How becoming CEO has forced me to face my deepest fear and become a whole different person
I am eight, maybe nine, sitting in the back seat of the car with my younger brother. My nana and my mum are in the front. Alex and I are squabbling about something insignificant. Nana twists in her seat and says sharply: “Catherine, if you fight with your brother, he won’t talk to you when you’re older. Be quiet. Be good.”
I doubt this incident meant very much to my Nana at all. I assume she doesn’t remember it. I’m sure our fighting was obnoxious and she used whatever words came to her in the moment to get us to shut up.
But to me, this would be a defining interaction that would shape my future self and my personality. Because, in that moment, I heard so much. I heard that good girls don’t make noise. I heard that peace with my brother was my responsibility – not one we both shared. And above all else, I heard that love is something that someone can take away.
And right there, right then, Catherine the Good Girl was born.
Catherine the Good Girl doesn’t like to impose on others with her opinions or actions. Catherine the Good Girl will always pretend to want pizza if she thinks that’s what you want to eat. Catherine the Good Girl doesn’t wear clothing displaying branding or messages in case she passes someone in the street with a different opinion.
I’m not the only Good Girl out there. Is this Good Girl notion resonating with you? It does for many. Good Girls don’t upset the apple cart. It’s not that Good Girls don’t have feelings. (Of course they do!) But they don’t impose their feelings on other people by expressing them. Instead, they swallow them, putting the satisfaction of others ahead of everything else.
I discovered a while ago that the mechanism in my brain that turns silent thoughts into vocal expressions doesn’t work; it’s broken. I have thoughts that just sit there because to express them would be to risk annoying or disagreeing with someone. It’s easy for me to express the positive, complimentary thoughts. But if it even smells of slight dissent, the thought will sit there in my head, unverbalized, festering.
Catherine the Good Girl will insist on putting everyone else’s oxygen mask on before her own, and then sit silently resenting the crowd around her for wearing oxygen masks.
Because it’s not that I don’t resent it. I do. I do resent it when we got pizza for dinner and I wanted Thai food. I do resent it when we all agreed on option A when I really wanted to do option B. But whose fault is that? It’s mine. So why don’t I just speak up?
And if you’re reading this, and this all sounds familiar, you know the answer. The answer is The Fear.
Here’s what The Fear looks like: It’s The Fear of rejection. The Fear that if I disagree with the approach you want to take on the client project, that you’ll get mad at me. The Fear that if I say I want Thai food and you want pizza, that you will take your love away. The Fear that if I fight with my brother, he won’t talk to me when we’re grown up.
And so the huge, massive, very comforting benefit I get from being Catherine the Good Girl is safety. If I swallow my true feelings, and say what I think you want to hear at all times, I don’t risk rejection. You will keep loving me and it will all be ok.
But everywhere there is a benefit, there is a cost. I had been CEO of Javelina for just a few weeks when I discovered the cost of living life as Catherine the Good Girl.
One of my top priorities was to assess the team we currently have, to make sure we had the right people in the right seats, and that everyone was being utilized to their fullest potential. (Look out for a more detailed blog post on this subject in a few weeks.)
To do this, I sat down and had one-on-one conversations with every team member, asked questions, explored their satisfaction in their current role, as well as their hopes and dreams for the future. In several of these conversations, team members said things that I didn’t 100% agree with. They had a different view of things, or something was more important to one of us than to the other. But forever Catherine the Good Girl, I didn’t say anything. I said what they wanted to hear, nodded, smiled, told them lots of good things. It was a series of lovely meetings.
Unbeknown to me, we each left the conversation with expectations and understandings that were worlds apart.
And in the coming weeks, with one team member after another, the s*%t hit the fan.
First, I went to a review meeting with a team member to give some critical feedback of their performance. I thought they would be expecting this. But as soon as the words came out of my mouth, the look on their face told me they had absolutely no idea I felt this way until that very moment.
Next, when a team member came to me to express dissatisfaction with their current role, I said all the right things but didn’t give direct feedback on what they needed to work on to turn it into the role they wanted. The situation escalated and a few weeks later, they came to me again, the unhappiest they had been in their role.
Lastly, I had to face my very biggest fear as CEO. That as CEO, the time would eventually come when I had to hold one or both of my co-founding business partners to account. That the time would inevitably come when we wouldn’t all agree, and that as CEO, I would have to lead and be comfortable disagreeing with them. This meant that what is best for the company wouldn’t always equal peace and harmony between the three of us. This thought filled me with such dread that it made me not want to take the job.
By not being myself or not sharing what I really think, I am only giving people half the information at best. And with half the information, how can I expect us to reach our fullest potential? The potential costs of being Catherine the Good Girl are plenty: the staff not realizing their greatest opportunities, the company not thriving, or creating less than perfect relationships with clients. But the biggest cost is that the relationships are not deep and authentic because they’re based on a lie. People don’t know me; they don’t know what I really think. Instead, they know some vanilla, polished version of me. These relationships may be safe, cordial and happy, but they’re not true. And what’s the point of clinging onto a relationship at all cost when it’s not a real one anyway?
And so, here I am with a hard decision to make: I can keep the benefit of safety or I can let go of the cost of inauthentic relationships. But I can’t have both.
But when put that way, the decision is obvious. Catherine the Good Girl has to stay behind.
I have to shed her to be able to be the CEO I want to be, the leader I want to be, the wife, the friend, the daughter, the sister, the person I want to be.
Letting go of her is terrifying. It’s a constant practice that I have to do every day. It’s present all the time, but it is getting easier. And it started with taking what I have come to call Little Risks.
Little Risks – telling people every day what I really think, no matter how terrifying. And guess what? After a few months of Little Risks, the world is still turning. I haven’t suffered the out-and-out rejection of any friend, business connection, or relative. In fact, relationships are stronger – and I am stronger too. Because it turns out (and here’s the funny part), The Fear that has gripped my entire life – it’s not real.
The Good Girl isn’t completely gone, but she is leaving. And in doing so, she’s creating room for the person I am no longer scared to be – myself.
If this post has resonated with you, start by thinking:
- How does The Fear show up in your life and in work?
- What is it costing you?
- Are you willing to take Little Risks to break free of The Fear?
And then start taking Little Risks – whatever it is that scares you. Hold your breath and do it. It gets a tiny bit easier each time, and The Fear starts to lose its grip.