5 female executives on how they conquered fears

Rising to the heights of leadership in some of the world’s biggest or best-known organizations generally isn’t easy. Getting to a place in your career in which you have not only a seat at the table but sit at the head of it, typically requires a combination of talent, hard work, support, and fortitude, among other attributes.

And facing down fears along the way is common. With each stretch assignment or calculated risk taken along the way, executives may have to face down everything from fear of failure or not being “good enough” to fear of public speaking or being themselves. Ignore those fears, or let them go unchecked, and they can hold you back. Here, five women share how they overcame these insecurities and concerns—and how you can, too.

Fear of public speaking

Honeywell Chief Digital Technology Officer Sheila Jordan wasn’t always at ease getting up in front of a crowd to speak. In fact, earlier in her career, when she left her role as senior vice president of Destination Disney at the Walt Disney Company, she found it terrifying. “I got to Cisco and realized, Holy smokes, this is really part of the job of being a senior leader in technology,” she says.

So, Jordan recruited her children, who were then in the fifth and seventh grades, respectively, to be her audience. That lasted about two weeks, she said. Then, she collected every stuffed toy and doll around the house and lined them up as “audence members” in her spare bedroom. For 45 minutes each night, she practiced speaking to the plush and plastic group until she felt more comfortable. Of course, that wasn’t the same as practicing in front of an audience, but it did give her the opportunity to memorize key points and refine her speaking style. Today, she loves the feeling of being in front of a live audience. Years of practice have been the key to overcoming that fear. Now, she relishes the opportunity.

Fear of not being “enough”

As a member of a military family and a graduate of the US Military Academy at West Point, Jennifer Silva, says that her role as chief program officer of the Wounded Warrior Project (WWP) isn’t just a job; it’s a mission that couldn’t be more personal. The nonprofit helps wounded military veterans receive physical and mental healthcare, as well as other support. After a multifaceted career that included being an officer in the Army, working in financial services and as an entrepreneur, and being a high school teacher, she joined WWP in 2008.

“The need for our services will always be bigger than our ability to meet it, so we have to be really vigilant and rigorous about making sure we’re focusing our efforts on the most impactful efforts,” she says. And that’s an area of ​​concern. Silva says that, as a veteran who did not serve in combat, she feels a “debt of service” to those who have. Staying curious helps. She and her team have focused on getting feedback and data from the audiences they serve to help find innovative ways to help more veterans. Most recently, the latest version of the WWP’s Annual Warrior Survey uncovered some of the issues that female veterans were facing more than their male counterparts, including greater levels of loneliness and pay inequity. These types of data-driven insights help the organization focus on areas of need.

Personally, Silva finds that seeking out the support she needs is essential to letting go of her fear of not being enough. Choosing the right team members, outsourcing certain tasks, and having personal support, including a supportive partner, help her achieve her goals at work and at home. “To me, the best solutions for the toughest problems come from highly effective teams,” she says. “If you’re mission-driven, then you are going to not protect your little slice of the pie. You’re going to say, ‘Let’s solve this big problem together.’ And you can sign me up all day long for that.”

Fear of being imperfect

Laura Miele brings “order to chaos” on a daily basis. As the chief operating officer of video game powerhouse Electronic Arts, Miele is responsible for creating the company’s operating plan and setting strategy, while being a leader in a sector that has sometimes been openly hostile to women. Miele says her experiences have been mostly positive, but she has struggled with the fear of being imperfect. “You have to show up and be the best that you possibly can be. And so, I think that I had that attachment to the idea of ​​outcomes of being perfect,” she says.

The challenge, of course, is that perfection is not possible. Miele recognized the danger of expecting perfection, which can lead to more fears, including the fear of taking necessary risks. She also knew that leaders have a responsibility to work on themselves to become better for their teams. So, she hired an executive coach who has helped her recognize when she is expecting perfection and, instead, focus on doing the best she could in any given situation. Miele says that focusing on bringing people together also helps. “I’ve always prioritized, and focused on, bringing people together and bridging challenges or gaps that we may face together,” she says.

Finding role models is also important, Miele says, as is being aware of how the company represents the world for which it creates games, she says. She has brought in actor Geena Davis to speak on International Woman’s Day. Miele says Davis shared important messages about how much impact entertainment can have. For example, in what was called, “The Scully Effect,” women who watched The X-Files pursued careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in greater numbers.

Miele says representation and community are also important to confidence-builders. To help create feelings of connection and support, the company launched employee resource groups. Lack of connection can manifest as fear, she says. “I love the privilege and opportunity for us to have the impact of bringing awareness and being very intentional about the content that we’re going to put into the world,” she says. “And I love the opportunity to connect with men and women in our company and in our industry to do that together. I just think that’s incredibly important.”

Fear of fear itself

Fears can shift over the course of a career, says Priya Priyadarshini, general manager of global employee career and development at Microsoft. At different times in her life, Priyadarshini has experienced fear of being wrong, judged, or misunderstood. Earlier in her life, when she was the only girl in class at her boarding school, she experienced the fear of not belonging. But it was there that she began to realize how important it was to not lose her authenticity for the sake of fitting in. “I can continue to be who I am, and still be a leader and still be successful in walking through my own fears in life,” she says.

Fear about inadequacy and fitting in hold you back and encourage you to focus your energy on what you lack, instead of on your “superpowers,” she says. “This notion of this inadequacy, or this fear, is really the silent killer of anybody’s calling,” she says. But, with the help of a coach, she realized that the concerns she had were really just stories she had accepted over time. “It’s all about flight, freeze, and fear. And so, the brain never tells you great stories about anything,” she says.

Like other leaders, Priyadarshini has worked with managers and mentors who have helped her. For her, the key to overcoming these false narratives and the fears that come with them have been to find ways to disrupt them. “When you think about having a growth mindset, it means to challenge your own assumptions. It means to be a learner—a lifelong learner. It means to reach out with curiosity,” she says. She acknowledges her inner critic, “saying, ‘Yes, you have a place, and you can stay there, but you’re not going to take over my life and paralyze me.'” At the suggestion of a mentor, she wrote a note of recognition and praise to herself, which became an important reminder of exactly what she brings to the table.

Fear of blazing a new path

When Gilda Perez-Alvarado, global CEO of JLL Hotels & Hospitality, oversees a real estate deal, it’s likely to get attention. After all, you don’t move a property like The Plaza Hotel in New York City or the Waldorf Astoria Edinburgh in Scotland without people noticing. And since there aren’t many women in the commercial real estate industry working at her level, she has often had to be her own model. “The entire model we’ve always followed has always been through the lens of men, who historically, obviously, have been the ones that most of the business,” she says. “And sometimes that just doesn’t work; you’ve got to create your own.”

Sometimes, that model gets tested. Over the course of slightly more than a year, Perez-Alvarado became a mother after having complications during her delivery; managed her team through the pandemic; and took on her current role at JLL, which has just been through a merger. The pressures of that time were a lot to manage, she admits. There were days when she had a good cry and felt like she was failing, but then there were days where she says she would smile and think, You’ve got this. She feels that becoming a mother gave her “new inner strength.”

Perez-Alvarado says she leaned on her support system heavily at that time. Surrounding yourself with people who are willing to help you manage life’s challenges is important to anyone who has big goals. But she also thinks the messages women are told about how to be leaders need to change, too. “We don’t need to fit a particular mold that has been defined for us,” she says. “I think that’s something that we need to fill in the minds of young female professionals who are going up the ladder.”

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