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The Silent Self-Doubt of Powerful Performers

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As a senior executive, have you ever heard a colleague talk openly about how their self-doubt may be impacting their performance? The C-suite is not exactly the place for that kind of conversation. C-level leaders are working under heavy expectations. Meanwhile, your peers are competing with you for resources. And your multiple stakeholders are expecting you to produce results. Even if you have doubts, you’re probably not going to talk about them.

However, I meet a surprising number of highly successful VPs and C-suite executives who do experience concerns about their confidence in specific areas. Rarely do we stop to consider that business changes so much these days and so quickly that almost anyone can at some time begin to doubt their ability to keep up—let alone step up.

SILENT TRIGGERS

Several different types of situations can trigger self-doubt in a high-performing leader.

When an organization or an industry is going through disruptive change, leaders at VP level and above often feel especially vulnerable. By virtue of their position so close to the top and the size of their compensation package, they realize that they may become targets. Some C-suite positions are more prone to casualties than others (for example, Fast Company, a business magazine, was reporting this for Chief Marketing Officers over five years ago). Under this constant threat, your confidence can take silent unrelenting hits even if you are effectively keeping up with your daily challenges.

Another trigger for executive leaders is when they’re promoted into new or significantly different roles. Their self-confidence may take a quick silent hit when they first step up. The increased scope and complexity of their new role can leave them overwhelmed and doubting their capacity to deliver. Never mind the additional pressure of realizing that the higher you go, the more your success depends on your ability to influence people over whom you have no authority.

Last week, I was talking with one such leader who was struggling after having been promoted to divisional VP at a financial services company. He sensed that his bosses were looking to him for immediate answers. Even though he had a breadth and depth of experience in his business area that far exceeded his superiors, he doubted his ability to make the right choices. He also believed that his superiors, as well as his team, were more knowledgeable and better informed than he was. He felt challenged by his direct reports when they questioned him and pushed back on his decisions. He thought he needed to have all the answers and he was very uncomfortable with the fact that he didn’t. “Needing to have all the answers” was actually his blind spot.

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