When confidence works in the workplace and when it doesn’t
Everyone knew who he was when he walked into the room. His name is Cam Fowler. He’s the executive vice-president for personal and commercial banking for BMO in Canada. In a company of more than 40,000 employees, he’s one of the top dogs – a relatively young one to boot. Only a few years ago, Fowler was named one of Canada’s top 40 executives under 40 years old.
As he waited at the back of the room for his turn to talk, an easy tension began to take hold. The group of young and eager interns seemed very aware he was there. We shuffled around and I found myself sitting a little more upright and trying a little harder to look interested in what was going on. It was as if at the drop of the dime, this guy I’ve never met before could determine my career path. I guess there are some people like him who could if they wanted to.
“I’ve always found that the longer the introduction, the more likely it is to be inaccurate,” he joked after an anxious three minute spiel. The tension started to fade with the laid-back opening remark. He didn’t have to grab the room’s attention but he did anyways. I felt my lips start to pucker as though the entire audience was about to begin kissing his ass. The kicker was, he knew it too…
Successful people command this kind of attention. By command, here, I mean they will take it from you if you do not give it to them. It’s a far less theatrical version of what happens when rockstars take the stage but the principle is essentially the same. That’s not as much of a stretch as you may think – yes, take away the screaming fans, the half naked groupies, and a standard expectation for inebriation and you’ve got a high class business exec giving a speech to a bunch of university students. It’s just a different venue, even though it’s probably a similar crowd.
In either case the man (or woman) up front knows what he’s doing, he’s done it before and he knows it’s what you’ve come to see. That’s not to say they sometimes aren’t nervous. Successful people can sometimes be timid or poor public speakers. Even though they know what they’re talking about, they also know they themselves aren’t good at talking about it. In this sense, that “knowing” can either drive a career into the ground or to untold heights.
Fowler cleared his throat anxiously for just about his entire 25 minute speech. He spoke about all of his experiences that led him to the bank – an uncommon story for this standard presentation topic. Fowler has a deep voice and pronounced features. His height and build are about average. He stood up straight as he spoke candidly to us youngsters, pacing back and forth all the while. It was a no-bullshit approach and you’ve got to admire a straight shooter.
When mostly anyone is asked, “what do you think is the best career path? To stick with one company and take a ‘bee-line’ to the career I’ve always dreamed of, or build up a broad base of experience at different jobs?” you’d expect something flimsy: “It’s different for everyone, it depends on what you like, blah(x3)” but not Mr. Fowler. Shortly and succinctly, without much regard for BMO’s efforts to recruit students (by having them “take the bee-line”), he tells the student: “The latter.”
He knew what he was talking about. By that, I don’t mean he was correct, necessarily, but at least he gave us something real to chew on. With success comes the confidence to give advice like that – real and practical advice.
But is it fair to assume that this confidence only came after Fowler became successful? Is it not more reasonable to assume that his success came as a result of it? And moreover, is there not more to it than how certain you are of your own opinions? If that were the case, my brother would have been making millions off his soon-to-be invention; a shower attachment we’ve coined “a car wash for people.”
The short answer to those first questions is that there is no short answer. Fowler obviously had the chops to be successful (otherwise he wouldn’t be) and there’s no way that his success has given him any reason to be less confident. Of course this confidence needs to be founded on something. This “something” is tried-and-true knowledge. Competence births confidence. In order to be confident, you need to know what it is you’re talking about. While this seems to be a given, there are plenty of people who think they should be able to trick themselves into feeling confident after which competence will follow. Those people are fools. But don’t get me wrong, I have been made a fool on more than one occasion.
Just the other day a lady in the office came by my desk to ask a very simple question. I was confident I knew the answer to it. But then, what started out as an answer became an embarrassing 5 minute tirade of me constantly trying to correct myself from each slip-up the sentence before. The harsh reality (and a cold sweat) hit me after about two minutes of rambling: I didn’t have the slightest clue what I was talking about. I kept talking for another 3 minutes after that. As I did, she just nodded her head politely and waited for me to finish.
I’m a young guy – wisdom comes with age, naivety comes with youth and up until we (read: youth) reach a point when we acknowledge that, stupidity is along for the ride. I’m still pretty stupid and I’m sometimes confident. However, I’ve made some effort to become not stupid so I can be confident without looking stupid. If I can’t do that, then I can’t be confident successfully (because that would look stupid) and thus, can’t be successful – makes sense right? One smart man once summed it up much more neatly than I ever could by saying, “Confidence is food for the wise but liquor for the fool.”
Now, I’ve used Fowler as a portrait of confidence but confidence is not defined as “the ability to speak in front of a group of people without wetting oneself.” It’s a complete trust in the abilities (in this case) of oneself. Without these abilities, you have nothing to trust in.
Fowler stopped, mid speech, after reaching a point where he thought the audience might have heard enough.
“Stop? Or keep going?” he asked. We told him to keep going, to which he responded, “You’re all far too polite to tell me to stop.” A few of us chuckled.
Not a few minutes later one of the ballsier interns put up his hand – this was before we got to questions. Again, Fowler paused, this time at the part of his story where he served in government. He took the student’s question.
“Are you planning on investing in Facebook’s IPO?” the intern asked him.
Fowler laughed. “Is that a serious question?”
“Yeah…” the student responded.
“I hadn’t thought about it yet, you?”
“I don’t have money.”
“I’ve got money, you got a plan?”
“We’ll talk after.”
The intern didn’t miss a beat. Good impression or bad, funny or stupid, that intern made himself known. Amongst this sea of young faces, his stood out. There’s something about that kind of confidence that people seem to recognize – that’s true whether that intern had any reason to be confident or not. I know I admire him for it. I mean, I may have been kicked in the crotch once or twice in my day but my balls have never been that swollen.
After he finished answering questions from the group of students, all of us went on break. Fowler hung around for a few minutes afterwards to answer questions that some of us didn’t get a chance to ask. I was in the group gathered around him waiting to ask a question. The intern with the Facebook question was standing in front of me. When it came his turn to speak, his sack shrivelled like mine does in an ice bath. The cool, brash confidence had turned suddenly to sheepishness now that he was face-to-face with the executive. Although he knew what he had planned on saying, the reality had hit him – he now had the opportunity to say it.
The point is this: confidence is not something you can switch on or off. People always talk about it like it’s something that is. “Be more confident in yourself” or “relax you know your stuff,” that one’s my favourite. Successful people turn it on when, and only when, they know they’re ready. That’s the thing that makes successful people successful. Otherwise, they jump the gun and they look like fools or they don’t ever do it and opportunity passes them by.
With that said, whether that intern knew his stuff or not, Fowler left that workshop knowing exactly who he was. I can’t say with any certainty what kind of impression tht intern left but I can say that poor impressions don’t usually equal success. And as the smart man implied, poor impressions are often the ones liquored-up interns leave on executives.