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blog • Story

Addressing self-doubt as a young trustee

Megan Raybould

11 September 2023

"You sound silly, your input isn't needed here." Have you ever said something similar to yourself when deciding whether or not to contribute in a board meeting? Rebecca shares her experience of self-doubt in the boardroom, what she does to overcome and challenges us to think about how boards can create an environment in which all trustees feel their contributions are valued.

It starts as a hesitation: an extended pause before I speak.

If I don’t check it in time, it expands: an entire email draft backspaced into oblivion. A board paper re-read for the third time, just in case I missed something. Staying silent for fear of someone finding my words ridiculous. Not putting myself forward for opportunities.

These are some of the ways that self-doubt creeps into my trusteeship.

And I don’t want to fool myself. This occasional lack of confidence doesn’t indicate humility, or preparedness. It doesn’t make me a better trustee. It makes me quieter, less capable.

I only truly noticed this pattern of blooming self-doubt recently – and it surprised me! I’m not new to trusteeship, having been on the board of Devon Wildlife Trust for over five years. I’m part of subsidiary companies, and previously chaired a sub-committee.

However, when I joined the board at 22, I was much more able to give myself grace (and presumed others on the Board did the same). I didn’t know what I didn’t know. Now, I hold myself to higher standards. Now, I’m all too aware of what I don’t know – and let my concerns about that hold me back. I fully believe I am a capable and good trustee, but sometimes self-doubt creeps in.

I shared my frustrations about this on LinkedIn and X (previously Twitter). Putting the experience into words and receiving illuminating replies has already helped me shift into a more confident place.

Here are five ways I actively address self-doubt to ensure I’m representing myself – and the charity’s needs – to the best of my ability.

Shine a light on fear

Firstly I ask why. Why am I deleting the email, re-reading the paper, silencing myself? I try my best to leave space for the answer, even if it feels shameful. It’s usually: I’m scared.

I’m scared of sounding stupid. I’m scared of taking up staff time unnecessarily. I’m scared of people disagreeing with what I have to say.

Looking at the fear feels important. Ignoring it doesn’t make it go away.

Feel it anyway

Secondly, I give myself time to actually feel that fear. Instead of repressing my experience, I hold it up to the light to examine it. Because it’s valid – rejection is a scary concept.

However, I don’t want to let fear stop me doing my duties as a trustee. The part of me that is scared is just that: a part. The rest of me can step into a leadership position. I ask myself what I need. Is it more information? Is it reassurance from the Chair? Is it just a drink of water and a stretch and a break from the meeting?

Meeting my needs and acknowledging the whole experience is often enough to help me process and move through fear, into a space of being able to contribute.

Recognise inequalities

No amount of self-reflection can change the outside world.

For example: access needs and low income mean that just getting to a meeting is taxing. The energy expended on processing information, traveling and submitting expenses means I have less resources available to coach myself through self-doubt.

Merely in terms of representation, I see fewer people like me (a woman, ‘young’) on boards. Sometimes this makes me more determined to speak up. Other times, it makes it feel all the more difficult. I’m in the unusual (and fortunate) position that my charity board is not majority male, but I live in a wider sexist society, and this takes its toll.

Finally, charity structure remains hierarchical. I find this challenging, especially as that’s not the way my day-to-day work is. Again, I feel fortunate to be on the board of a charity working towards openness and equity, but we operate in wider, inequitable systems.

Though it might appear to be a path to despondency, acknowledging inequalities actually help me to validate my experience.

Acknowledge the difficulties

Fear and inequality thrive when ignored. It’s important that other trustees are aware of these experiences so that they can play a part in addressing them.

For example, I might:

  • ask the author of a paper to discuss it briefly over the phone, because the new formatting is causing my neurodivergent brain to shut down
  • share at a board meeting that I feel self-conscious sharing my opinion because a part of me believes I don’t have the requisite experience (even though I do)
  • point out where I think the group might be requesting too much labour from those with lived experience
  • admit at the end of an email that it took me a long time to send it, because I was scared of using the wrong words

It might seem counter-intuitive to be open about what could be perceived as weaknesses – but in practice I’ve only ever found it helpful. Often, others admit they’re having a similar experience. Alternatively, they might feel more resourced, and are able to offer up extra support.

I don't think I’ve ever regretted being honest. Even our new CEO shared a similar difficulty around reticence to speak. The result: we understand each other more, strengthening our connection.

Sometimes what seems like a disadvantage can become a helpful perspective. For example, when I was a graduate living in Exeter city centre, I didn’t have a car to access our far-flung reserves, or the energy needed to search for a rare species. But I was uniquely positioned amongst trustees to discuss urban access to nature, or feelings among young people in my networks.

Know when I need more

Sometimes all the sharing, self-soothing, and inequality recognition doesn’t help: I just get stuck in a spiral of anxiety.

At that point I know I need to take more action. This might look like:

  • talking to a mentor or coach
  • requesting shorter feedback loops, as suggested by Ryan’s reply to my post
  • bringing the experience into therapy to share in a judgment-free space, and to explore what else might be happening for me on a personal level
  • stepping back temporarily to focus on my own wellbeing – never ideal, but I can’t be a good trustee if I’m not able to be present

All of these have been welcomed by my board – and would, I hope, be welcomed on yours.

What’s your experience of self-doubt? Let me know on Twitter and tag @YoungTrustees to get the conversation started.

Rebecca Broad is a freelance writer and trustee of Devon Wildlife Trust. With 59 nature reserves, over 100 staff, and tens of thousands of members, the charity is committed to its vision of a county in which wildlife and people are recovering and thriving together.

Hear more from Rebecca on Twitter  LinkedIn & Instagram

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