How to Overcome Self-Doubt in the Boardroom



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by Tamara Paton in Interpersonal, Motivation

In a recent post, I explored how we can face the discouraging circumstances that are a part of every board career. A number of readers appreciated the pep talk. Many drew a line, however, between overcoming disappointment and conquering shaky confidence. It seems that we don’t need concrete events to set us back. Sometimes we are our own worst enemy.

Prior to building my board career, my professional life soared and plummeted along a feast-or-famine cycle. As is typical for most independent consultants, I was either knee-deep in fulfilling work or woefully unemployed.

Despite my efforts to develop a pipeline of opportunities, there were gaps. The end of each project would prompt me to wonder whether I would ever work again. Every few months, my husband would dust off my self-esteem and assure me that I was not washed up at the age of 35.

Although the steady nature of board work has smoothed my outlook, I still experience moments of self-doubt. And to be completely transparent, I’m in the midst of one right now. These stretches are temporary, but nonetheless feel real when I look ahead along an uncertain path.

Of course, we do ourselves no favours by listening to heckling, especially when it is delivered in our own voice. Even when only paralyzed for a moment, we avoid taking chances. Conversely, we may feel rushed to take action and jump to flawed conclusions. And when we are in a new environment – perhaps on a new board – holding back limits the positive impact we can make in our early days in such a role.

Fortunately, all this practice in my self-defeating haze makes me particularly skilled at pulling out of mental nosedives. When you face your next moment of doubt, consider the following 3 ways to boost confidence and leave fear behind.

Give comparison the boot

Thoughts about other people’s success often precede my moments of self-doubt. While it’s helpful to have someone else to study, the practice can easily become defeating. In your quest for inspiration, you risk copying practices that don’t apply to you or feeling disappointed when you don’t achieve desired results.

A governance journal recently wrote a story about a former colleague and mentor of mine. He has enjoyed a dazzling board career, perhaps one of the most successful in Canadian history. As I read the article, I found myself comparing my background to his, noting the ways my professional experience fell short. Never mind that he has a 20-year head start on me. This governance rockstar has enjoyed unique and privileged experiences, and he is successful. Ergo, I have peaked at the age of 41.

You may laugh at my ridiculous train of thought, but I’m willing to bet that I’m not alone. We know that “comparison is the thief of joy,” but we fall into the trap time and time again.

Act and speak “as if”

My running coach recently asked me to close my eyes and imagine the runner that I want to become. We described that athlete in detail, right down to the race I will run, what I will wear, and who will greet me at the finish. Then we talked about the choices that the future version of myself would embrace.

Today, I’m taking steps towards that vision by exhibiting the behaviours of my future self right here in the present. I’m making the decisions that she would make. I’m acting as if that athlete is already running a 3:50 marathon in badass fashion.

Similarly, we can fuel our board careers by behaving as if we have already made it. I’m not advocating arrogance, but I am exhibiting the work ethic and confident mindset of my super successful mentor. I’m slowing down my communication, eliminating the podium-holding, stall-for-time filler words that do my credibility no favours. When I’m busy acting as if the future is already true, my lingering doubts fade away.

Invest in yourself

Successful people tend to invest in themselves, in part because they have ample resources on hand. Their track record also shows how previous investments have paid off in spades. According to Warren Buffet, investing in ourselves is a no-risk move.

“Investing in yourself is the best thing you can do. Anything that improves your own talents; nobody can tax it or take it away from you. They can run up huge deficits and the dollar can become worth far less. You can have all kinds of things happen. But if you’ve got talent yourself, and you’ve maximized your talent, you’ve got a tremendous asset that can return ten-fold.”

With this in mind, dedicate time to reading. Learn more about the craft of governance. Take a course or invest in coaching. Your future self will thank you.


Self-esteem is built by doing esteemable acts. Rather than giving into negative self-talk, we can take action that rights our outlook. Consider how you might frame your board’s discussion of an ambiguous challenge. Or bring other aspiring directors together into a networking and coaching circle of sorts. Taking small, consistent action will leave comparison behind and convey a sense of confidence and ease that propels your career forward.

Question: What practices help you shake off self-doubt? Have you found ways to boost your confidence when you need it most?

Please share your response via Twitter, LinkedIn or e-mail.

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How to Overcome Self-Doubt in the Boardroom

by Tamara time to read: 4 min