Back yourself


This is an edited extract from Angela Priestley’s book Women Who Seize The Moment, first published in 2014 and republished by Simon & Schuster in 2016. It’s available online and in book stores.  

Back yourself. They are two words plenty of well-known and much-admired businesswomen have used when asked to share their best career advice to others, and two words used by many of the women interviewed for this book when asked how they’ve achieved their own definition of success.

They’re two words that sound so simple and self-explanatory, yet two words that have remained elusive for so many of us.


It’s easy to tell women to “back themselves.” Not quite as easy for those women on the receiving end of such advice to know exactly how to do it.

A high level of confidence and self-belief is not something that can be easily taught. It needs to be owned. Being able to “back yourself” is about dismissing the niggling self-doubts and getting on with the job. It involves believing that even if you don’t have the specific skills and requirements for a particular role or big idea now, that you’ve got enough commonsense to learn what you need to know along the way. It’s placing yourself in awkward and uncomfortable positions in order to better perform at your role, or putting your hand up for a new job or opportunity. It’s taking risks to get ahead.

I’ve found through interviewing hundreds of women in business and leadership that the best self-backers are not always those who appear to be the most confident or outgoing.  They’re not necessarily extroverts, or the women who’ll speak up first in a meeting.  They’re the individuals who believe — quietly or publicly — that they have what it takes to achieve their ultimate ambitions.

So how exactly do you ‘back yourself’ then?

The call to “back yourself” seems straightforward. It’s only two words and a means of behaving that we can personally control. But most of us know it’s not that simple. Backing yourself can be awkward and uncomfortable. Worse, it can have consequences: some moves feel like you’re leaving yourself open to criticism, others like you’re putting your entire career on the line, or potentially doing something unimaginable for so many women: big-noting yourself.

But as we all know, you don’t get anywhere without taking a risk. So once you’re past the fear of blowing your own trumpet, consider how you can back yourself enough to eliminate or at least hide self-doubt, to take a risk, to promote your worth, to throw yourself at roles and opportunities when you’re not 100% qualified and to say “no” when an offer is not for you.

Back up against the niggling self-doubts

Everyone experiences self-doubt, no matter what levels of seniority they’ve achieved or what they’ve accomplished in their career.

Even former prime minister Julia Gillard conceded to experiencing self-doubt during her tenure in the top job. She admitted as much while answering questions on the ABC’s “Q&A” program while still serving as PM. She said at the time that she “turns it on” to get through it because allowing others to witness such periods of self-doubt would be a sign of weakness. Asked when exactly she experiences self-doubt, she deployed a strategy we could say may help in dealing with it — to keep the exact moments of self-doubt to herself. “You know that’s probably the most dangerous question for me to answer politically,” she said. “The reason it’s dangerous for me to answer is we have this kind of cultural image of leadership that self-doubt equals weakness, and we don’t like to sense weakness. And we don’t exhibit weakness and I don’t exhibit weakness.”


Self-doubt isn’t all bad.

Experiencing self-doubt is entirely human and a form of self-control, according to leadership expert and coach Suzi Skinner. She believes that in moderation, there are positives to experiencing self-doubt: it reminds us to rethink our strategies, check in with alternative views and remain open to feedback. If somebody’s overly con dent they may lack self-aware- ness — something that could just stand in the way of them embracing career-changing turning points.

An over-abundance of confidence could see some women waiting. After all, why bother with a new direction, opportunity or chance encounter when you personally don’t believe you have little to improve on?

A moderate amount of self-doubt is beneficial, but Suzi says too much of it can undermine our sense of “who we really are”, and ultimately affect how we “show up to work.” While there are certain situations where you may need to act a little more con dent than you actually feel, if you can’t be yourself then you can’t put your best self forward.

What matters is how we get through self-doubt, and “turn it on” as Julia Gillard would say, to ensure that it doesn’t a affect our work and ambitions, nor get in the way of creating and making the most of career turning points. Self-doubt can leave us vulnerable, so it’s important to know to whom and when to reveal such vulnerabilities. Really, a manager doesn’t need to know we’re not 100% con dent in the experience we have to do a particular task, they just want to know it will get done.

A little bit of perspective goes a long way when it comes to managing self-doubt. There are things we believe we can’t do and too often these become barriers in the way of what we actually want to do. Nobody is keeping that many tabs on the exact skills we may or may not have.  There’s no all-encompassing spread- sheet saying what you personally believe you can and can’t do ready to reveal the truth to the world — even for heavily scrutinized female prime ministers.  These barriers, or gaps in our skills base, can be overcome. No barrier forces us to stay in the one job, career or way of life other than the barriers we put up ourselves. 

Back your risky moves

Some of the greatest career plans, business ideas, potential promotions and even game-changing comments in a meeting have never actually happened, purely because the individual who came up with them hasn’t put them in action.

And too often that’s because they haven’t had the confidence to either speak such plans and ideas aloud, or to believe they are personally capable of stepping up to make them happen.  They’ve avoided risk, preferring to stick with the comfort of what they know.  They’ve sat on the idea, waiting out the lifespan of the idea to the point that it’s no longer relevant.

One wonders how many great businesses have been lost to the world because of individuals who couldn’t back themselves enough to get started on making it happen.

We may never know what’s been lost, but we can see what women who back themselves have created: those who bring their grand ideas to life, especially those who, from the outset, don’t appear to have the skills, experience or education to do so.

Boost Juice founder Janine Allis never finished her final school exams nor went to university, and yet you’d never know it from the large mix of jobs during her career, and her ability to establish a global food franchise.

“There’s nothing special about the skills I have, there’s nothing unique about me other than me being able to think, ‘This is how I believe the world should look,’” she says when explaining where the confidence she has to make dramatic career changes and launch a grand vision for a global business comes from.


Janine says she always knew you had to make your own opportunities, and used such knowledge to get past any underlying self-doubt she may have had. She never hesitated to make an introduction or to network her way around new and unknown circles of people to initiate possible career turning points. Janine’s tendency to visualise just what she could achieve with a business is similar to that of Red Balloon founder Naomi Simson and technologist Liesl Capper.  They’re three of the country’s most celebrated female entrepreneurs who like to think big and throw everything at their grand ambitions. While they may have had the support of a partner or co-founder, they couldn’t rely on the infrastructure of a big business to back their grand visions or cushion a potential fall.  They had to rely on themselves: their skills, judgment and personal ability to improvise their way to business success. They had to back themselves, first — emotionally and financially — well before investors, clients, customers and others would show any interest.

Back yourself when you’re not 100% qualified

When Dr Cathy Foley was unexpectedly presented with a turning point that would see her become one of the country’s most senior women in science as Chief of Materials Science and Engineering at the CSIRO, she hesitated. “My [former] boss, who was the Chief at the time hinted in my annual performance evaluation, ‘Would you think about being Chief?’ I thought, oh, I’m not sure I would be able to!”

Cathy thought she might not be able to it, but she didn’t say so at the time. She suffered, for a moment, self- doubt regarding whether she was qualified enough. It was an opportunity she knew she had to seize immediately, so rather than let such feelings sabotage her chance at promotion, she kept the immediate hesitations to herself. She said she was interested in the position and decided to think through the logistical issues of how she could make it happen later. While it would require some changes at home — where she’s raised six children — they were changes she could personally find a way around. It was a chance to move into a senior leadership position that rarely comes up and if she’d said she wasn’t ready, it may never have come up again.

A discussion with a superior regarding a promotion is an all too common time when opportunities are missed or overlooked by women. It’s when many of us hesitate, when we think we should wait a little longer until we’re more than 100% ready or qualified. But it’s during these discussions that those who back themselves — at least enough to put any immediate self-doubts aside — go on to land the job. They’re able to seize the moment and exploit the turning point that’s being offered.

Michelle Tredenick, a former chief information officer with the National Australia Bank who’s more recently made the move to a portfolio board career, believes assessing ourselves against job criteria is where we absolutely need to back ourselves. “I’m a passionate believer in seeing the potential in a role for you, so firstly you need to believe in yourself,” she says. We miss out on jobs we’re well and truly capable of getting because we never actually put ourselves forward — leaving it for somebody less qualified and less capable to accept.

She’s positive women can do more to get past this — starting with looking at all position descriptions as a broad list of potential skills the employer is after, rather than a list of items that must be ticked off on before a candidate can apply. “Focus instead on what you as a person could bring to the role and sell this,” she says. “People will listen to a good discussion on why you are right for the role, not just whether the criteria. Do your homework on the company and the role and don’t be afraid to advance a slightly different view of what success [of the position] could look like.”


Back yourself, despite feeling like a fraud

Even when not stepping into the unknown, plenty of us have a natural inclination to question our right to an existing position. Some call this the “imposter syndrome”, the idea that you’re a fraud, the feeling that you got to where you are by luck.

When it comes to a career, “imposter syndrome” can do some serious damage. Nurturing the self-limiting belief that you’re some kind of fraud means the opportunity for a new role or a great career transition can be quickly derailed. Believing such opportunities come with “luck” or despite you not being “qualified” enough will only limit your capacity to successfully show what you can actually do. And living and working under the constant fear of being found out is hardly conducive to being open to new opportunities, to taking risks, to saying no to certain offers and being truly open about your ambitions.

Back your worth

For former Australian Netball captain Liz Ellis, the question of pay became one of the biggest risks she took during her sporting career when she decided to take the leadership on seeing her teammates get paid. A year into her job as captain, she formed a players’ association and affiliated with the Australian Workers’ Union.  The move threatened her role as captain, given she had to put her position on the line and trust that other players would come in behind her to support the move.

So she had to back herself: her ability to negotiate, to lead and to trust her teammates would stick with her all the way. She had to make sure everybody understood just what they brought to the game and why they should back their worth.

“It was gut wrenching. I’d wanted to be the Australian captain since I was a little girl. I’d achieved it and here I was putting it in jeopardy,” she says. “But I had to do that for the sake of the players. We had to make a stand to show that we were valuable.

“I went out on a limb. I had to back myself and back my judgment in the other players that they too wouldn’t back down.  We didn’t. We stood firm and we got a great deal.”

Backing yourself is essential for getting what you deserve during negotiations for a pay rise, or during any discussion regarding what your work is worth. It’s the time when you need to negotiate just what you can deliver and how you should be compensated. If you don’t believe you deserve it, why should anyone else?

And yet for some reason it’s often during salary negotiations that women do not speak up regarding what they’re worth — at least when compared to men. It is a contributing factor, but not the only factor, in why Australian women working full-time earn, on average, around 18% less than their male counterparts according to Australian Bureau of Statistics.

With any new job, promotion, annual review or new contract with a client, the question of pay will probably come up — and if it doesn’t you should mention it — leading to that uncomfortable topic of discussion: money and just what you’re worth.

Women Who Seize the Moment features interviews with dozens of leading women about how they’ve created their own careers. It’s available here.

 Angela Priestley
 Angela Priestley

She is the Founding Editor of Women’s Agenda, and now heads up the publication’s parent company Agenda Media. She’s a journalist and editor turned media entrepreneur and business owner.


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