An Executive Coaching Case Study - How to Build Confidence

This past few weeks there has been a theme to my coaching sessions – key executives lack confidence.  I have been coaching a few people who are talented, ambitious, and well-liked, yet they feel insecure.  As they push themselves to try new things and network with more senior people in the business they get “triggered.”  They lose their point of center, and instead of showing up as the fabulous leader they know they can be, they play small, and momentarily believe that a small sandbox is where they are meant to be.  Here is a story of how one of my clients worked through his insecurities and became more confident.

One of my clients, we will call him John, was recently promoted to VP in a high growth company.  He is a talented, hard working, funny, down to earth person with loving relationships in his life.  He also has an excellent track record running high growth operations, and he has the ability to coach others and dive into the details when he needs to.  The majority of the executive team support him and believe that he is the best person for the VP role. 

But, when he was promoted to VP he lost his confidence (temporarily).  Instead of being the great leader he is he kept quiet in key meetings, and instead of sharing his perspective and strategic insights he deferred to others.  Why?  He told me that he just didn’t think he had much to contribute to his “experienced and smart” peers.  After some coaching work he now knows this is not the case.

So, what was the coaching work we did to turn this around?

First, I sent him a document that highlights the difference between confidence and self-esteem.  From studying the work of Nathaniel Branden, the “father of self-esteem,” I understand that self-esteem comes from a belief that you are wrong or bad in some way as a person, and confidence is more contextual.  For example, I can have healthy self-esteem, yet not feel confident about expressing an opinion on brain surgery in a room of surgeons.  For John, it was clear that his confidence was contextual.

Second, we explored John’s confidence triggers.  That is, we looked at what specific situations would rock him off his best self.  I had him complete six emotional trigger records in a variety of situations which derailed him.  Doing this work (which took quite a bit of effort on his part) allowed us to see the beliefs and emotional patterns which emerged during insecure situations.  For example, one unproductive belief was that it wasn’t okay to be learning his new role and somehow he should “know” how everything works.  For him, adopting the learner mindset was helpful.

Third, we looked at cognitive thinking biases.  That is, we had him figure out what happened to his thinking when he was insecure.  Was he overly negative?  Catastrophizing (imagining overly negative things would happen)?  Or, was there an empathy gap (the tendency to be highly self-critical and lack empathy towards himself).  When he pin pointed his biases he had an a-ha moment.  “My mind is playing tricks on me.  It helps to be aware of what is happening.”  Then, we looked at more balanced and realistic thoughts compared to the negative biases that were chattering in his brain.

Fourth, we evaluated the physical warning signs that he was being triggered.  We looked at his breathing, his body, his walk, his palms, and how the physical sensations of insecurity travelled through him.  Then, we came up with a strategy for noticing when the physical sensations were starting up (usually this was the pre-cursor to the negative thinking) and he came up with a personalized technique for creating a moment of space so that the sensations would not escalate.

Fifth, we created a confidence “toolbox.”  This consisted of 10 strategies that were totally customized to his needs and situation and that would help him re-center and ground himself in confident energy.  Items in his toolbox were centering practices before key meetings, ensuring he was prepared, asking questions when the critical voice started to emerge, and taking stock of what went well each day and his role in creating these positive outcomes (a big one for him).  This is stuff he knew how to do, yet he wasn’t connecting not doing these practices with his confidence plummet. 

With all of these strategies deployed he started to understand that his confidence issues were contextual (and not an indication of his talent or potential), and they could be prevented if he anticipated his triggers, paid attention to his body, was prepared before key meetings, and he watched the negative thinking biases that took him down the rabbit hole.  He recognized that when he was stretching himself he needed to do more of this personal work, not less, and the same principles that applied to him also applied to his kids and his direct reports.  The multiplier benefits of his toolbox was gravy.

I am happy to report that he is thriving in his role.