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Female CEO

Coaching Corner

How a female CEO challenged self-limiting beliefs 

Published 22 March 2024 in Coaching Corner • 5 min read

The challenge

Karen has recently been promoted to regional CEO at a large multinational company in recognition of her considerable talents and achievements over the last decade. A “challenger voice,” Karen has consistently proven her ability to question essential decisions and bring a critical perspective to debates while leading her teams with competence and compassion. She is known with great affection by her boss, colleagues, and direct reports for her capacity to “check in and challenge.”

However, a few weeks into her new position, Karen is assailed by self-doubt. Her modus operandi until now has been to challenge the hierarchy. As CEO, she now sits at the pinnacle of that hierarchy, which has left her questioning how to proceed. In meetings with the company’s executive committee, Karen finds it increasingly hard to find and express her customary challenger voice.

Instead of bringing her formidable critical faculties to each discussion, Karen has become increasingly passive and obedient in team meetings, unsure of herself and hesitant to be the voice of dissent. What’s more, Karen’s boss has noticed this behavior change. Hired to provide positive obstacles and shake up group thinking, Karen minimizes her contribution to a simple agreement – behaviors that her boss has now begun to flag.

Concerned about this crisis in confidence, Karen seeks the support of an executive coach.

The coaching journey

Karen works with her coach to articulate and identify the provenance of what the coach terms “self-limiting beliefs.” Together, they pinpoint several ideas hampering her ability to stand up and express herself. Among these are a sense of being “the only woman in the room,” that she has no allies, and that she is an “outsider” – and as such, she should not draw attention to herself. For the first time, Karen can see that her beliefs about herself impact her behavior. Accustomed to having strong visibility in her role and views, Karen feels that she is suddenly too visible: she is shining too brightly simply because she is “different” and must become duller.

Karen’s coach helps her unearth how these feelings tie to her background and childhood. Karen, one of several siblings, is the only girl in her family. Growing up, she had to jostle hard for position and stand up for herself in a crowded family dynamic. At the same time, Karen’s relationship with her mother has historically reinforced certain norms around gender. Karen’s father was the breadwinner, while her mother stayed home. There is a quality of loneliness – of being the “only one” – and a semi-paradoxical dynamic within Karen’s childhood experience that is now playing out in the context of work. In committee meetings, Karen feels defensive when she should be on the attack. She wants to give all or nothing, go but stop, and shine, but not too much.

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“Being a female leader can feel lonely, and loneliness can make you more susceptible to self-limiting beliefs.”

Seeing this clearly for the first time, Karen now works with her coach on techniques to reframe how she interacts with executive colleagues. Karen role-plays herself and her colleagues in conversation, and something interesting emerges. In a colleague’s role, the coach describes her attitude as “aggressive,” which surprises Karen, who instead sees it as “assertive.” Observing the coach play her role, Karen is struck by how calm and assertive she is in discussion.

Shifting her perspective this way – putting herself in the shoes of others and observing a potential new version of herself – Karen makes a breakthrough. It is within her power to reframe team meetings as collaborative instead of oppositional: opportunities to be assertive instead of defensive (or aggressive). Rather than feeling she must jostle for position as the only woman in the room, she can focus on building relationships with her colleagues.


To help her make this shift, Karen’s coach shares some tactics. Whenever she feels under attack or nervous in meetings – that she is an outsider, at odds with antagonists – Karen thinks of an ally in her personal life and presses her thumb to her forefinger as a simple but effective neurolinguistic reprogramming technique. This helps her maintain equilibrium and assert herself without emotion.

She is also encouraged to build better relationships with her co-committee members and to get to know them outside the room. Inviting colleagues to lunch, Karen is also purposeful about asking questions, even if she feels doubtful or unsure. Driving conversations this way, opening avenues for exchange, and showing curiosity, Karen begins to forge more meaningful, mutually respectful ties with her peers. So positive are these relationships that Karen can now ask for insights, best practices, and advice as she settles into her new role.

Karen is positively unblocking herself and unshackling herself from unhelpful and self-limiting modes of thinking. As a result, she is re-finding her voice. She is emerging again as the compassionate and competent leader she knows herself to be and the challenger voice her organization needs. Being a female leader can feel lonely, and loneliness can make you more susceptible to self-limiting beliefs. To break free from this thinking, it is crucial first to determine what you are telling yourself.

Questions to ask yourself:

  1. What beliefs do I have about myself in my role?
  2. Are these beliefs fair and accurate about what I know about my skills?
  3. How might these beliefs inhibit my confidence and progress going forward?

In the Coaching Corner series, we share real-world, practical coaching scenarios. Read on to discover the specific challenges highlighted in the cases and the insights that could help you navigate and find solutions to your own multifaceted challenges. How might these insights and questions apply to you? 


Sunita Sehmi

Organisational consultant, Author of How To Get Out Of Your Own Way and The Power of Belonging

Sunita Sehmi is an organisational consultant and author of How To Get Out Of Your Own Way and The Power of Belonging. Her consulting firm, Walk The Talk empowers senior leaders to build high-performing organizations and teams across a breadth of sectors and industries. In her free time, Sunita volunteers, supports several female-led organisations in India and is a Business Mentor for the Richard Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship. She also volunteers for Cancer Support Switzerland in her hometown, Geneva. Sunita lives with her husband in Geneva, Switzerland. She has two grown-up sons. 


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