I am not the woman I was 20 years ago and sometimes people I knew then don’t recognise me now.
And sometimes they find that difficult.
Let me explain.
I’d like to take you back 20 years, to a primary school hall in Cheshire.
I was a teacher and we were having a staff training day; a high-flying, super-head had agreed to come and work with us. I arrived at school early, as I always did, and made everyone a cup of tea, as I always did.
At lunchtime, my own head teacher, Linda, introduced me to the super-head, with the words “This is Sue – she’s our high-flier. She’s the next head that this school is going to produce.” At which point, the other head teacher looked at me and her jaw hit the floor.
“I thought that you were the teaching practice student,” she told me.
My jaw hit the floor.
There’s a couple of points to make here.
The first is that there’s nothing wrong with being a teaching practice student – we all need to start somewhere, and having a growth mindset and being a lifelong learner is a recipe for success. But I had been teaching for around three years at that point and only that week I had applied for my first promoted post. Being mistaken for my own teaching practice student was not the impression I wanted to make on anyone.
There’s also nothing wrong with making anyone a cup of tea. It’s a kind and generous thing to do (and you can never have enough tea I say).
However, there will be times in your life, when standing in the kitchen making the tea is not where you need to be. If you’re ambitious and aspire to greater things, you’ll need to be at the table with some key influencers, being seen and getting your voice heard.
I learned this the hard way.
Today, I work with emerging female leaders to help them develop their leadership presence – but that morning 20 years ago, I had about as much leadership presence as a cardboard cut-out of a ghost.
I was invisible.
I was insignificant.
I had no hope of leading anyone, anywhere because I wasn’t being seen as a leader.
Over the last five years, I’ve often thought back to that story and it’s one I share when I talk at speaking gigs. It causes a few raised eyebrows or two, because my presence now is very different.
I’m not like that now, although for many years I clung on to a view of me that was inaccurate, outdated and harmful.
I first started embracing change in 2002, when I moved to Borneo with my young son, as a single mum. Sue from the school hall was nowhere to be seen when I boarded the plane – and over the first few months of my five-year adventure in South East Asia, I discovered things about myself I never knew existed.
I learned to show up differently, moving out of my comfort zone and rising to the challenges of living overseas with a young child, in a completely different culture.
I moved back to the UK from overseas in 2010, and set about changing careers and building up my own business. I moved to a city where I knew two people and had to start from scratch again when it came to making friends and establishing myself. Over the last few years I’ve built a reputation as someone who is confident, engaging and is considered worth listening to – whether that’s in person, on paper on via online articles.
Over the years, I’ve learned that there are different sides to us, and that we all have the capacity to develop and change.
We are one person, with many faces.
We are made of shifting sands.
We are different people in different situations, to different people. I am one person as I write this, and I will not show you the side of me that is reserved for my son, my husband, my best friends. It is possible to learn, to develop and to uncover who we are over a lifetime.
We are not set in stone.
Embracing change isn’t always easy, but understanding this; that we do not have to be the same person we always were, is the first step in setting ourselves free, and embracing newness – new roles, new relationships, new ways of being.
Being authentic does not mean never changing or holding on to a rigid idea of ourselves. That way lies failure, for our careers, our relationships and our happiness.
Just as I’m now a different ‘Sue’ to the one in the school hall all those years ago, it’s never too late for you to find a different side of you. I’m now 50 and uncovering different things about myself all the time and it’s an exciting and empowering journey.
And it’s one you can make too. It’s never too late to learn how to show up differently.
I’m Susan Ritchie, a leadership coach and writer who works with emerging female leaders to help them develop their leadership presence, so they gain the visibility, gravitas and credibility they need to take their careers to whatever heights they aspire.
You can begin to build your own leadership career by downloading 5 Steps to Developing Your Leadership Presence from my website.