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International Women’s Day: Q&A with Zoe Conlin

International Women’s Day: Q&A with Zoe Conlin

Michelle Jackson International Women's Day

Frazer Jones is proud to be supporting International Women's Day 2019. International Women’s Day celebrates the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. Whilst we all know that gender parity within the workplace has improved over the past decades, we all also know that there is still a long way to go.

We would like to join the discussion and be part of International Women's Day 2019 #BalanceforBetter campaign on the 8th March by interviewing inspiring women we work with and, in particular, understanding the role confidence has played in their career.

We interviewed Zoe Conlin, Head of Learning & Development, Hogan Lovells, Asia Pacific & Middle East.

How do you define confidence, particularly in the workplace?

Confidence is one of those words that means different things to different people, or at least, most of us in my experience seem to look at others and regard them as having more confidence than we see in ourselves. For me confidence is about showing up in an authentic way, where you have an ability to say what you think, sharing your views and opinions where it matters but in addition, and sometimes more importantly being confident enough to listen to others and hear what they are saying.

How do you think the confidence gap affects women?

The Hewlett Packard piece of research rings true for me. I think the confidence gap affects women in particular in a number of ways and I do think that women can have that mentality of wanting to do things well, where we set high standards for ourselves (not just at work but at home as well, no matter what your personal situation is) and that can sometimes get in our way when we need to push ourselves out of our comfort zones. Maybe we over-think things, maybe we think too much about what other people think of us? I think we care about how we are perceived more than men do, and I think this holds us back – whether in a meeting, applying for a new job, volunteering for a project or talking about what we have achieved.   

Do you think women’s workplace confidence has improved over the past few decades? Please explain why.

I think it has and I think this is down to a variety of different factors. For one, we have more female role models who we can look up to and think "she did it, so can I". This has to help. In addition, knowing research such as the example given from Hewlett Packard also helps us to realise that this is a phenomenon and this awareness can be useful to make women think "maybe I don't have all the qualifications necessary but I am still going to apply for the job" and use this in many different situations (not just when going for a job!). The focus on diversity and inclusion over the last number of years is helpful as well and people are more conscious of giving women a chance with idea of sponsorship and mentoring and helping people. I don't think it has been one specific factor that has helped but I think it is slowly improving.

How important have confidence and self-belief been in achieving your career goals? Please explain why.

Like I said at the beginning, I have had many, many moments in my career where I have looked at other women and thought "I wish that I could be as confident as you" but equally I have had many people say that to me! So I would say that I am someone who has used different techniques to help me have belief in myself and an inner confidence when I have been faced with self-doubt or a lack of confidence. I grew up as the middle child between two brothers but went to an all-girls school. We were all treated equally and brought up to believe that we could achieve anything we wanted. We were very focused on our education, sport and friendship and in some ways, free from many of the distractions that I see my own daughters go through in their school. Aside from school, my parents gave my brothers and I all the same opportunities so I never felt that I couldn't achieve anything I wanted to. At the start of my career, in my early twenties I was given an opportunity to take on a management role of a large team, many of whom were much older and of course, more experienced than I was at the time. Throughout my career I have always connected with people in work who believed in me, both men and women who helped mentor and guide me when I was lacking confidence. I have always believed in the mantra 'better to regret something you have done than something you haven't' which I have used to help me push myself forward and give things a go, even when I wasn't sure I could do it.

Have you ever experienced imposter syndrome (where you doubt your achievements and have an internalised fear of being exposed as a “fraud”)? If so, how did you overcome it?

All the time! I think realising that we all suffer from self-doubt and we all have different levels of confidence in different situations has been one of the biggest lessons I have learnt in all the work I have done with people [through my role as a Corporate trainer and coach]. Knowing that helps ground me when I am doubting myself. One example was five years ago when I was working as a freelance Corporate trainer for a well-known bank, and they had asked me to go to Mumbai in India to deliver their 3-day Leadership program to their senior leadership team there. As I stood up to welcome them and introduce myself at the start of the program, I was met by the eyes of 14 men staring back at me, and I felt that I could literally read their minds at that moment, and I was convinced that they were all thinking "what is this young (I am not that young, I am in my mid-forties, but I was certainly younger than many of them!) woman going to teach us about leadership". But at the end of the 3 days, one of the men stood up and said "I have worked here for 17 years and have had a lot of training. I didn't think you could teach me anything about Leadership. This is the best training course I have ever been on". I remember that when I have my moments of self-doubt. I even have the photo from the training up in my office to act as a reminder!

How much has risk-taking contributed to your career development?

I wouldn't say I was someone who had a career path in mind when I finished school (or at any point!) But I have always gone into every job and every role fully committed to do the best I can do. I did a degree in Accountancy and began work in an actuarial department of a large Financial Services firm. I didn't enjoy the work, so I volunteered for all sorts of other opportunities – mentoring school leavers; helping out on pilots of People Development workshops; taking on Continuous Improvement projects to gain exposure to other parts of the business and build my network. Quite soon after joining I applied for a management role, and although it was deemed that I didn't really have the 'right' experience they allowed me to take it on as a trial basis. I proved that I could do it, and then I got a permanent role. After a few years doing that job, I realised that it was the training and developing of the new starts coming into the team that I enjoyed the most, so I started looking for a role within the people development department. Again, without the 'right' experience I managed to convince them that I could do the job and I moved into that function. Each time there was an opportunity to do something different or take on a piece of work that felt beyond me, I always decided that it was better to try it out and see how it went, that not bother.  Each time, it has paid off – from the chance to work for 6 months on a client secondment where I organised a huge Conference with some awe-inspiring key note speakers to moving to Hong Kong in 2010 and setting up my own training Consultancy, I have always done this with a "what's the worst that can happen" attitude.

Can you give an example of a risk you’ve taken that has paid dividend?

When I first set up my business in Hong Kong, I was asked through a new contact if I wanted to rent a desk in a shared office space with a group of people who were all working in a similar field.

I wasn't sure at first if this was a good idea, as I didn't yet have any clients and it seemed crazy to make such a huge financial commitment when I could easily work from home until the business was more stable. However, I decided that being around other people who were doing similar work could only be helpful to me, and that if I passed up on this opportunity it might not come up again. Within two months of joining the office space I was doing client work all over Asia, with trips to Sri Lanka, Mauritius and Malaysia to deliver training, so it proved to be a risk that was really worth taking.

How important is mentoring, coaching and sponsorship in helping women to grow their confidence at work?

I have had mentors, coaches and sponsors throughout my career who have all helped me enormously. Some have been in a more formal capacity, but mostly they have been informal guides and contacts who I have used over the years when I have needed them. It can be so helpful to get an outsider’s perspective and hear from others who have had more experience than you, as that can give you support often just at the moment when you need a boost. These men and women who have helped me in a lot of different ways but most importantly they have had belief in me when I have lacked it and have helped me see to my strengths and qualities when I have struggled to do so.

How can confidence-building be built into career development strategies?

In lots of ways. Knowing yourself and your strengths can help; being self-aware and reminding ourselves of what we have achieved can really help with our confidence. We often forget how far we have come; how much we have learned and how much we have grown in capability and confidence, so it is important to take stock of that and acknowledge it.

What can be done to ensure a woman being assertive in the workplace doesn’t negatively impact on colleagues’ perceptions of her?

I don't see why anyone being assertive (a woman or otherwise) should negatively impact on colleagues' perception. But being assertive does not mean being aggressive or putting yourself forward at the expense of others. To me, assertiveness is a balance of being strong and open to others – negative perceptions tend to come when people push themselves forward and disregard others.