What I Learned About Confidence From Starting My Own Company

There’s nothing more frustrating than having great ideas that no one will listen to.

But this isn’t necessarily your own fault or your employer’s fault. Your company probably has hundreds or thousands of other people, all clamoring to share their voices. So, why should they listen to you?

I was in that very position several years ago. I was talking–and no one was listening. As frustrating as it was, I realized there was a way to be heard. Now, I speak in packed conference halls and auditoriums, filled with executives from major corporations around the world. And they listen to what I have to say.

My story isn’t a singular experience. There’s a way to get your ideas heard, but you have to be prepared to put in the work.

Why people don’t listen.

I remember being 22 years old, standing in front of a group of IT professionals who all proceeded to talk over me. I was managing $5 million dollar projects for State Farm Insurance in the corporate Systems Technology Department. It was frustrating, to say the least.

But I wasn’t frustrated because I lacked skills. I got the opportunity to manage such a hefty project because I’d already had five years of experience working for Caterpillar and had a certification in Six Sigma–a Lean methodology for streamlining processes and increasing efficiency. I belonged there.

Sure, it was frustrating I didn’t have all of the information I needed to complete the project on time. But it was more frustrating to realize what I’d already accomplished wasn’t enough.

I had to learn more if I wanted people to listen.

Focusing on self-improvement.

I needed to know my stuff. I needed to show results. I began applying what I knew to simplify the company’s yearly plan. By streamlining the project process, while leveraging team input, we went from two to three releases each year. We increased efficiency and reduced the annual cost from $3 million to $1.5 million per year–a sizable recurring costs saving.

It wasn’t about working in theory. It was about showing results.

But I didn’t do it alone. I leveraged my team’s expertise and shaped the discussion around what could be done to simplify and improve.

I learned both book smarts and street smarts. When I had questions, I found the right people to talk to. I welcomed insights and noted any tips or tricks. Some lessons were street smarts–learning the social nuances of dealing with people. And some were old-fashioned brain smarts–developing new skills as needed.

The most important thing I learned was how to adapt and think on my feet.

With this attitude, I went above and beyond what was required. I learned everything that could help my career. I wanted to become an expert. And this quest for expertise, combined with the adaptability I’d found earlier, is what led to the biggest boost of my career.

Adaptability helped me be heard.

Finding an expertise.

In my search for expertise, I challenged myself to become an expert in the one thing no one else in my company seemed to want to learn.

Agile project management.

Our company was transitioning from a standard project management model to Agile methodologies–an approach that aims to teach people how to do more work in less time. While people were interested in the payoffs of Agile, no one wanted to put in the hours to learn it. So, I volunteered.

Becoming an expert in Agile set me apart from my peers. And pretty soon, people were reaching out to me to learn this new technique. I went from leading informal lunch-and-learn presentations to speaking about Agile at industry conferences around the world.

I became an expert people paid to listen to.

Becoming your own expert.

You have to be confident. I wasn’t always a confident public speaker. But the more I acted confident, the more I started to feel confident. I began formally developing my speaking skills, practicing them as much as possible. The more I developed my skills, the more comfortable and confident I became.

But don’t just limit yourself to public speaking.

Write. Publish articles in your field. Post on forums, discussion boards, or internal blogs. Get yourself out there. Get as much visibility as you can. Because the more you speak as an expert, the more you’re perceived as an expert.

You have to be worth listening to before people seek you out. What do you have to say that’s so important? What do you know that can help them out?

Establishing yourself as an expert in a specific field is the best way to push through barriers and become someone worth listening to. More than that, it helps you become someone a company pays to listen to.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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