd suggest you consider researching:

  • Anything that you see as a risk to the success of your client engagements.
  • Anything where your clients have a question and you don't have a good answer and the lack of a good answer makes you uneasy.
  • Anything where you're right and you know it but your clients override your judgement calls and you know it's going to hurt the project for the client to have their way.
  • If you're a designer: why Craigslist (and eBay, for that matter) has been successful despite their ugly UI.
  • If you're a developer: why more than half of IT projects fail.

Does your research have to be original? Not at first. Just doing it will make you into a better version of yourself and lead you to deeper, more impactful, or more original questions to answer.Does your research need to be peer reviewed? No (but you knew that already, didn't you?). We're not in academia here, we're just trying to help our clients get better. Relatively sparse, imperfect datasets can help them do that.Does the data you collect need to be obscure data that requires a lot of work to dig up? Nope! Sometimes just assembling easily available information in the right way can produce real value in terms of helping clients make better decisions.Research has a lot of benefits, but one of the more obvious ones is that you can stop qualifying your answers to some questions with "well, in my experience...". That does wonders for your confidence.EmpathyEmpathy can be a tremendous asset in your business, but it can play a particularly useful role early on while you're getting through that "imposter syndrome dip" I graphed out above.When you're newly specialized, you bring your technical skill to your clients and that does create value for them, but depending on how you arrived at your specialization you may not bring much domain expertise (domain expertise = knowing about your clients world in a way that amplifies the value of your raw technical skill). So instead of that domain expertise, which does take some time to cultivate, here's what you can do instead:Give a shit. Be extravagant with your shit-giving.It's amazing how much value you can create by being a person with a technical skillset who is also curious, open-minded, and eager to help your clients improve. Go beyond just wanting to build things to spec and look for opportunities that perhaps even your client isn't aware of. That's what I mean by saying you should give a shit. It's not that I doubt you care about your work, but if you expand the scope of what you care about a bit it can make a huge difference.Empathy doesn't substitute for basic competence, but it does help create a more collaborative relationship with clients whereby you can create more value than you otherwise would by just building things to spec.Lead from behindThis last suggestion won't be appropriate for everyone and every personality type, but for the more introverted, passive-by-nature folks it is worth thinking about what it means to "lead from behind".If you lack confidence because you think you can't lead an engagement (or lead a sales process), I'd invite you to question what leadership really means. Do you picture leaders as people who take charge and use force of will to get others to do what they want?Instead of using force to accomplish some goal, it's possible to accomplish the same thing or actually get better results with a combination of:

  • Asking the right questions
  • Diplomatically questioning goals or motivations
  • Gently challenging or questioning assumptions
  • Frequently giving permission for others to say no to your suggestions
  • Offering options instead of directives
  • Offering next steps at pivotal moments

When you combine all of these approaches, you get a leadership approach that I call leading from behind. You're not standing at a podium in front of a group or forcing your will on the group. But even without those approaches--most of which are horribly unsuited to introverts anyway--you can still be a very impactful leader.Anyway, I hope those suggestions about cultivating confidence are helpful.At a minimum, specialize! And if you need help with that, send me a note [HERE]( please!) and I can guide you to the appropriate product/service offering.-P