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Ken Keller: Building confidence when and where it's needed

Brain Food for Business People

Posted: June 9, 2010 4:55 a.m.
Updated: June 8, 2010 2:16 p.m.

In the second semester of seventh grade, I learned how to swim. To that point in my life, I did not have the confidence nor did I believe I had the ability to fulfill the requirements for the required swimming merit badge. Learning to swim - and reasonably well - was an obstacle I needed to overcome if I was to achieve earn the badge.

What I experienced many years ago is something that many people in business face today: a lack of confidence in their ability to do something that they are likely capable of doing.

What holds people back is fear. Sometimes the fear is of the unknown, sometimes it is the fear of success and sometimes it is the fear of facing the very thing that makes them afraid to move forward.

When people are afraid, it is the responsibility of their leader to provide tools in order that confidence will increase.

In an organization, confidence is gained and lost almost daily by those in sales. If a sale takes place, confidence rises. If a sale is lost, confidence drops.

The best salespeople take this in stride. But most people aren't like the best salespeople. When confidence disappears, it might be gone forever.

It was my dad who coached me to success in swimming. He did through the same combination of tools and processes that an owner can build confidence in a manager, or a manager can instill into an employee. It is only now, many years having gone past that I can distill my father's syllabus.

My dad moved me from fear to confidence by starting with his assurance and belief in me. He had seen my version of swimming prior to the lessons and he told me that he knew I had it in me to do what was needed. He pointed out that I was already doing a considerable amount of swimming, and he provided examples that bolstered my own belief that I could get better.

This talk of confidence was somewhat of a shock to me. Prior to this, my dad's coaching tools were the ones he learned at boot camp when he joined the U.S. Marine Corps to fight in World War II. I'm not alluding to an old John Wayne movie; if you've ever seen "Forrest Gump," you have a good idea of what my experience was.

After providing assurance, my dad then got an agreement from me that I thought I could do what was required. I remember nodding, saying a few "buts," but he listened and then countered with another push towards agreement. My dad was wearing me down; he was trying to get me to understand and see what already had seen: that I could do what was necessary to earn the merit badge.

With my agreement, we began to practice. Well, I practiced. He watched, mostly. For the next few weeks, all I did those evenings was swim from one side of the pool and back, over and over again, using different strokes. Each week I became stronger, and my dad stretched the goal, so that I was soon in the water swimming the entire evening, going faster and greater distances.

When the time came to earn my badge, I was able to finish all the requirements without a problem. As I recall, I actually enjoyed the experience and was extremely proud of myself.

Many individuals in business, often in key positions, have lost confidence in themselves the past few years.

What if you manage a sales manager who is no longer sure of his or her ability to train or lead a team of salespeople who rely on commissions?

Imagine supervising an office manager who wonders if she is capable of supervising a group of employees who come to work not knowing if that day will be their last on the payroll?

It is not always easy to see if someone has lost their confidence. People will go to great lengths to hide the loss.

The role of the owner or manager is to first identify those who have lost their confidence and abilities, and second, to chart a course to rebuild or regain what was lost.

This will lead to a conversation that it is highly personal, may be difficult to have and it may not have the desired result in terms of a turnaround. That goes with the territory of being a leader of people.

It is only now that I realize that if my dad hadn't taken on the challenge of building my confidence to swim, possibly no one ever would have.

If you, whether owner or manager, don't instill confidence in those who work for you, who will?

Ken Keller is president of Renaissance Executive Forums, which brings business owners together in facilitated peer advisory boards. His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal. "Brain Food for Business People" appears Wednesdays in The Signal.


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