Episode 1: How to build confidence and self-belief
A LEADER’S IMPACT — a podcast for business owners, managers and changemakers.
According to recent research, 48% of business leaders are feeling less confident about their decisions than they have done previously.
In this episode, Elona and Duane share glimpses into their pasts, delving into the adversities they faced, and lessons learnt; all helping them to deliver with conviction in the business world to this day.
Hello everyone, and welcome to A Leaders IMPACT, our IRIS interviews podcast channel for business executives, business owners, managers and anyone interested in what’s going on in the world of business and tech.
I’m Elona Mortimer-Zika, CEO of IRIS Software Group, and today I’m joined by the amazing Duane Jackson, founder of KashFlow and Staffology and Senior Technical Director at IRIS.
Hiya. Hi, everyone. Thanks for listening and thanks for having me, Elona.
So, it’s always an honour to have you here, Duane. For those of you that don’t know Duane, he has sold two businesses to IRIS. One of them, Kashflow with a K in it, love the name, was acquired by IRIS in 2014 before my time here. Then another business called Staffology. Again, I love that name, the science of people, which was acquired in 2020, in the middle of COVID, whilst I was CEO of the business. And actually, we spoke for ages didn’t we, and we bought the business, all without meeting each other.
Yeah, it was interesting times to be to be doing an acquisition, that’s for sure. But a lot got done, I think things have been a lot quicker.
I agree. I agree. I think COVID was really good for faster decision-making. It removed a lot of the noise, and it made us all behave differently and do things that we never thought we could do before.
Well, today is about confidence, we are going to be talking about coping with adversity and gaining belief in your professional self. This is something that is super important for businesses and their leaders, and whether you’re starting a business or making leadership decisions, there’s always one area that many professionals omit entirely, and that is to focus on yourself.
Self-belief, confidence, realising your potential, in a world of unpredictability can be really testing.
Interestingly, research is currently showing that 48% of C-suite leaders are feeling less confident about making business decisions after the pandemic than they were feeling before the pandemic.
I was quite surprised by that, actually, because I thought the pandemic taught us to make decisions really fast. But instead, what they’re feeling is that decisions are more complicated because the landscape has changed. They don’t want to get it wrong, and then the stakes are higher.
The landscape having changed that’s the big bit, right? Because that’s the unknown. And if you’re making decisions in a landscape that you understand, because you’ve been operating it for five, ten, twenty, thirty years, great; but when all of a sudden, the world is turned upside down, you make decisions in that environment, yeah, I can see why people would be less confident than they were before.
It’s a world of unknown, isn’t it?
So, Duane, they say adversity makes you stronger.
Okay, I wouldn’t disagree with that.
I’m sure you have an example or two of that, anything you want to bring to our listeners.
I’ve always been quite open about my background. So, anyone that knows me or has listened to me on other podcasts, I grew up in children’s homes, left school with no qualifications, ended up in prison, getting out of prison and having a baby.
And going back to environments, that was the environment in which I was starting a business, and certainly from what some would look at as adversity, I guess.
A lot of people expected me not to succeed as well. So, for me, I use that as a driver, I guess, to motivate me. And not because I would go back home, knock on the door of that teacher and say actually ‘look what I have done’, but just more to prove to myself, I guess. So yeah, it certainly made me stronger.
You mentioned a lot there in the last 30 seconds, is there a particular time when things looked pretty bleak and it could have gone either way, but you used it for moving forward rather than let it beat you?
At a specific time when I was still in prison actually, I still had a fair amount of time left in my sentence, it all kicked off over something very, very minor and trivial.
But it meant that the prison officer was essentially going to sack me from my job I had in the prison which would have sent my life on its hooks. I’d have to move out the cell I was in where I was very comfortable, in with different people.
And this one person had a hell of a lot of power over me and I remember thinking, ‘how did I get into that situation?’ and reflecting on how I got there, and that was quite a pivotal moment for me of thinking actually going forward I’m going to be more decisive in what I’m doing.
But your background is not as straightforward either, right. So, although mine is colourful, I’ve spoken about lots before, but your background isn’t exactly a straight line straight, straight out of business school and into business success.
Not quite, not quite.
So, let’s speak about yours.
Yeah, so not quite as inspiring as yours probably, but I was born in Albania, a dictatorship country, so my childhood was very, very different. Nobody got in or out of the country and when I was 16, I was really, really fortunate to be given the opportunity to go to an international school in this country, all paid for, full scholarship, with 200 kids from 135 different countries.
That was obviously an amazing opportunity, but absolutely overwhelming and really daunting as well, because I didn’t speak the language. I had never met anybody that wasn’t an Albanian before, let alone cope with all different cultures and beliefs.
I was 16 years old, and I missed my mom, and I missed the food, and it was raining all the time in Wales as well.
So, it’s interesting because I do vividly remember wanting to go back and this sort of sense of homesickness, it’s really you know, people say they’re homesick it’s a genuine pain. You get up in the morning and there is this pain in your chest, thinking, ‘oh, my God, I’m nowhere near the people I love’ and I used to write these letters and say hello to everybody, even the neighbours and random people, but I absolutely missed that nobody spoke my language, I missed everything about it.
But I also remember thinking how unique this opportunity was that I was given, and I could sink or swim and that I would regret not doing it. I always think when things are tough for me, I always think imagine yourself, having made the decision to give up or not take the job or not take the role, and how somebody else does it instead.
That’s a very mature outlook for a 16-year-old.
I know. But I remember thinking, I’d gone through this seven-day assessment centre, and there were loads of other children in Albania that had gone through the same and I’d got this scholarship.
So, I’d been in touch with the other 29 or so and so, I remember thinking, I’ll go back and one of the others is going to get it and it’s great for them, but how will I feel?
And actually, the thought that they would get it, I sat there thinking ‘I’m going to feel really jealous’ – I don’t think that that’s what I want. Actually, I think I’m going to give this a go because that’s what I want.
Bit of a competitive streak there as well.
Maybe, but it was always how would I feel if I didn’t do it and would the feeling of not doing something make me feel worse than actually just grasping the opportunity and doing it anyway and I always say that to myself, and I always make the decision; if it’s about a new job, or anything, I go ‘how would I feel if somebody else was doing it? Would I be okay with that?’
Or would I go ‘I deserved that; I should have done it.’
So yes, different background to yours but I think generally, if I look back in my career, I have learned more from tough situations than I have when things go smoothly. And its always advice that I give everybody when they ask about their careers, whether they should be joining businesses that are in transition, or businesses that are struggling, I genuinely think we all learn a lot more from those hard situations.
You learn a lot more from failure.
I remember 2010, before IRIS bought Kashflow end of 2013.
2010, I was actively trying to sell the business because I’d got to a point where I’d been running it for six, seven years and felt that I couldn’t get it any further, somebody else would know how to run this business properly.
So, initiated a process to try and sell the business, and it was only through that process, which failed, I didn’t manage to sell it; but I met lots of other owners of bigger businesses that I thought were show me how to do it properly and realised I’m just as good as them, I’ve got just as much idea of what to do as they have.
There was no knight in shining armour and I kind of had to be my own if you’d like, but more gain that confidence that there wasn’t some secret sauce that I was missing and we’re all working out as we go along.
I think that we have this vision of what good looks like. And then you compare that to reality and actually realise that, you know, you deserve to be in the seat that you’re at.
I remember being one of the only women around the table; I was very lucky to have progressed my career, and I always had this imposter syndrome which a lot of people say they have thinking, ‘do I deserve to be here, everybody around me is maybe older than me, or they seem to be more experienced, or they act with such gravitas.’
And then you realise when you speak, that actually you’re there, first of all, because I don’t believe that people just give you a seat you know, you’ve earned it.
And then you look around you and you go, ‘I’ve got value to add here’.
And everybody’s different, and everybody’s come from a different path, but actually, when I’m feeling a little bit low, and I doubt my confidence, given this session we’re talking about is about confidence, I go back to the days when I thought I didn’t know anything, and I succeeded.
Or I even look at some people around me and I go, ‘actually, maybe, you’re not as impressive as I thought you would be.’
I never say that out loud, obviously never name names, but you know, I mean, you’ve got this vision of somebody and then you work with them, and you go ‘wow, you know, maybe you’re not as good’, or actually 10 years from now, I’m going to be super amazing, maybe I’m not as good as you are today but you’ve got those 10 years of experience, and that gives me a little bit of a tick to go, you deserve this place Elona, nobody did you a favour. So, speak up, own it, speak up, contribute, because that’s how you learn.
And that’s about us putting others on pedestals, right?
When you look at other people, they’re not saying that they’re awesome, in your head you think they’re awesome compared to you?
So yeah, I think what you’re really saying is it comes back to self-belief, right? Believe in yourself and what you’re doing and largely, what you said as well, that you deserve a seat at that table, you’ve earned it, no one gave it to you.
And to what you mentioned about there is no secret sauce. It is very simple – you’ve just got to work really hard, don’t you?
I mean, there is a little bit of luck that comes your way, but luck is about grasping the opportunity. But fundamentally, you work really hard, and by working really hard then you succeed, and by succeeding you can earn some stripes, and those stripes give you the confidence that you need to do the next thing that’s coming your way.
And feeling like a duck out of water; I think that’s quite normal as well, I think you know, if we knew all the answers, it would be pretty boring, wouldn’t it, Duane?
Yeah, it would be.
We don’t start knowing all the answers and you learn along the way. Certainly, for me when I was running a five-to-ten-person business, I didn’t think I could run a forty-person business, but you learn skills along the way; and you’re now heading up or two and a half thousand-person company?
Yeah, almost three thousand.
Can you imagine doing that when you were in Europe, maybe even your early 20s? And how did you get from there to here?
Absolutely not, absolutely not.
So, I am, I was quite lucky to spend a long time in Big Four, started with Arthur Andersen and then Deloitte and they teach you amazing skills. They spend a lot on your training and your development, I met some amazing people, but actually, I left the Big Four because I felt that I lived in a world that was a bit of a bubble and quite protected.
So, there is always somebody you can go to if you don’t know the answer and then even when you get quite high-up, and even when you’re a partner you don’t really have to make that many business decisions, and when it comes to the advice you’re giving your clients there’s always a group of partners that have to sign-off from a technical perspective, from a risk perspective; and I was really craving to be out in the real world.
So, I got headhunted by one of my customers at the time, one of my clients at the time – a business called Decision, who are private equity backed. I joined them because their head of audit committee was a lady, so I was really, really inspired by that.
So, what was the role you were careered into?
I joined as the Group FC (Financial Controller), which is actually quite a big role to start as your first role. So normally, you leave the Big Four and you pick up all the other roles in finance to make it up the ladder. So, my first role was a very senior role.
So, I was thinking, can I do this? That was my first thing.
I did a lot of DD (demand draft) before I joined the business because they were my client, they weren’t going to list, I had the best contract ever. If it wasn’t going to list and it was going to be a trade sale, then I was still going to have a fantastic career and great remuneration.
And then, the market crashed.
I joined them at the end of December 2009 and by 2010, the market crashed.
We were in tech, the business had oversold more licences than its customers needed; they were selling text messaging, in time text messages was we’re going to become free anyway, so, it went from being worth a billion dollars overnight to almost going into liquidation.
So, the Big Four didn’t look so boring by that point.
Exactly and I realised that for the first time ever, I was in real life.
I’d done all of this DD which was pointless, people around me were being made redundant including at the time the CFO (Chief Financial Officer), a lot of people were leaving because obviously the business couldn’t afford to keep them, and I spoke to a couple of my mentors back at Deloitte and the first thing they said was, ‘you can come back, we’d love to have you back anytime you want, or we’ll find you a different role.’
The second thing they said is, ‘this is an amazing opportunity for you, Elona, to shine’; because everybody around me was leaving, I was suddenly the most senior person in the finance team.
So, until they said that, were you seriously thinking of going back?
As I said, you live in this world where you go, what shall I do?
And then again, I remember going, how would I feel? How would I feel going back to you know, there was a good reason I left Deloitte. So, how do I feel going back to that and seeing somebody else be announced as the FC of opposition?
And it was fantastic opportunity actually, because I think from adversity as I mentioned, more opportunity comes and for me, I was thrown to doing things I hadn’t done before and what I realised is that you don’t need a lot of experience. You need the right mindset. You need to work really, really hard. You need to be curious, and you need to be dedicated and driven by output rather than input; and it served me really well, in terms of what I’ve achieved, and also in terms of the teams I’ve built around me and the skill sets I look for in those people. Because attitude is, by far, the best enabler we have to succeed and the best tool we have to give ourselves confidence that we can do the next thing.
But the key there was seeing what you could have seen as a threat and realising it as an opportunity. You mentioned mentors that helped you realise that and for me, certainly, different mentors have been a big part of my journey.
Is that something you’d recommend to people and something to helping them build their confidence and overcome whatever adversity they’ve come from, is surround themselves with people that can guide?
100%. So, I think, you know, when it comes down to it, the world can be quite a lonely place, and your mom cares, your dad cares, your family cares – they can’t help you. Your friends can’t help you.
So, you’ve got to look for some real, professional help that you can call upon.
So, number one is obviously surround yourself in your team with people that know what they’re doing and fundamentally have different strengths to what you have, so they can cover for you.
But number two, have a mentor or a coach or somebody that you look up to; not on all aspects of their life, but for something specific because as a leader you’ve got to be self-aware that there are some things you don’t know. And I’ve been able to look at people that were two, three years ahead of me maybe, or five years ahead of me, whose life I wanted or somebody I could look up to and I could see that they had overcome the same challenge that I was facing.
What about you, Duane, you must have needed a bit of help on the way, maybe?
Oh, definitely, and probably a bit more than two or three years ahead of me.
So, my main mentor when I was growing my first business was Lord Young. He was 40 or 50 years ahead of me. So, he had helped build great universal stores. But he was firstly a great sounding board for any decisions in the business; but certainly, somebody that helped me realise that I did know the right way.
Because he wouldn’t tell me what to do, he’d get it out of me, get me to talk about why I wanted to do it and then say, well, does it sound like the right fit?
Well, actually, now it does now that I’ve explained it. Well, there you go then. And that’s what I see in people that are good mentors. They’re not telling you what to do, they are getting you into a dialogue with them, often more a monologue than a dialogue, but they’re getting it out of you to help you build your self-belief, as well as practical help. But that that’s significant as well, I think.
I think it’s such an important part of that and I’ve actually realised that I have built my own confidence over the years as I have tried to give back and be a mentor to other people who are probably in you know, earlier stages of their career, because actually, it’s a win-win for both parties, isn’t it?
The interesting thing is you can do at any point, right? So, even when you were in your early 20s, you had a lot of value to give to someone that was 16 at that point.
That’s very true.
And that’s what a lot of people think; that they can’t be a mentor until they’ve hit a certain level.
But there’s always someone that’s a few years behind you that would benefit from a bit of a guiding hand or some advice.
It’s interesting, isn’t it, because we never listen to our own advice, but yet we are, you know, very vocal about giving advice to our friends, etc.
So, I do genuinely think it’s a great tool for improving one’s confidence; doing that mentoring or coaching as you said at any level, Duane, because just speaking it out loud that you’ve done something, makes you go, ‘Oh, God, oh, yeah, I know what I’m talking about now’ and it’s gives you an affirmation.
And then confidence breeds confidence, I think. Positivity breeds positivity. And that helps generally, you know, make you a lot better at what you’re doing.
And for me, what I found really useful when I was running my business and I was working with other sort of entrepreneurs, was that break to think about my own business that I’d be doing 24-hours a day and thinking about somebody else’s and their problems, gives your brain a rest from your own business and you come back to it a bit fresher. And sometimes with solutions as well, that you’ve given to somebody else, hang on, that applies to me.
That’s a really good point, actually. Because having that mental break, that ability to allow your brain to rest and take a bit of time to step out and come back to the problem and look at the problem with a fresh pair of eyes. I’ve always found that with a little bit of distance, every problem seems controllable in the end. Every bit of drama that you had when you walk away and you actually think about it logically, it’s all manageable, nothing is insurmountable.
Sounds like a bit of a catch-22, because you need the self-confidence to put yourself forward to help others to build your self-confidence, but it becomes a virtuous circle, I guess.
I agree. but then it comes back to my point that I made earlier, it becomes about genuinely I believe, we regret more the things we don’t do than the things that we do
Because if you do something and you made the wrong decision, what’s the worst that’s going to happen? How many decisions do we actually make in life that are completely irreversible? For most people, every decision you make, there is a point at which you can go back, and you learn a lot more from a wrong decision than not making a decision at all, that’s the worst thing that you can do.
So, I always encourage people to start the journey and then, you know, make it up as they go along. I always say, the only way I can get destressed is if I get it done.
For me, that’s going to be the biggest takeaway from this conversation is thinking about, not what happens if I do do that, but what happens if I don’t do that?
Yeah. Some of it is ‘I’ll miss out on the opportunity’, some of it is, I would have been really jealous, and that’s okay. It’s okay. Think of like somebody else going on LinkedIn and saying they are now the CEO of this business. How would you feel if that was the opportunity that was awarded to you?
Well, I think we’ve covered a lot today. For me, I think where we are aligned is that generally, cream rises to the top and when things are tough, they create fantastic opportunity for the great people because you learn more and in difficult situations than you learn when things are going smoothly, and doing nothing is the biggest failure of all.
So, whatever decision that you’re faced with, making a fast decision on imperfect data and grasping it is better than just standing still. You’re going to learn a lot more from that and get confidence by doing. That’s the only way you build confidence – you do, you fail, you get up again, and you do it again.
And what looks like a threat might be an opportunity was another key takeaway for me as well from this conversation.
Absolutely, and also understanding that you’ve got to work really hard, and nobody’s perfect, right? We’re all work in progress.
That’s really important, and again, going back to earlier about putting people on pedestals, no one’s a finished product, no one’s perfect, and we can all strive towards that, but none of us are ever going to get there.
And if you give back through coaching and through mentoring then that validates your own experience and hearing it out loud will give you far more confidence than you know, maybe you thought you had.
Exactly, that’s been really useful. I enjoyed that.
I’ve really enjoyed that, Duane. Thanks a lot.
Well, thank you for listening. I genuinely hope that this has been helpful and useful.
We can all make a conscious effort to change our current mindset while still staying true to ourselves because at the end of the day, only you are in the driving seat, and actually starting the journey will provide most of the confidence that you need.
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