My International Assignment: A Confidence “Workout”
By Leah Kersten, Staff Analyst, Change Management, Bayer U.S.
Lately, I’ve been reading a lot about how women’s lack of confidence can widen the gender gap over time. I’ve felt this lack of confidence more often than I’d like to admit on a company blog, but I’ve also discovered firsthand that confidence is like a muscle — the more you exercise it, the stronger it will get. Small successes accumulate, making us feel more sure of ourselves. And if we intentionally “work out” these confidence muscles, we can make great strides.
My confidence “workout” started in February 2017 with a short-term assignment in our global headquarters in Germany. As a member of the corporate innovation team, I would help to manage a global collaborative problem-solving platform and a community of “coaches” for the next seven months. For a travel-loving 20-something, this was a dream come true. And while I didn’t take the role to build confidence, it was an unintentional outcome of the experience.
For me, confidence accumulated over those seven months. I can’t pinpoint one scenario where I felt like I had suddenly taken a magic confidence pill. It was the culmination of my entire experience: presenting to scientists and managers from all over the world, navigating a foreign country’s public transportation system, making small talk with senior board members and trying to find paprika in the grocery store.
Outside of work, I built confidence every weekend by taking 21 trips across 13 different countries. Simply seeing the world and learning about different cultures helped me to feel like I’d been around the block and could hold my own — in the boardroom or on a stand-up paddle board on Loch Ness.
At work, I collaborated with the most inspirational people I had ever known. My coworkers had graduate degrees from Harvard or INSEAD. I strategically avoided sharing my unknown small Pennsylvania alma mater and wondered when they’d discover I didn’t belong. But I slowly began to feel like one of them. They were open to my thoughts — exchanging ideas on our way to lunch and welcoming me.
I’ll admit I was lucky with this team because they lived the culture and really walked the talk — supporting each other and giving praise, but also doling out challenging assignments where we could flex those confidence muscles. Part of it was their innovative spirit: I knew I had their full trust to experiment, try and fail and learn. It helped break my perfectionist spirit and see there were many ways to do things and that by trying new things — and possibly failing — we are sending up a smoke signal to others: It’s okay to fail.
The real challenge came when I returned to the U.S.: reminding myself I’m not the same person who boarded the plane seven months ago. On days when it felt easy to revert back to my spineless self, I repeated to myself:
I managed that website.
I hiked that Italian volcano.
That team picked me.
I can do this.
Luckily, despite needing these mantras, I knew something had stuck. Suddenly I was speaking up more, leading more, and less afraid. That’s not to say I’ve figured this out: I’m still working through my share of confidence struggles. But the behaviors I used to shy away from are becoming more natural for me.
The moral? If you sometimes feel like confidence is keeping you from getting where you want to go, force yourself to seek out opportunities you normally would shy away from. Speak up in a meeting, volunteer for an important project, or apply for that job. You might want to bury your head in the sand at the end of the day, but one of the best ways to grow confidence is to go for it — and then go for it again. You don’t have to fly 4,000 miles and live somewhere else to gain confidence. Mindfully look for small and big ways over time to accumulate confidence and strengthen that muscle.
And to the lucky few of you who already feel confident? Continue to encourage others around you to feel welcome and speak up. Cheer on your teammates for taking on challenging assignments. Let others know there’s room to fail and there’s not one right way to do something. A successful endeavor can produce confidence, so be quick to give praise. Sometimes all we need is a little nudge that it’s okay to go for it.