Stories / Impact

The Key Ingredients of Confidence We Rarely Talk About

Kandia Johnson

October 18, 2018


Kandia Johnson Photo Lisa Marie Photography
Photo: Lisa Marie Photography

The James Beard Foundation is committed to supporting women in the food and beverage industry, from chefs and restaurateurs to entrepreneurs dreaming up new ways to make our food system more diverse, delicious, and sustainable. Our Women’s Leadership Programs (WLP) presented by Audi, provide training at multiple stages of an individual’s career, from pitching your brand to developing a perspective and policy on human resources. As part of the Foundation’s commitment to advancing women in the industry, we’re sharing stories from female James Beard Award winners, Women’s Leadership Program alumni, and thought leaders pushing for change. Below, communications strategist Kandia Johnson suggests her own recipe for building confidence, which requires a different set of ingredients than the list we’re often presented.


Ever since I was a child, I was told: “You have to be confident and believe in yourself to succeed.” But I was always left with a burning question: “how do you believe in yourself?”

For most women, this all-too-familiar advice inadvertently forces them into a period of waiting: we wait until everything feels right, or we wait until we get approval from others. It was only later in my adult life that I finally discovered the answer to my question: you’re not going to believe in yourself right away. The action has to come before the belief.

Sure, I could “fake it until you make it.” But that path eliminates two important parts of building confidence: mindset and effort. If you’re busy pretending, are you really putting in the effort to learn what it takes to succeed? 

Unlearn to Unleash Your Inner Confidence

First, to increase your self-confidence, you have to understand the emotional habits that can block your success.

As women in a male-dominated industry, we often approach work as a way to prove ourselves as strong leaders. However, this tactic might actually undermine your authority. You become more concerned about what people think of you than how you can add value at work. Ultimately, your emotions may cause you to overlook details or waste time worrying about things you can't control.

Several years ago, I worked as a contractor for the U.S. Navy. During my first few weeks at the office, I didn’t feel like I fit in. In fact, I felt more like an imposter. I was a black woman in a predominantly white and male environment. In my mind, that meant that every day I needed to walk into a meeting prepared for battle. I even made up negative stories in my head about what my colleagues thought about my abilities. Holding on to these stories stopped me from asking questions because I was afraid of looking incompetent. As a result, I ended up submitting a presentation which overlooked several important details.

Change the Story You Tell Yourself

Sometimes your lack of confidence stems from the story you tell yourself. Sure, the stories in my head could’ve been true (as it happens, they were not). But you can’t control people or outcomes; you can only control how you respond.

Shift your focus from proving yourself to positioning yourself as a trusted and reliable resource. You position yourself with your attitude, actions, focus, and words. You prepare by being informed. For instance, what are the challenges your team is facing in the workplace? How can you simplify things or make their lives easier?

Choose Your Words Wisely

Appearing confident at work is one thing, but speaking up for yourself, sharing your ideas, and owning your accomplishments are their own challenges. Many women don't want to be perceived as too assertive or aggressive so they use words and filler phrases that diminish their expertise. For example, “We should take a different approach for reaching new customers” is a stronger statement than “This may sound like a dumb idea, but I think we should take a new approach for reaching new customers.”

Other words and phrases that kill your leadership authority include:

“I’m no expert, but I think…”
“I may be wrong, but…”
“I should have…”
 "Am I making sense….”

If you don’t believe in what you're saying, why should anyone else trust you?

Another unconscious habit for many women is saying, “I’m sorry” too much. We say sorry before we ask a question. We say sorry when we didn’t hear what was said or when we’re confused. We even say sorry when we’re not feeling well!  

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was to “stop saying sorry for your greatness.” Sorry implies that you’ve done something wrong. So, you can either drop the qualifier from your sentence, or replace “sorry” with “thank you.” For instance, instead of saying sorry for rambling, say thank you for listening. Instead of saying sorry for taking up all of your time, say thank you for your patience.  

Of course, these changes won’t happen overnight. But becoming aware of your thoughts and communication style is the first step. Then once you take action, repetition leads to mastery, and the enhanced feelings of confidence will follow.  


Kandia Johnson is the founder of Kandid Conversations, a communications consulting and training company focusing on public relations, leadership development and storytelling for women. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

The JBF Women’s Leadership Programs are presented by Audi.