Do you have an inner voice that sucks your confidence? You are not alone.

When I read sweeping research claims I do tend to take them with a pinch of salt. Here’s one ‘Women don’t apply for jobs unless 100% qualified and men will apply when they have only 60% of what’s required’

I first read this in Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In with a raised eyebrow and I thought it was complete rubbish. Then I started to notice more. I spotted more women saying no to opportunities. Not going for the promotion. Not taking on the new project. Not stepping up. I heard the same clichés ‘I don’t think I can do it’ ‘I’m not qualified’ ‘So-and-so is better than me’ and ‘So-and-so deserves it’

I started quoting the 100% qualified vs 60% qualified research to them and asked them to prove it to be false by going for the promotion and taking the opportunities that they wanted and deserved.

Many did, and in the discussion about why they could and should step up, everyone revealed an inner dialogue that they’d had to overcome. Each person had their own name for it. The ‘official’ term is Imposter Syndrome, but amongst others, I met Jiminy Cricket, the little voice on my shoulder, ‘bad <insert persons name>’, devil’s advocate and my inner critic. The list was long.

For most of us (I have one too) the inner voice is like an old friend that sucks the fun and possibility out of your dreams and leaves you with a feeling of woeful uneasiness that if you get too big for your boots and put yourself out there you are going to ‘get found out’. Or worst still something bad will happen to pay you back for being greedy and wanting too much.

The little voice nags away, becomes louder, more insistent, more toxic until you just want to stick firmly with what you know because then you are safe and nothing bad will happen.

Sound familiar?

I disagree that the critical voice is just the territory of women, I think every human being has the voice. My hunch is that it’s the difference between how men and women manage their inner critic that is the difference that might mean that the 100% vs 60% has some truth to it.

Harvard Business Review claims that it’s not confidence that stops women going for the job, but a greater fear of failure because girls do better at school and it’s more instilled in us to follow rules and conform – and we perceive failure as having greater and longer lasting consequences. Conversely, men have a greater willingness to break rules and are less inclined to follow instructions (in the context of applying for jobs breaking the rules and ignoring instructions of needing a certain amount of qualifications and experience) and just apply for the job anyway. Men are better at ignoring or telling their inner critic to pipe down.

Make of it what you will, I see similar fears fuelled by the inner critics of both men and women I work with.

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Consistent persistence and travelling solo

I frequently travel on my own for work. I enjoy it, but there are moments when at the end of a long day I just don’t want the effort of humouring waiting staff who don’t know how to behave around a woman travelling on their own. In my experience we’re either ignored, are over attended to or are treated to wry amusement mixed with pity.

I’ve had some amazing solo trips including, diving in the Red Sea, driving across Australian deserts and exploring floating markets in Vietnam, but I do make different decisions when I’m travelling on my own because I’m always thinking about my own safety.

There is a lot of joy in solo travel but sometimes when you feel unsafe and opt for room service over exploring the local eateries it can feel like a missed opportunity.

That’s why I particularly enjoyed speaking to Carolyn Pearson recently, a kindred spirit, solo world traveller and founder of Maiden Voyage, a business that supports lone women travellers.

Maiden Voyage provides a global network for women travellers, travel safety tips and advice and accommodation recommendations for hotels that have been vetted to be safe for women travelling on their own by Maiden Voyage inspectors.

Carolyn told me about the beginnings of her idea for Maiden Voyage back in 2008 when she was working in LA and decided to have a mini break and stay a few extra days. Downtown LA was deserted at the weekend, which was fine during the day, but at night it felt different. For example, taking a taxi back from nearby beaches in the dark was riddled with uncertainties. Things you wouldn’t worry about if you were with other people or in a familiar place, like, “is it safe on my own?’ and ‘do I just hail a cab or should I order one?’ Being confined to a hotel in the evening because she felt unsafe on her own felt like she as missing out on the whole point of staying a few extra days – to explore and have fun. It made Carolyn wonder how many other women had been in the same situation.

Carolyn had the idea of Maiden Voyage as a way for women travellers to connect with fellow business travellers. Coming from a tech background her approach was to test her idea. She made a prototype, developed a website and put it online.

According to Carolyn, Maiden Voyage wasn’t ever meant to be a full-time business. It was a sideline set up to help fellow women travellers. Carolyn just wanted to cover her costs as she juggled a hectic day job.

However, the Maiden Voyage site was live and gaining traction. Then a lady asked for a recommendation for a hotel that would be suitable for single women travellers in Beijing. This led to the idea of vetting hotels and providing references under the Maiden Voyage certified brand ‘Female Friendly Hotels’.

Maiden Voyage was featured on CNN, the New York Times, on the BBC and in the Guardian. It was only then that Carolyn started to consider Maiden Voyage as a business. She quit her day job of Head of e-commerce for easyJet in 2013.

Today the business has developed its business model and is primarily a corporate membership programme and clients include Leeds Beckett University, Richemont, BP as well as a number of Silicon Valley and Hollywood big hitters. They also deliver training for women travellers on how to stay safe and train hospitality and hotel staff on how to help women travellers feel safe and comfortable, for example when eating in a restaurant alone – simple things that unless you’ve been a single woman traveller you wouldn’t think of, like sitting looking out into the restaurant rather than at the wall and to refrain from wry sympathy, over attention or keeping a wide berth. They have recently released their training as an e-learning package to make it more accessible for the larger Corporates.

“I wake up and do my best every day to achieve as much as I can for the company – and that’s the best I can do”

As with anything new, there have been challenges for Maiden Voyage. Carolyn says that initially sales were a challenge “I didn’t want to be a sales person – selling hotel advertising”

The business model has shifted as Maiden Voyage has developed from making money from selling advertising space to a corporate membership model. Carolyn has also discovered that sales for Maiden Voyage are about owning their space in the market and raising their visibility so that people come to them. “Cold calling is demoralising, you need to be able to make deals without picking up the phone. I’ve found that the less we sell the more people buy. You achieve that by building relationships and being passionate about what you do”

Don’t be afraid to ask for help “Finding the right mentor is like dating – it’s about equal roles”

One piece of advice from Carolyn is not to be afraid to ask for help. Get a mentor. She has five or six different mentors, each one has their specialist area, for a tricky sales question she’ll ask the mentor with sales experience, for a motivational shove she’ll ask someone else. Finding the range of skills and experience that you need might not all be in one person.

“Sometimes you can have too many mentors – especially if they don’t all agree you can be debilitated by conflicting advice”

You also have to seek opportunities to meet the mentors you want, for example, one of Carolyn’s mentors is Lara Morgan, an author, motivational speaker and venture capitalist. Lara and Carolyn met when Lara was speaking at an event at Cranfield School of Management. Carolyn was in the audience and asked a question. Lara asked a question back. At the end of the event, Lara took Carolyn aside and offered herself as a mentor.

Carolyn’s two pieces of advice for anyone thinking of getting a mentor are:

  • Don’t make yourself look miniature in comparison to them. Plant an idea in their mind so they want to mentor you.
  • If you are in awe of them it reduces the value to them – they are busy people and have to believe in you and what you do.

Consistence persistence

Carolyn’s advice for anyone trying to innovate is….

  • You never know how close you are to a breakthrough – don’t give up. Her mantra is “consistent persistence”
  • Don’t over think it – the product, service or invention you are working on now, won’t be the final thing.
  • You can spend forever over engineering something that no one wants. Get your minimal viable product (MVP) into the market as quickly as you can and see how your customers respond.
  • You have to be resilient and so ‘apply your own oxygen mask first’. Take regular exercise, get enough sleep and look after yourself. Don’t feel guilty about doing that either.
  • Days off are important. Carolyn says, “I have my best thinking on days off. Once I was watching a deal like a kettle waiting to boil. On my day off with a bit of space, I realised that there could be a better way with a different partner which could have a 20 fold impact to the way I was currently approaching the situation”
  • The key is consistent persistence. Whatever the problem, by persevering you’ll work it out.

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