Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao in a recent podcast, talked about lessons she has learned trying to succeed in a male-dominated world. She makes three points that resonated with me, because they apply to everyone who faces the challenge of being taken seriously in meetings, sales calls, presentations, or simply general conversation.
Prepare: Chao says, “I prepare so much more than some of my male colleagues, and I know women who are prepared more and we get ridiculed and it’s like, ‘Oh, my gosh. She’s just preparing so much. She’s such an automaton. Can’t she just like, wing it?’”
This one resonated with me, because it is one of the most important lessons I’ve learned in my career in sales. That’s because I’m not a “natural salesperson” who knows exactly what to say and when, or who has the confidence to just wing it. But when it comes harder for you, you get a little paranoid and plan a bit—actually, a lot—harder. That’s how I’ve won deals against competitors who were natural salespeople, and who were overconfident and therefore unprepared. So if you think you’re too good to plan, I hope to compete against you.
Don’t be afraid of mistakes: Chao says that coming from an Asian culture initially made her very worried about making a mistake, because Asians pay close attention to everything being said, and every word counts. But that doesn’t happen in American culture, because a) we’re just not good listeners, so we are less likely to catch small errors or remember everything that was said, and b) we’re much more forgiving when we do.
This point is the corrective to overpreparation. Plan as carefully as you can, and then relax. Mr. Murphy will inevitably show up and something will go off track. If you make a mistake, the crucial point is to immediately acknowledge it, own it, and move on. Especially in speeches and presentations, I’ve found that people will remember how you recover from an error far more than the error itself.
Expertise empowers the person: I love this quote! When asked what made her successful in a very male environment, Chao responded, “because I knew what I was doing.” She always had “incredible subject area expertise.”
Many of my coaching clients ask for techniques to deal with nerves or increase the confidence that they display. Of course, there are numerous techniques, and I do share those, but not without first asking them why they have been chosen to speak to this particular audience on this particular occasion. The answer is always that they know more about this particular topic than anyone else in the room—otherwise someone else would have been asked to speak. It doesn’t matter whether you are a woman, a minority, or the youngest person in the room; if you have something useful to say, that no one else knows, you will always have power.
The title of this post is a bit disingenuous, because these three points actually have nothing to do with gender. They have everything to do with the fact that the best people to learn from are those who have to overcome the greatest obstacles to achieve success. Their initial lack of confidence is precisely what drives them to do the things that make them more confident and more successful.
 Although Sean Spicer may disagree on this point!