As a Woman Business Owner, You May Find It Hard to Confidently Take on the Role of CEO
Coming from a family of entrepreneurs, the idea of starting my own business at age 33 was already part of my DNA. Confidently stepping into the role of CEO was where the real challenge began.
Until 12 years ago, I had spent my career in traditional corporate environments, working my way up the ranks. Before I started my firm ClearEdge Marketing, I was faced with a life-changing choice: Move to Atlanta, far away from friends and family to keep my job, or stay in Chicago and take a different path. The potential for the role I currently held was immense. I was one of the youngest on the executive team, managing marketing for a $1-billion division of a more than $3-billion company. Yet, I knew in my gut it was time to try something new (and stay put where I had created a life and could be close to family), which ultimately led to starting my own company. With a few of my incredible former colleagues by my side, I took the plunge as a new business owner and CEO.
That's when impostor syndrome struck.
I quickly learned that being a female leader comes with a unique set of hurdles. Sure, there were the financial pressures, operational challenges and long hours every entrepreneur faces. But, as a woman, I was dealing with something entirely different: I was having a tough time seeing myself as a CEO. I had held leadership positions before, but none where I was the chief executive, solely responsible for the success or failure of a business and other people's livelihoods.
I faced impostor syndrome, second-guessing myself and wondering if I were truly cut out to be at the top. People would make comments to me early on like, "Oh how cute, you have your own company." It got to me. In talking to other women CEOs, I learned that impostor syndrome is strikingly common among female business owners, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
You can't be what you can't see.
Part of the issue is representation. Simply put, there are more men than women in leadership roles, and women are much less likely to "see" other women at the top. A 2018 study from The New York Times, its Glass Ceiling Index, reveals some unsettling numbers about the representation of high ranking women. For example, there are more Fortune 500 chief executives named James than there are chief executives who are women.
Pervasive double standards also come into play. Man or woman, you need to be assertive and dominant to be seen as a leader. Women have long been penalized for this behavior, though, making it that much more difficult to wear the CEO hat.
Five things you can start doing now to wear the CEO hat more confidently:
1. Consciously make the decision to stop second-guessing. Tell yourself, "You are enough." As women, we need to remind ourselves that the skills we bring to the table got us this far. My dad would always tell me to look in the mirror and make sure I loved the person looking back; to always believe in myself.
2. Ask for help and expand your network. Because the VC and startup ecosystem is typically dominated by men, most women don't have the same wide networks for introductions and counsel as men do. Women leaders have the power to change that by making time daily to network, just as we do for exercising or checking email. Men are more likely to ask things of other people, and women need to get more comfortable doing the same.
3. "Fake it until you become it." In Harvard University professor Amy Cuddy's TED talk on nonverbal communication, she explains how the role of body language affects confidence levels. I regularly take my "power pose," hands on hips, head held high, to physically project I am meant to lead and force my mind to believe it. Next time you're feeling inadequate as CEO, strike a power pose and tell yourself, "I belong here."
4. Try not to compare yourself to others. The old adage "keeping up with the Joneses" isn't just a metaphor for consumerism. It applies to us as female CEOs as well. It's easy to get wrapped up in how much more successful other entrepreneurs are, or how much easier their path to the top was than yours. Instead, choose to be inspired by others who've made great strides and focus on your strengths.
5. Recognize the power you have to shape future generations. I believe that one of the most important responsibilities of female CEOs is to help the next generation of women leaders. This in itself helps me to wear the CEO hat more confidently because I know what I'm doing is far more important than just leading a business. When an up-and-coming female leader needs advice, I'm thrilled to offer my insights. When someone needs me to make an introduction, I happily tap into the wide network I've built. Knowing you have the influence to inspire other female leaders is even further proof that you're meant to be a CEO.
Although I don't know or work with them directly, women like Melinda Gates, Sara Blakely, Wendy Kopp and Katrina Lake are changing the image of what a CEO looks like. Through more representation -- young women actually seeing other women rise the ranks -- strong networking and even more female VCs and investors, the momentum will continue to shift toward more women in these roles. As this becomes more ingrained, we'll begin to feel less like impostors and more confidently wear the CEO hat.