You walk a tightrope in your career. If you lean too far over onto the ‘Confidence’ side, you can be seen as brash or arrogant and take a fall. If you lean too far over onto the ‘Humility’ side, you can be seen as lacking essential confidence or being unready for more responsibility and take a fall …
I was raised in Ireland in the 1960s and 70s, where I was educated by the Presentation Brothers and the Holy Ghost Fathers. “Self-praise is no praise at all,” was a common phrase in Ireland at that time, along with the ever-popular, “Pride goeth before a fall.”

I ran headlong up against a very different school of thought in my first corporate job. At 23 years of age, I was sent to corporate headquarters in the U.S. to participate in an international task force on the launch of a new pharmaceutical drug. Ireland was one of the ‘leader’ markets, so every step we were taking was being scrutinised with a microscope and I was flying all over the world sharing our experiences and talking to my colleagues in the bigger markets about what they could expect.

My first presentation to the group was a nerve-wracking affair. I had spent weeks compiling and rehearsing my presentation and had been through multiple rehearsals with my local Managing Director and Marketing Director. Considering the limitations of the medium – I was using a deck of overhead slides laboriously generated with Harvard Graphics for DOS – my presentation was pretty good-looking and my content was clear and simple. [Looking back now, I shudder at the wordiness of some of my bullet points]

So I was deeply gratified when the task force audience gave me a robust round of applause at the end of my talk, with some of the Silverbacks actually standing up and smiling at me as I returned to my seat. One of those Silverbacks, a larger-than-life, 50-something guy from the Bronx came over to me after the meeting and said, “Great presentation Robo, well done.”

And what did I do? I broke eye contact, I looked at the ground and said, “Oh no, no. It was nothing. I could have been so much better …” Blah blah blah, yadda yadda yadda – all the cap-doffing, false humility guff that had been inculcated into me over the years.

He reached under my chin with his finger and pulled my head up until I was looking him in the eyes and said something that has stayed with me ever since: “You goddamn Irish! You’re all the same! Take the compliment! Your presentation was excellent. You obviously put a massive amount of work into it and it showed. Take. The. Goddamn. Compliment!”

He was so right. I had worked my ass off on that presentation. My content was tighter and better thought-through than that of people years older than me in the room. My delivery was polished and mindful of my multi-cultural audience. My anchors were solid, my bridging was strong, and my slides were clearer than any of the other speakers.

If the NLP cohort are right – and I suspect they are – the words we use have an enormous, programmed, impact on the way we view the world and the way the world views us. Take these two responses to the innocuous question, “How are you?”

1. “Oh no too bad. Can’t complain.”
2. “Just excellent. Life is really good right now.”

Now imagine you are listening to those two people making consecutive presentations. An ability to thump yourself on the chest and take credit where credit is due is an important part of your career management arsenal. If you have been programmed to do otherwise, that is something you need to unlearn – quickly. Time to climb onto that tightrope!