Pauline Cheung is a confidence coach works with people to transform the fears that can hold one back to the unwavering confidence to move forward in life and career. From an early age, Pauline herself unconsciously picked on messages it was not safe to be herself. It wasn’t until after she graduated college she decided to figure out what she wanted to do and who she wanted to be. 

What she learned through her experiences, and through piecing together advice from mentors and coaches, is that the fear is normal. Fear shows up when we’re on the cusp of stepping into something big, whether it’s a stronger presence in meetings, shifting into a new role, or promoting our personal brand. The solution wasn’t to get rid of fear (which never worked for long), but transform her relationship to fear, which lead her to a successful career that includes international marketing for The Disney Companies. 

Our two-part conversation can be heard on my Embark podcast.  Many thanks to Pauline for sharing her story, and for answering these five questions.

LS: You say the world needs courageous leaders. What are you seeing globally in how we lead? Are you hopeful people will step up?

PC: In my mind, I think the traditional style of leadership needs to evolve. I don’t believe it’s sustainable in its current form where profit is at the expense of all else (and this is coming from someone who went to business school and understood it was about maximizing shareholder value).

Courageous leadership for me is doing the right thing for more than one entity. By this I mean, making decisions that are about profitability and also doing what’s right for your employees, customers and the society and environment at large. It’s a tall order, yes. And it takes courage to lead in this way rather than just focusing solely on monetary gains.

I think as companies have become more global and integrated, leaders have become better at incorporating a global outlook. At the same time, it looks to me that much of the leadership we see is still very much drawn on the classic patriarchal model of leadership. As a result, we’re constantly and unconsciously, still reinforcing what a leader should ‘look like’ and so it still remains a challenge for people to see women as leaders, particularly women of color.

I am a huge supporter of diversity; I believe that we create better solutions, more innovative and creative solutions when we’re solving problems from a variety of perspectives which naturally lead to solutions that possess a higher chance of working for all people. When I think of courageous leaders, this is also a large aspect of it; leaders who are able to embrace this higher level of complexity and diversity, who see the value and reward in leading this way. I know there are organizations out there putting in effort, to shift the current landscape, to bring more diversity through the ranks, and so, yes, I’m hopeful more people will step up.

LS: You grew up in England as one of the few Asians in a largely Caucasian community. Explain how being in a minority influences your self-regard?

PC: From an early age, I had unconsciously picked up the message that it wasn’t safe to be me. As a young child I wanted nothing more than to be accepted. Instead the kids pulled their eyes and repeated schoolyard rhymes that contained racial slurs. And so, I quickly learned that it was better for me to make sure others were happy, be it the bullies at school, or be recognized as a good student by my teachers or be the helpful eldest daughter at home. It was hard to know who I really was since it felt like my safety and validation depended on meeting other people’s expectations.

It wasn’t until after college, that I finally started to listen to myself and hear a small voice that said, “Pauline, it’s time to go figure out what you want to do.” Since then, my life can be summed up as a gradual journey of getting better at listening to my own voice, my own needs and making conscious leaps from a desire for growth and the creating the life I want, so it’s no surprise that I am now supporting others to create the same for themselves.

As I look back now, I realize that many of us have felt like the odd one out for one reason or another, or have felt the challenge to be accepted for who we are. What I’ve realized now is that freedom and belonging comes from accepting yourself first and being comfortable in your skin rather than looking externally for acceptance and belonging.

LS: Nearly every person’s journey – even among the most successful – includes failure. With digital and social media, many of our failures are now on full display to a wide audience. How do you encourage people to take risks when failing publicly feels so threatening?

PC: It comes down to how we’re defining failure and the story we create around that ‘failure’. Usually, we’re worried that we’ll be ridiculed or worse, we fear that we’ll never recover or that we’ll be ostracized in some way if we fail.

What I’ve seen is, no matter what endeavor we choose to take on, there will always be people who support us, and those who like to sit it out, criticize and judge from a distance. They’ll judge before we even try, judge while we’re doing it and judge when we fail. They can even find a way to judge us poorly when we succeed.

All the famous and successful people I’ve seen, regardless of which field they’re in, have fans and plenty of critics too. Criticising and judging others is so easy to do from the comfort of hiding behind a screen. And the critics love to come out, especially when that person fails. Brene Brown calls these the ‘cheap seats’. It’s much easier to be someone who will never venture into the arena and go after their dreams, but sit in the stands and judge others.

For people who are willing to go after their dreams, they understand that failure is part of the journey and they also don’t allow other people’s judgements to stop them from getting back up again and carrying on. I think it was Robin Sharma who said, “There are no mistakes in life, only lessons.”

Fear, and the fearful thoughts that come with it, will show up whenever we’re on the edge of stepping into something big and unfamiliar, whether it’s a new role, building a new business, a difficult conversation or creating boundaries for ourselves.

I help my clients take a fresh look at what that fear really is and help them shift their relationship with fear. I also help them tap into what’s really important for them about their goals, so that going after it is worth the risk compared to the alternative choice of living with the fact of never having tried.

The other thing I like to do is help clients design a path towards their goals by taking smaller achievable steps, being able to reflect and adjust on each step. It can still come with some trepidation, but it still feels actionable rather than too scary to try.

LS: How do we get to a truly more inclusive workplace and society?

PC: There’s so much to explore here! One big factor that hinders our inclusivity is how much unconscious bias exists, so working to raise our awareness of this in ourselves and consciously working to remove it will take time. This will require support from the highest levels, i.e. the C-suite executives and Board. Without support from this level, it will be a challenge and any work that’s merely performative (checking off the box for PR) will have little impact on real inclusivity.

From a societal level, so long as it seems like we need to be scared of people who look or live differently to us and we think that these groups of people are the reason for our problems, then it will be a challenge. Thankfully, there are many of us who do not buy into this fear and appreciate the benefits and richness of diversity. I think our challenge is in overcoming those who have power and a vested interest in continuing to stoke fear.

LS: Comparing ourselves to others is toxic, yet we are expert at it. What do you see is the most consistent reason behind this habit?

PC: For me, there are two reasons I’ve consistently seen behind this habit. One is a fear that we are not enough just as we are and instead of embracing our unique selves, knowing we can choose to improve ourselves in any particular aspect because it adds to our life, we look externally to see if we’re better or not than this ‘other person’. If we conclude we are better then we feel good about ourselves, if we deem ourselves as not better than this other person, we have a tendency to beat up on ourselves. There is an alternative; to use it as inspiration and to also see we are all at different points in our own journey.

The second reason is, we unwittingly use it as a weapon against ourselves to avoid trying and risk discomfort should things not pan out. And so, we can give up before even trying. It feels safer to retreat back into our comfort zones. Even if we’re not fully satisfied in our comfort zone, at least it’s familiar to us and the brain likes familiarity.

To overcome this, we first need to raise our awareness to this self-sabotaging behavior and consciously work to disregard the negative self-talk that results from comparing ourselves.