Ask any successful business woman what holds other women back and the answer is pretty much the same; lack of confidence, lack of courage, lack of self-belief or variations on that theme. Norah Casey talks to her sister Carissa about bravery, what it is and, more importantly, how it can be developed.
One of my earliest memories is of my sister Norah marching up to a group of older boys lounging on the swings in the playground and refusing to let me and my pal play on them. At the sight of her, shoulders back, head high, they scarpered. Okay, an eight year old counted as an ‘older boy’ in those days and Norah probably had a year or two on them. But despite there being only one of her and several of them, she didn’t think twice about taking them on.
Are some people just born with more courage?
“No,” says Norah emphatically. “I think a lot of it has to do with how we were treated as children. In a lot of Irish families – although this isn’t just an Irish thing – it’s the sons who are pushed to become doctors and solicitors and what not. At least that was the way traditionally and boys were generally praised for putting themselves forward for things. Whereas for girls in the past there were all these negative messages about not being a ‘notice box’ or an attention seeker. It takes time to chip away at those negative ideas and I really believe it’s up to all women to work at it. For themselves and for their daughters. And it’s important to realise that ingrained habit of pushing boys and holding young girls back can be as damaging for boys. I’ve met a lot of unhappy men who feel they were pushed by their fathers into something they didn’t want to be.”
Confidence, or lack of it, positively or negatively affects pretty much all of our working life, whether it’s going for a promotion, a new job, pitching a business idea, looking for funding, or walking into a boardroom for the first time.
“Take two people both with a good business idea. They’ve done their homework and now they’re looking for funding. It’s the one who exudes confidence and charisma who’s going to be successful. And we see that same scenario in lots of different situations. Confidence and courage are two of the most important qualities that women need to develop,” says Norah.
So how can women develop more confidence?
By following some very simple steps, according to Norah.
Focus on Confidence not Bravado
If the aim is to develop more confidence then it’s important to be clear about what confidence actually is.
“ Confidence is not manic-eyed raving about your brilliant new business idea which is going to be bigger than the iPhone and there’s a guy in New York pleading to give you a few mil to get in on the ground floor blah blah blah,” says Norah.
“Most experienced business people can see right through that kind of bravado and no one is going to invest in you either as a business owner or as an employee if you don’t know what you’re talking about. So research, research, research. Don’t rely on your natural charm or your ability to talk non-stop to get you through an important interview or business decision. And certainly don’t discount yourself if you find it challenging to talk about an area you’re clueless about. That’s not a bad quality!”
Listen to Your Nerves
As Norah is quick to point out, nervousness isn’t necessarily a bad thing. A sense of anxiety can be a powerful motivator and a good protection system.
“I think nerves can be telling you something important. If you’re due to make a big presentation or speak at an important meeting and you have a bad feeling in the pit of your stomach, it might just be that there’s a part of you that doesn’t feel prepared. Listen to that. It all comes down to making sure you’ve done your homework. If you’ve properly researched your area and are clear what points you want to make, then okay, there might still be some nervousness but you’ll be able to reassure yourself that you know what you’re talking about,” she says.
“Get into the habit early in your career of researching every area of importance to your work. Use that research to make informed business decisions.”
“For example when I first took over the magazine company, U Magazine was a monthly, floundering with little or no revenue coming in. I had an idea of revamping it to appeal more to younger women, reduce the cover price and made it fortnightly. But I didn’t make the decision based purely on my gut feeling. I put a massive amount of research into it and went over the figures endlessly. When the new look magazine hit the shelves, yeah I felt nervous. But all that hard work paid off The circulation shot up to 54,000 which had never previously been achieved by an Irish magazine.”
Feel the Fear and Act Anyway
There are times when no matter how well prepared we are, anxiety grips us.
“There’s absolutely nothing wrong with feeling afraid. Everyone I know feels it at sometime or other. I think the worse case I had was when I went back into broadcasting after my husband Richard died. I was asked to present the Vincent Browne Show and I accepted without thinking too much about it to be honest. When I arrived at the studio I had to excuse myself and go the ladies to throw up. I was really freaking out, thinking ‘what the hell am I doing?’. When I went to the studio I felt panic stricken, especially when the autocue started and we were about to go live on air. But the thing is I’d done my homework – I’d spent the previous few days reading up on all the issues of the day – and I had plenty of experience in broadcasting. So despite the red rash creeping over my neck and the pounding in my chest I opened my mouth and got on with it. After a moment or two I started to forget about the anxiety and focus entirely on the job at hand. I loved it. In fact I felt disappointed when the credits started to roll.”
“The moral of the story is that nerves are part and parcel of putting yourself out there and the best way to handle them is just to get used to the fact that they’re going to arise from time to time and they’re no big deal.”
“When I was in my 20s I moved out of nursing and into the Royal College of Nursing in London in an advocacy role for student nurses. I found myself sitting in news studios about to talk about some important issue and feeling terrified. So I went and did a TV production course where I learned all about the way TV studios work. It gave me a lot more confidence when I found myself in front of a camera.
“Then I moved onto a nursing magazine and I trained as a news reporter. After that I took on a business role with the magazine and I went off to the Ashford School of Management to study.”
“I really believe we need to get away from this idea that we study at school and college and that’s the end of it. It most certainly isn’t. We need to keep learning our entire lives, sometimes formally and always informally, by listening and asking questions. The more you understand about an area the more confident you’ll feel.”
“A friend of mine did a Masters of Business Administration and she told me that the biggest benefit was the boost to her confidence. She found herself arguing her point at high level meetings whereas before she would have sat there silently, disagreeing with what was being said but not saying anything.”
Perseverance in the Face of Adversity
Most of us can bounce happily from one successful project to the next without feeling so much as a smidgeon of self-doubt. But then something goes wrong; we don’t get the contract we were expecting to win, or our great business strategy is ripped apart at a meeting, or our new boss doesn’t think we’re so great. Our sense of confidence starts to fracture and, if the knocks keep coming, it shatters completely.
“I think the recession was a huge challenge for a lot of people. For example, a very good friend of mine went from being ‘a big noise’ to being out of work, literally overnight. A lot of ‘big noises’ base their sense of self worth on being a ‘big noise’ so it can be a catastrophic experience. That’s tough. I know myself how hard it can be to get through the day when you’re feeling miserable; I felt it myself when I was struggling to come to terms with my husband Richard’s death.”
“We can talk about the importance of ‘bouncing back’ and ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ but it’s not always as easy as that when you’re in the thick of it. My advice (and I took this on board myself) is to focus on doing the stuff that makes you feel good, whatever that is – walking, baking, knitting, whatever works for you. Some people have managed to build businesses around doing what they love. But the important thing when you’re really down is to find ways to build yourself back up whether or not it’s going to turn into a business. If you connect with those good feelings about yourself again, you’ll find your way through the tough times.
Find and Build Supporters
“I think if I were to pull out just one piece of advice on building confidence it would be finding and connecting with other women who will support you, in good times and bad.”
“It’s the reason I created the Irish Tatler Business Directory. I want other women – and men – to see the wealth of talent in this country. If there’s a woman in this directory who inspires you, who has achieved great things in an area you want to progress in, reach out. Most successful women are more than happy to spend some time mentoring another woman in their profession. Of course we’re all very busy so be sure to use that time wisely. Like I said earlier, research, research, research!