Are you the same businessperson on the outside as you are on the inside?
Are you the same businessperson on the outside as you are on the inside?

When you think about yourself in your work, do you see yourself as successful, competent, professional, just the way you want others to see you? If your answer is “yes,” then this tip is not for you. But if you see yourself in any other way—e.g., as a little kid in the corporate grown-up’s world, or as an arty type who’s floundering as a businessperson, or as a small-time player only pretending to do what you’re claiming to do and hoping no one sees through you—then read on.

I’ve found with many of my clients that one of the biggest internal blocks they have is that they don’t believe they are the person they are trying to be. They focus on what they are doing, thinking that if they just do what they are supposed to in their role, they will grow into it and finally be, and feel, successful. While there is no denying that you have to do what your boss, clients or customers need, how you see yourself—whether that is as a respected VP or successful business owner or, conversely, as the complete opposite—will also have a big impact on how well you succeed.

Take for example the solopreneur who knows she has a great service that other people need. She’s knows the marketing steps she needs to take to get the word out so customers who need her can find her. But she sees herself as someone who just isn’t a “real” businessperson, just someone who’s dabbling in her business. When she considers going to networking events, or giving presentations, or fielding calls from prospective customers, that internal view of herself is not only going to block her from doing things she needs to do (“oh well, maybe I’ll skip this networking event since I’m not likely to impress any potential customers”), it’s going to leak out when she does get out there and talk with people (like mumbling her words when she asks if they would like to buy her service).

When you feel like you’re faking it, it’s almost impossible to keep all of the discomfort you’re feeling from showing up in the subtle ways you hold yourself and act. Even those who are able to “stop up all the leaks” still aren’t presenting themselves as powerfully as they could if they weren’t using so much energy to combat the negative image they have of themselves.

Of course, there is some power in the idea of “fake it ‘til you make it.” You will get more confident the more you do something, but it takes time and that can lead to lost opportunities. So I recommend taking a shortcut to get that confidence more quickly: start doing things to see yourself as the successful person you want to become.

Dress for the part you’re playing.

First, be sure you look the part. There is a truism in career coaching that, instead of dressing for the job you have, you should dress for the job at least one step above you on the corporate ladder. The reason given is usually that you are more likely to get noticed and thought of as being capable of handling that role. This is true and not to be sneezed at, but there is an even more powerful reason in my book. When you dress a certain way, you start to act that way.

I once heard that when judges put on their black robes, something changes inside of them. They feel like a judge and start to act more authoritatively than before. Similarly, military people keep their uniforms carefully tended. Think of the sergeant yelling “Tuck in that shirt. Shine those shoes. You’re a Soldier now!” or words like it to the new recruits at bootcamp. Dressing that way helps the recruits start to act with the conviction that they are soldiers.

So consider how the person you want to be dresses. This is especially important for small business owners. Maybe you think you can get away with wearing old T-shirts and jeans, or even a robe and fuzzy slippers, since most days you don’t see customers. Don’t do it! You need to change the way you see yourself. Dress every day as if you were going to meet a potential customer. The more you dress the part, the more you’ll believe in the “new you.” (Plus, you never know when you’ll meet a potential client at the local cafe.)

For the same reason, keep your grooming up. Successful business professionals typically don’t let their hair get shaggy, or pour on the goth eyeliner of their rebellious youth. You want to catch sight of your reflection in store windows and wonder who that successful person is, not reinforce the idea that you’re somehow not good enough.

Gather photographic proof that you are the person you want to be.

You can get a regular boost from seeing pictures of yourself looking the way you want to look. Perhaps you have a photo of you with an expression of complete determination as you are going down the rapids on your last vacation. Or one from your sister’s wedding where you are holding your head up with great confidence. Maybe you have an easy smile in a candid shot from your last training. Gather up as many photos like this as you can find. Put together a collage of them and hang it on the back of your door. Use them as rotating wallpaper on your laptop. Or put them around your home where you’ll notice them every day.

If you have trouble coming up with photos that speak to you of the success you want, get a good headshot. A lot of people try to save money by hunting around for a decent candid shot from the last company retreat, or use a photo from ten years ago that is “good enough” on their websites, business cards or announcements. That won’t accomplish what you want. You need a headshot that shows the parts of you that are capable, confident, professional—whatever it is you are trying to grow into. Just know that you have those abilities already, even if you haven’t exercised them as much as you’d like. A good photographer can capture the moments when those expressions shine through. You’ll probably have to wade through a lot of mediocre shots, but that’s normal. Don’t get discouraged. There will be a few that make you say “Wow” when you see them.

Don’t skimp on this. Ask around for referrals to a photographer who has a good reputation for getting great shots of businesspeople and go with them. You’re looking for someone who can capture the sparkle in the eye of people who don’t spend their lives in front of a camera. (Not everyone offers this service. I know of a small business owner who went to a photographer who worked with models and actors. She was shocked when she found out he hadn’t been practicing his smile for their shoot. And neither of them liked any of the pics she took.) A good headshot can really remind you of who you are becoming.

Stand up straight and smile. (Really.)

How you hold your body and your expression are additional ways you can start to change how you think of yourself. Remember that soldier? He is taught to stand at attention with “chin up, chest out, shoulders back, stomach in.” Try it now. You actually feel more confident when you stand or sit that way. And there is a famous study in which people making certain expressions (e.g., anger, fear) for a time started to feel the emotion they were mimicking, even though they hadn’t felt that way when they began. So channel your mother. Remind yourself to stand up straight and smile at times during the day. (Don’t smile constantly though. That’s just creepy.)

If you take these simple steps to change the external you, you’ll be on your way to changing the internal view you have of yourself.

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