This week I embraced my panic zone. The panic zone is that intimidating place our Moving Ahead speaker and former rugby international superstar, Maggie Alphonsi, encourages us to be bold enough to enter. It’s that space where you step out of your comfort zone, and start to learn and create change in yourself.


Public speaking is my personal panic zone. People assume that when you’re a CEO, public speaking is a breeze. It isn’t for me – or for many other senior female leaders that I know.


I had been asked to speak on the theme of ‘change’ to 150 people for 40 minutes. My immediate reaction was to say no!  What qualifies me to talk on this topic? How was I going to make it perfect? And the absolute fear that set in when I saw that Google’s awe-inspiring Creativity Expert would be taking the next item on the agenda really can’t be put into words.


But then I decided to ‘say yes.’ It was time to combine my passion with purpose and go for it – to truly embrace the growth mindset we share with so many people through our work at Women Ahead and Moving Ahead and to tell my story to the audience at the Sport and Recreation Leadership Alliance Leadership Convention.


That meant taking on the principles of the growth mindset -  the belief that you can learn anything you want to, if you work really hard. It meant giving the challenge my focused attention, seeking the wisdom of my peers, practicing on my colleagues and pushing myself into my panic zone.


At Women Ahead we work with some phenomenal experts in speaking and voice – to help equip the women we support. So I had to think of what I have learnt from them.


One is our brilliant presence and impact expert, Patsy Rodenburg OBE, who delivered an excellent workshop for our clients last week. She says that everyone has a voice and it is important that we use it. I sought and took expert advice from our storytelling expert Simon Arrowswmith, who helped me structure the narrative to bring the audience along with me. I have been observing my role models – people like Helena Morrissey, Brenda Trenowden, and Maggie Alphonsi addressing huge audiences with such enthusiasm and clarity. I have drawn confidence and inspiration from them.


I have discovered that women are far more likely to dislike public speaking than men, and part of this comes from a fear of not being perfect. It has been shown that women often like to feel 100% confident they will be able to deliver perfection before they commit to public speaking. They are also frequently advised to become someone they aren’t, to be more like a man – but it’s not good advice. Being yourself is the key to authenticity, connecting and resonating with the audience.


There’s also a body of work from Yale University that describes how women who talk up are more likely to be derided by their peers – even female colleagues will judge them harshly for this. The Moving Ahead team is working intensively to develop an Inclusive Leadership Programme at the moment. Recognising and understanding these invisible assumptions held by men and women is key to counterbalancing unconscious bias in the workplace. We’re taking the research several steps further and offering practical, measurable, strategies to mitigate unconscious bias from the workplace so and achieve greater gender parity, more diverse leadership teams, and better performance for our clients.


And through this whole process, I have learnt that I can learn. Our ambassador Sarah Winckless MBE says that the brain is a muscle that can be developed like any other. The more you develop it, the stronger it becomes. You can grow your own self-belief!


So, panic zone, watch out - I’m coming to get you!