Based on her wealth of experience profiling successful global business leaders, psychologist Fiona Murden shares with us her insights into how to find and follow the right path for you, in work and in life.
Over the course of my career I’ve worked as a psychologist with leaders from all walks of life. I love my work, and I’ve always had a deep-seated desire to share what I’ve learnt with a wider audience which has become a large part of my life’s mission. My starting point was writing Defining You, a book which shares the tools and insights I’ve gained from my work and garnered from psychologists across the world with people across the world. In this article, I wanted to share with you a snapshot of what makes female leaders successful and how that could help you.
As a psychologist, I’m often asked if I see differences between the sexes. What I’ve observed is that women, more or less without exception, have higher levels of self-doubt than men. Yet female leaders also tend to be the feistiest of their peer group. Hearing the life stories of hundreds of women, I’ve learnt of exceptional grit: the girl who at school stood up against the bully in spite of the repercussions on her own life or the girl who refused to let dire circumstances prevent her from fulfilling her intellectual capability. Many of these gutsy and spirited girls go on to make it to the top of their field as women. Women who, nevertheless, still have a lower self-esteem than men. So, where does that leave the rest of us? How do we fulfil our potential? Do we have to develop a cast-iron sense of will and capability to stand up against the odds?
Not at all. While those women who do ‘succeed’ in leadership may not fit the norm, they don’t necessarily tower above other women in terms of confidence. What they do have is an accurate level of self-awareness. I say accurate because this is something we women tend to get wrong, focussing more on our weaknesses than our strengths. While it may seem counterintuitive to know your strengths and not be self-confident, they are separate entities. So, it’s worth understanding yourself better as it can help you get to wherever it is you want to go.
Reflecting on our strengths can feel uncomfortable and is an area that women often struggle with. When we’re good at something, there is a tendency for it to just feel like it’s ‘something we do’ – that there’s nothing special about it. Because it comes easily to us, we don’t realise that it’s not something that everyone can do. We also often move away from these things, focussing on what we’re not doing well or even what we don’t like or enjoy, rather than celebrating what we’re good at. As a result, we don’t make the most of our strengths and can end up going down the wrong path.
As a personal example, I loved psychology and studied it at university. I also had an interest in business, so I did a business Masters. Then I made the mistake of doing what I thought was the ‘best next step’ – joining a business consultancy, which didn’t make use of my natural strengths or interests. As I gradually became more miserable, I realised I had to leave. I went back to university to become a Chartered Psychologist. Now I love what I do and although I have self-doubts, if I hadn’t pursued this career, I wouldn’t have been able to help all the people I have, I wouldn’t have written a book that I hope will help even more people, and I wouldn’t have been able to focus on giving back. Instead I would have been a ‘reasonable’ management consultant, not an exceptional one, not fully making use my natural strengths, and not very happy. I don’t hold myself up as a gleaming example, but this gives you a flavour of what I mean.
Of course, it’s important to know what we’re not so good at, where we can grow and develop, and what to watch out for in terms of tendencies that can trip us up. But that doesn’t mean we throw ourselves headlong into something that goes totally against the grain. When it comes to ‘weaknesses’ it’s important to initially identify the things we need to be aware of and that may never change. For example, I have a tendency to burst with ideas when I’m talking to people. Consequently, I often butt in or speak over others in my excitement. This for me is a crucial behaviour that I need to be aware of. I’ve tried to change it, but I can’t, so I accept it as part of who I am and am very conscious of managing it. Next, it’s about looking at which expertise to develop in order to do what we love. For example, to do psychology I had to go back to university. Then, and this can be the hardest part, it’s knowing what to leave behind. For me that was trying to be a good management consultant which was just never going to fit with who I truly am.
Some of these questions may help you think through your own passions and strengths, and help you identify areas for development:
Do you still love doing the same things that you got lost in for hours in as a child? Maybe you haven’t engaged with those things for years or you could use them in different ways now.
Which jobs and responsibilities have you most loved and most hated?
What is working well for you in your current life and career? What do you find fulfilling, meaningful, enjoyable, and important? What drains you, makes you stressed and anxious, or wastes your time?
What are the tendencies you have that you don’t think will ever change? How can you be more aware of them and stop them from getting in your way?
What do you need to develop in order to do what you want? How will you do that?
Talking to a friend to explore who you are may help. Be open-minded, curious, and enjoy. Choose your path, leverage your strengths, and reach for the stars!
Fiona Murden is a Chartered Psychologist and Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society. She has worked with high performers from across industries, sport, business, and politics for the last 16 years, helping them to achieve optimal performance. Fiona profiles senior leaders in the UK, USA, Europe, and Asia Pacific to assess their fit, strengths, and the risks in relation to the role that they are being hired for. She also acts as coach and advisor to executive boards across a broad range of industries. Fiona’s first book, Defining You, shortlisted for the Business Books Awards 2019, has won much praise for democratising the process of behavioural support that psychologists offer to the more extreme edges of society, making it accessible for people in their daily lives. It helps give people a better understanding of themselves and others, leading to improved physical and mental health, happiness and a more optimised level of potential. In addition to her writing, speaking, and running the company she established in 2007 – Aroka Ltd, Fiona is founder of the charity Dot-to-Dot aimed at ‘joining the dots on human behaviour’. She is passionate about increasing understanding of how our minds work, to empower all of us to reach our true potential and to ultimately enable a positive and significant impact on global issues such as obesity, terrorism, and mental health.