Successful entrepreneurs aren't exactly shrinking violets. Though they can and do differ wildly, all successful entrepreneurs have something in common: confidence in their own vision, and in whatever it is that they're asking others to buy into and support. Just to be clear, I'm talking about professional confidence, which is a little different from self-confidence, in my opinion. It's really surprising how many highly accomplished people who are very visible (actors, business leaders, sports figures) aren't wildly self-confident—in fact, a lot of them verge on insecurity when it comes to their own looks and personalities--yet have no issues whatsoever when it comes to their professional prowess.
So for the purposes of this conversation, I'm just talking about professional confidence. And though I don't generally like to categorize along gender lines--I find that a limiting way to think –on Dragons' Den, I have observed a real difference: women who want to be entrepreneurs tend to downplay their own achievements, while men tend to inflate theirs.
A woman who has launched a venture from her home will come on the show and say something like, "I've sold half a million dollars of stuff out of my basement and I know it's not a lot but I don't have a husband and I have three kids and one of them has special needs, so I have another full-time job to pay the bills, and I know I only did a half a million last year and I only made $250,000, but…." Then a guy will come into the den and he'll say, "This is gonna be huge! I've done $50,000 in sales and I just know I'm going to make a fortune."
As an entrepreneur, being overly self-aggrandizing or overly apologetic is problematic, each in its own way. Humility is essential when you're seeking to persuade others, but too much self-deprecation and you risk selling them on the idea that you're not worth listening to. Likewise, confidence is vital, but come on too strong and you risk conveying that you're sure you have nothing to learn.
So, you have to find the sweet spot. Start paying close attention to people who radiate confidence naturally, the kind of confidence that draws you in rather than repels you. I think you'll find that it doesn't present as apologetic or swaggering. It presents as quiet self-belief. You know it when you see it. And once you start to recognize and tune into it in yourself and others, you'll also know when it's absent.
Personally, I always know a meeting is heading south when I start feeling too eager to show what I know. If you're hellbent on impressing, you just can't listen closely enough. And if you're intent on proving how intelligent and accomplished you are, there's a very real risk of turning off the people you're trying to persuade. You wind up overdoing it. Sometimes on Dragons' Den entrepreneurs wheel out fancy language when plain talk would be so much better, and flashy packaging instead of the straight goods, inflated valuations of their companies rather than sales numbers that speak for themselves. If there's too much window dressing, people start wondering why you need it and what you're trying to hide behind it--even though the only thing you may be trying to disguise is a feeling of inadequacy. In any real-life situation, when someone seems to be overreaching and trying to sound high-flown, rather than simple and straightforward, he doesn't seem more intelligent. He just seems less genuine. And as I've said before, for an entrepreneur, authenticity is everything.
In the end, I think of confidence as my calling card. And I have learned that it's up to me whether the people to whom I hand it decide to keep it or toss it away.
It took me a while to find the sweet spot. And on the days when it goes missing--as it can--I have to find my way back to it. How about you? Where do fit on the confidence continuum? Any good cautionary tales about having too much – or too little?