A Career Coach On Mastering Your Inner Critic & How To Start Over When Your Job Falls Apart

Leadership and career coach Brenda James talks to Sarah Lang about how we can tackle leadership roles and overcome issues like the inner critic.

Career coach Brenda James

A high achiever who lost her business and home in the Global Financial Crisis, and who has struggled with alcoholism in her past, Brenda James is now a highly regarded leadership and career coach working both with individuals, and in larger groups in workplaces, through her business Leadership Reboot. Her first book, Believe: How New Leaders Step Up And Into Their Full Potential, is a short, insightful, practical guide about how to become better and happier leaders.

Why write this book?
Two reasons, really. After setting up my coaching business four years ago, I was really surprised at how many people – not just leaders, but also other people I spoke to – lacked self-belief and self-confidence. The second reason is that ‘I’m only me’ – and I don’t want to expand my business to include other coaches. So the book is a way for me to reach people and get across some core messages that can make such a difference.

How will Believe make more of a difference than other self-help books on the topic?
First and foremost, this is a book for leaders that goes back to the inner self. The foundation is really getting to know yourself and getting that inner strength, because so much stems from that. It’s about knowing yourself and trusting yourself. I’ve made the book succinct, and there’s an audio book.

Are you trying to not just help people become better leaders, but also help workplaces to better support leaders?
Yes. Right now, we’re facing massive talent shortages in some industries, so I’m talking to my clients about holding onto staff rather than having to recruit new ones.

Do you coach mainly men or women?
Close to 50/50 – maybe slightly more women. Initially, I thought it would be mainly women, and have been quite surprised at how many men have asked for coaching.

How long might you work with an individual?
Normally six sessions. Sometimes every fortnight, spread over 12 weeks, because that two-week gap gives them time to implement what they’ve learnt before we look at something else.

Going into workplaces, have you come across anyone cynical about whether your approach will work?
Sometimes the most senior person like a CEO or director, who actually needs it the most, resists. But I do an emotional-intelligence assessment that is psychology- and science-based so that’s often how I overcome that.

You say 80% of leaders experience things like low self-belief, even ‘veteran leaders’?
Yes, this motivated, go-getter guy I’m coaching turned up so flat and full of self-doubt. I was shocked as he’s a very senior and successful leader. Getting a job in a new company, wanting more responsibility, he’s dealing with new performance indicators and personalities, and was unsure if he was doing things well.

You write that a leadership role can be challenging for someone who had previously found everything they touch ‘turns to gold’?
Suddenly the inner critic and imposter syndrome turn up, and if people haven’t experienced these before, it can hit them hard. But you can bounce back quickly with the right tools.

Is the inner self-critic something you see often?
It’s huge. And it’s not a matter of someone suddenly mastering it. By the time we look at the inner critic, I’ve already taken clients back to the step of observing their own thinking. If we can notice how we’re talking to ourselves, we can see we are our own worst critic. We [usually] talk to ourselves in a worse way than we would to our best friend if they’re having a similar issue.

Do you think everyone can change their negative self-talk?
Absolutely. It’s not a one-and-done achievement – it takes consistent practice. But I’ve been practising it for over 20 years, and I’ve come to a good place.

‘I haven’t seen many people who don’t have imposter syndrome at all.’

Do you see ‘imposter syndrome’ much?   
It’s massive. I haven’t seen many people who don’t have imposter syndrome at all. For some people, it cripples them, so they don’t even start a new role or project. Other people might do a great job of something but think they did terribly.

When leaders, particularly new ones, lack self-belief or are hypersensitive, do you think that often others don’t necessarily notice?
Absolutely. Often when I say that to someone, it’s a huge relief. People can’t see what’s going on inside. They really can’t.

You include some anonymous case studies based on clients. One is about a manager frustrated by constant interruptions from team members. Is this common?
I highly recommend Yohan Hari’s book Stolen Focus. It’s almost frightening that our attention span is so tiny, and how much we get distracted. If you take a leadership role, suddenly you’ve got all these people asking you questions, on top of your day-to-day work, on top of the distractions that all of us have anyway. I recommend my clients choose at least one hour a week when they’re completely unavailable to anyone else, so they can power through some work. If they can experience that for one hour, they might do it again for longer.

How might a team leader deal with difficult team members?
Say someone is being disruptive, challenging, perhaps highly emotional. Often when we react to something it’s actually about us, and if we can put that aside, then we can be there for the other person and find a way forward. Everything comes back to mindset, including how to communicate and delegate.

‘My wish when coaching someone is that they get a glimpse of what they could be.’

You write that many leaders who lack self-belief fall into the trap of thinking that’s just who they are or just who they’re destined to be?
My wish when coaching someone is that they get a glimpse of what they could be. That they get some evidence that contradicts their lack of self-belief, even it’s just one little piece, because that will start them on the journey.

But aren’t there people who just don’t want to be leaders, or don’t have leadership potential?
A client just challenged me on that with regard to one of his team members. Essentially, what I’m saying is don’t discount yourself because you’re not in a leadership role already or because you don’t believe you have leadership potential.

Can someone’s lack of self-belief in leadership roles have a ripple effect on their life outside work, including on relationships? Does ‘not-good-enough’ thinking come up a lot?
For sure, because if we don’t believe in ourselves, that filters through everything at some level. The ‘I’m-not-good-enough’ thinking has often come about as a belief from our early years, and it’s about reframing and challenging that. So you might say ‘not good enough for who? I’m good enough for me!’ That comes back to knowing and focusing on your values and what drives you.

‘We need agility when there’s a disruption. But if we feel strong in ourselves, we’re more solid overall.’

In these ‘Covid years’, are many of us just treading water rather than trying to progress career-wise?
With Covid, more people have experienced change, disruption and unpredictability. But I really believe we still need to set and work towards goals. When we reach them, we can reflect and go ‘wow, I’ve achieved this’, then reset, thinking ‘I’ll slightly adjust my compass’. We need agility when there’s a disruption. But if we feel strong in ourselves, we’re more solid overall.

Do you think, with Covid, there’s been a bit of a shift in values – as in prioritising family and health, and reframing our attitudes to work?
For sure. I think the biggest shift is in asking for flexibility regarding [a hybrid of] working from home and from the office. Think of it like someone who recovers from a serous disease and thinks ‘I’ll never take life for granted again’. But they might boomerang back to the place where they were.

How does a high achiever navigate the urge to be fantastic at everything?
I’m a high achiever, so it’s about finding a comfortable balance. Finding that balance is different from person to person, around aiming for the stars but also ‘at what level am I doing okay?’ Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t achieve something. I suggest keeping a gratitude list, because what we focus on grows. We can do a gratitude list about ourselves too, as in ‘what do I love about myself?’.

Thinking about doing that makes me so uncomfortable!
All the more reason to do it! It would have made me uncomfortable once too.

What was the hardest time in your life?
After the Global Financial Crisis in 2017, I lost everything, including my own coaching business. I made a bad relationship decision and some other bad decisions. I bought a house with too high a mortgage, and the house had to be sold, and in the meantime house prices dropped. Also, I’d lost the identity that was rooted in having my own business. Everything around me was gone, and I was left thinking ‘who am I and what do I even want to do?’.

I realised how much value we place on internal things rather than on valuing who we are. ‘Oh, I’ve got that car, that job, that house.’ I decided to start from a ‘clean slate’, learning more about our thoughts and thinking. Recently, I read something that asked ‘what makes you happy?’. I instantly thought of external things, then pulled myself up on that and thought of internal things.

What happened after you lost your business, house etc?
A former manager of mine gave me an opportunity to return to recruitment, in a senior role. All those not-good-enough feelings came rushing in and I felt like a fraud. And I overcompensated. My manager told me I was coming across as over-confident, showing bravado, when actually it was through not being confident. That was hard to hear, but life-changing. I quietly became more self-aware. It took me a while to really find myself again.

You’ve also recovered from alcoholism?
I’ve been in recovery for 20 years, and have been sober this time for 13 years. I’d first gone to Alcoholics Anonymous in 2001, then 13 years ago things got so bad that I went back. Initially I went back to a 12-step programme. I’ve become a lot stronger since then.

I never thought I’d be ‘that person’ who would want to drink again. It’s a disease – an allergy, if you like. When an alcoholic has a drink it sets up a craving in their brain – so it’s understanding you can never, ever have that first one. When I stopped, I had a reinvigorated determination so even though life was still tough, I was proud of myself. New Zealand’s drinking culture can make it difficult to stop. It’s like, “Let’s catch up for a drink’.

Do you ever tell clients what you went through?
Sometimes, if it’s appropriate. It might just show that if I can do it, anyone can.

Do you work five days a week?
Four. I have spent almost every Friday with my grandchildren. My daughter does my social media and accounts.

In your work, what gives you the most satisfaction?
Seeing clients have wins. Seeing people achieve something they want to achieve – getting that promotion, turning a situation around, looking at a situation differently. Or just to see someone’s energy change from being a bit flat to hopeful to excited. That’s so rewarding.

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