Lately it seems as though every week there is a new “first” headline about women in leadership. GM recently became the first car company to have a female CEO and CFO; more than half of the Philadelphia Eagle’s executive leaders are women – a first for an NFL team and an outlier in the professional sports arena; and as of July, all S&P 500 companies have women on their board – another first. While the conversation about the importance of gender diversity in the workplace isn’t over and this progress has been slow coming, perhaps we’re finally approaching a tipping point.

While the professional frontier for women leaders has expanded dramatically – thanks to many female pioneers that have forged new paths for us to follow, an important question remains. Are we ready? In many cases, we women are asking that question of ourselves more so than our male counterparts are asking it of us.

Consider the results of a Zenger Folkman self-assessment study that measures the confidence leaders have in themselves over the arc of their careers. The data from this research shows that women under 25 often underestimate their competency while their male peers tend to be overconfident and assume that they are better leaders than they really are.  Zenger Folkman’s findings demonstrate that the playing field levels off as leaders reach their 40s and confidence ratings between genders start to merge. It is not until the age of 60, where female confidence increases significantly – 29 percentile points – just when male confidence generally begins to decline.

The results of this study reflect a pattern that women in leadership often find themselves in, especially in the early stages of their careers. Whether they have proactively positioned themselves for an executive-level role or an unexpected door opens with the invitation to make a greater impact, women are more likely than their male counterparts to ask themselves, “Am I ready? Do I have what it takes? Do I know enough? Have I had enough experience?”

The truth is that none of us are ever fully ready to take on our next leadership challenge. Even if you are extraordinarily competent in your field, there will be unknown conditions that come as a surprise, a changing landscape to navigate without a roadmap, and unanticipated complexities that make leading well really tough.

As I reflect on my 30-year career, I am grateful that I did not let “being ready” hold me back from playing a bigger game, especially in the beginning. It was many leaps of faith and confidence in my abilities that led from starting my career as an elementary school teacher to serving as President and Chief Growth Officer of IEG (a WPP company) to finally launching my executive coaching and business consulting practice nearly 7 years ago. There were many moments throughout those three decades that I did not feel ready yet trusted that I could figure it out – with the help of a team of mentors, friends, family members, and coaches who nudged, challenged, and encouraged me. Overcoming these readiness fears and taking a huge gulp followed by a leap of faith has been a lifelong theme. I have learned that when I am both terrified and exhilarated, I’m usually heading in the right direction.

Five Important Lessons I’ve Learned Along the Way:

  1. You are more ready than you think you are. Changing roles or transitioning to a new industry or moving to another continent, does not mean that you can’t successfully apply what you already know and have already experienced in a new position. Four years as an elementary school teacher prepared me in many ways to manage people, adapt to different personality styles, mentor and develop others, facilitate meetings with confidence, successfully engage in planning, and be an effective communicator.
  2. Your tribe of allies is invaluable. Your tribe may consist of mentors, coaches, personal friends, family members, professional peers, and networking groups. They will be there for you when you are feeling uncertain and will provide much needed knowledge, perspective, and guidance. If you don’t already have a tribe, cultivate one and ensure that it is diverse in age, industry, experience, and thinking.
  3. Know your leadership strengths and utilize them. If you haven’t been through a 360-degree leadership assessment process that compares how you perceive yourself as a leader with the perception to your boss, peers, and direct reports, arm yourself with this information for professional development purposes. The executive women I coach – especially those in their 30s and 40s – often underestimate their leadership effectiveness. In other words, they have strengths to claim and leverage that they were not aware of prior to the assessment. 360s often highlight leadership skills women tend to overlook in themselves like being people-oriented, purposeful and visionary, passionate, strong mentors, compassionate and empathetic, and leaders who lead by example.
  4. Know your leadership weaknesses and mitigate them. In his timeless leadership book, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, Marshall Goldsmith, helps leaders identify their bad habits that won’t serve them as they climb the organizational ladder. Unawareness of our bad habits creates blind spots that have the potential to derail our ability to lead with excellence. When we’re stressed and uncertain about a new role, these leadership liabilities become more amplified – especially if we’re not aware that they exist. Only when we’re aware can we make conscious choices about overcoming them.
  5. When the unexpected happens, trust that you can figure out the best path forward. We live in an increasingly volatile, unpredictable, complex, ambiguous (VUCA) world. It is impossible to anticipate and plan for everything. The more developmentally evolved you are as a leader, the stronger your professional network, and the more resilient you are to outside stressors, the better equipped you will be to deal with the unexpected.

To this day, on mornings when I am questioning my readiness, I look at myself in the mirror and repeat the words my Dad has always used to encourage me, “Go get ‘em kiddo.” And I do just that. While it doesn’t go perfectly every time, and some days are downright dreadful, I am still grateful for the fact that I’ve had the courage to explore the unknown frontiers that have called me to play a bigger game and refused to let fear of not being ready hold me back from realizing my full potential.

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