Purpose & Dreams

Episode #349 – Speaking Up in the Rooms Where Decisions Are Made with Kelli Thompson, author and confidence coach

July 2, 2024

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Are you ready to amplify your impact in decision-making rooms? Today’s episode features the inspiring Kelli Thompson, a leadership expert and the author of “Closing the Confidence Gap.”

Join us as Kelli shares her valuable strategies to help you conquer discomfort, find your authentic voice, and shine in corporate settings. From overcoming imposter syndrome to redefining executive presence, you’ll gain powerful insights to elevate your career. 

Get ready to step confidently into the spotlight and make your mark!

Show Highlights:

  • Ready to boost your potential and your paycheck? 01:17
  • How to embark on an inspiring journey of career evolution  03:27
  • Use high-power language and be memorable. 08:23
  • What unique skills and talents set you apart? 11:33
  • How can you banish imposter feelings and connect with your audience? 13:39
  • Empower yourself and navigate difficult conversations. 17:49
  • Discover the power of embracing diversity and work-life balance. 21:16 
  • The struggles of women in a male-dominated job industry. 26:08

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Find Kelli at https://www.kelliraethompson.com

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Today we’re talking about speaking up in the rooms where decisions are made with my guest, Kelli Thompson.

I first met Kelli when she reached out after hearing an episode of this podcast where I was talking about SuperWoman Syndrome. That idea really resonated with her, and I think you’ll see why as we get into this conversation. Our email conversation led to the decision to have her join us as a guest on the show.

Kelli is an award-winning leadership and executive coach. She’s a keynote speaker, and she wrote a book called *Closing the Confidence Gap: Boost Your Peace, Your Potential, and Your Paycheck*, which I’m sure is something that you might be interested in as a listener. One of the many badass experiences she’s had, as I discovered in my research, was moderating a no-holds-barred discussion between Indra Nooyi, the former CEO of PepsiCo, and Padmasree Warrior, the former CTO of Cisco, now the CEO of Fable. I love women who can stand in the presence of other very high-powered women and hold their ground, and Kelli is definitely that kind of woman.

She is going to talk with us in this episode about the importance of not only being in the rooms where decisions are made but also speaking up while we’re there, really bringing our whole selves to the encounter so that we can have an impact. Kelli has deep experience working with women at all levels of leadership, and I’m really excited to have her share her perspective with us today. She is a highly trained, highly educated individual with a lot of wisdom to share. So without further ado, please meet Kelli Ray Thompson.

Cherylanne Skolnicki:
All right, well, Kelli, welcome to the Brilliant Balance podcast. I am really delighted that you’re joining us today. You have had such an incredible journey in leadership coaching specifically. I wonder if, just to get us started, you could share a little bit about the background that led you to that as a career path.

Kelli Thompson:
Absolutely. I’m actually a corporate veteran. I worked in banking and financial services for about 14 years. My first job there was as a teller and a banker, but I went into sales, decided I liked it, but I preferred working directly with people. So I became a sales trainer, then I went into human resources. One thing I realized in banking, which may sound crazy, was that there were no women in leadership. It was a male-dominated industry. Growing up in a world where men run banking, you don’t realize it until you’re like, “Oh gosh, I want to move up, but people who look like me don’t get to that spot.”

I worked for the same organization for about 12 years, leading human resources, doing roles in marketing and training, but eventually left to work for a healthcare tech organization. It was still male-dominated. I also worked for a leadership development consultant, traveling all over the country doing leadership development training and consulting. I had just gotten remarried, my daughter was in middle school, and I was tired of being on the road. In that role, companies would ask us to coach their leaders. My boss didn’t want to do it, so she asked if I did. I got some good coach training and realized I loved it. I could do it from anywhere and desired to get off the road. I asked my leader if I could do it full time. She preferred to stay in training, but encouraged me to start my own company, even offering to give me my first client.

So about five and a half years ago, I went off on my own doing leadership training and coaching. Then COVID hit, and I lost 80 to 90% of my revenue over a period of about 60 days. During that time, I asked myself what I really wanted to do, even if I wasn’t making money. I realized I wanted to focus on coaching women, helping them to thrive in male-dominated environments. So for the last four years, I’ve focused my coaching practice on helping women advance to the rooms where decisions are made through leadership and executive coaching, training, speaking, and writing my book, *Closing the Confidence Gap*.

Amazing, and you just gave me the perfect transition to what I really sparked to in your background and some of the research that I was doing, which is that you regularly use the RBG quote, “Women belong in all places where decisions are being made.” But you say that’s not quite enough. Can you expand?

Yeah, exactly. Ruth Bader Ginsburg was almost right when she said that women belong in all places where decisions are being made. They do belong, full stop, but they must also make an impact in that room. They must also be welcomed and empowered by their male counterparts. It’s not just enough to be in the room. There are many rooms where someone is there for diversity’s sake. For example, promoting the HR person to be the CHRO just to have one woman on the team. When working with clients, it’s two-fold: it’s not just about being in the room, but also making an impact. I work with senior leaders on showing up, speaking up, making an impact, volunteering to speak to the board, and at conferences. We need more diverse voices in those rooms as well.

It’s important to be courageous, to take a position, be visible, seen, articulate, and memorable in the room. That takes a lot of courage. So what are some of the things you coach women to do? I suspect you have lots. What are just a couple that give people the voice they need in that room? We talk a lot about low power language versus high power language within my community. Many women struggle to find the words, feeling they don’t sound authoritative or confident. How do you address this?

I probably use a counterintuitive approach. There’s part A and part B to this answer. Part A is overcoming the discomfort that tightens your throat and sits in your stomach when speaking up. One technique is four-count breathing to calm the fight-or-flight response before speaking. It’s about noticing and naming those feelings with compassion, like feeling nervous or overwhelmed. Many wait until they feel confident to speak up, but we need to speak up while feeling those things. There are lots of tools and strategies in my book that I use with clients to manage that discomfort.

Part B is my advocacy model. There’s so much advice out there about how to speak up, often conflicting, which can create more interference in finding one’s voice. Instead, I argue that we should remove everything standing in the way of our voice.

It’s already there. And you know what? No, you’re not going to sound like John. You’re not even going to sound like Susie. You want to sound like you.

So here’s my model. Number one, we start with authenticity. So if you’re listening right now, I want you to ask yourself, it’s so easy to put other people on a pedestal thinking that they have more letters behind their name than you, they’ve been around longer than you, they’re more charismatic than you.And so then we stay silent. So I want you to pull the pedestal by asking yourself, what is that unique point of view, that unique perspective that only you can offer the room? Let me give you an example. I was working with a healthcare organization. And one of the gals regularly has to sit in on meetings with the world’s most renowned, like I think it was a neurosurgeon, right? So she’s in this room and this gentleman will say something. And she’s like, I just want to calm down, you know, because he’s the guy, you know, we all have been in rooms like that. I’m like, that could be true. But I said, what’s the unique point of view that only you can offer?

She said, well, I’m really good at data analytics. I’m really good at looking at all these disparate points of data and making sense out of it and knowing which stuff we should take. I said, that’s amazing. He knows the brain, but he doesn’t know data analytics.

So I want you all to think about what is that unique point of view that only you can offer from the seat that you sit in and the facts that you have because only you’re the one talking to the customer. What are those unique skills and talents that only you can bring from your perspective because you don’t have to speak up on everything in a meeting. Your job is to make a contribution based on what is that unique thing that you have to offer? So that’s number one. I really want folks to think about that. What’s that unique thing that you can have to offer? It really stops that whole compare and despair thing. Oh, I can’t talk like that person.

The second thing is alignment. Alignment is the way of speaking up. And so I want you to sit and reflect and think of something. Let’s imagine that you’ve said a thing in a meeting. What three words describe how you want to be seen after you’ve spoken up? So if somebody talked about you after that meeting, what would you hope they said about how you showed up? Those can be clues as to things that you value, things that are native to your unique speaking up style. Like, I am never going to speak up like Cherylanne and I shouldn’t. And she’s not going to speak up like me because when I try to speak up like you, I lose the power that makes me me.

Can you give us an example, like for you, right? When you speak up in a room, what’s one of those words that comes up for you?

It depends, and this is why I love this model. So I might be sitting here on a podcast, and I might use this every time I podcast prep, and I think to myself, okay, when I am done with this podcast, how do I want listeners to think about the things that I’ve said? Well, I want to come across as confident. I want to be practical. I don’t want to just talk about pie in the sky stuff. I want to give them some meat, right? I want to give them stuff. So, confident, practical, and energizing. Nobody wants to listen to a dull person, right? So those are three words you can use. The other way you can do this, and I do this too, it kind of helps with the imposter feelings. I think sometimes when we present to an audience, we’re all nervous because we’re going to think of me and all this sort of stuff. But what I tell folks is you have a whole other audience in the room and when you’re focused on them, it’s really hard to focus on your own stuff. So I ask, how do I want my audience to feel?

To feel, yes.

There are three words that describe the way I want my audience to feel. Well, I want my audience to feel seen. I always want my audience to feel like I understand where they’re at and I want them to feel equipped. Like when they’re done hearing me, they’ve got something they can take away and use right away. So advocacy models, authenticity, what’s that thing that only I can speak up on? Two, alignment, how am I going to speak up in alignment with my values? What’s the energy that I want to create in the room? And then the last one is action and you’re just asking yourself, okay, based on authenticity and alignment, what is mine to say? What is not mine to say? My extroverts love that question because sometimes they feel like, you know, I just talk and talk and talk. I don’t think I contribute, I just talk, or they feel a pressure to speak up. No, like what is mine to say? What is not mine to say?

Another action question is what questions must be asked about this topic that only I can offer from my seat? And so I use the advocacy model to write my book. There’s a gazillion books out there written on confidence for women. But what book could only I write based on my point of view, how I want to be perceived, how I want my reader to feel, then what is mine to say? I use that advocacy model every time I speak up. I pull a presentation together and even just get on podcasts like this. And so I’m hoping that my clients, you know, I know my clients use it when they have to present to the board or they have to give a presentation to their team. And so I want you to think of the places that you can use this in your life when you want to show up with your unique voice.

And it seems like it changes, I’m sitting here thinking through how this would play out differently if you were in a meeting with kind of a close peer group, an immediate group of managers, but still maybe feeling like it’s a male-dominated culture, you get talked over a lot versus you’re standing on a stage in a big presentation versus it’s a board meeting or an investor meeting. The nuances of this are a little bit different. And so I think your three questions or the three things you’re bringing people back to, they work across all of those, right? But they translate a little bit differently, where your answers to them might be situational, depending on how you’re trying to show up in those various places. And I wonder if the reaction of the room feels like the thing that’s the most out of our control. And I think I see a lot of women who shut down in anticipation of what the response will be. I’m always saying, like, that’s the one thing you cannot control. You’re going to have to release all control over how it lands and just take control over how you deliver. So, talk about that a little bit. Like, we get so attached to the judgment that we’re going to feel or the reaction. Is it positive enough? Did I nail it? Like, how do you help people dance with that?

Oh, for sure. That’s just a fancy definition for codependency. You know, I have this little card that sits by my desk. And if you’re just listening when you’re not on video, it just says “let them be mad.” And I have it sitting by my desk and it’s just a reminder because I deeply know that feeling of being so hooked on the audience’s responses or honestly even in my own life wanting to have a crucial conversation. I use the advocacy model for having a crucial conversation. What are the facts? What’s my point of view on the situation? How do I show up? How do I want them to feel? What do I need to say when I have to say something? And I would get so hooked, I’m like, I don’t want them to be mad. I don’t want them to get mad at me. I don’t want them to cry. But I’m like, wait a minute, no. Like, the best thing I heard once, I think it was in the book, “Codependent No More,” is like, you need to allow others the dignity of processing through their emotions. Absolutely. And when you try to think that you can control how someone else feels, that’s just codependency. Now you’re playing the manipulation game. So what I tell them, I literally just did a training session for an organization yesterday and we talked about this thing because our topic was feedback. And I said, the only thing you can control, just like you said, is you can control. What are the facts? What’s mine to share? How do I want to show up in a way that this could be a difficult conversation? There will be many emotions. But how do I show up in a way that I’m going to feel good about a year from now when I look back on this? And know what’s mine to say, that is all I can control. And so then we just have to allow people the dignity of feeling their emotions. Life exists on a bell-shaped curve wherever we go. So, you know, it’s going to be about 20, 60, 20. 20% of people are like, “oh my God, you’re amazing. I’m going to love you.” This is awesome. 60% are neutral. 20% are going to have some emotions about you. And you just can’t control that.

Yeah, it’s so true. And I think that is one of the things that feels, it’s not unique to women, but it is disproportionately felt by women that the level of caring around how other people will respond, what they think of what we say. I’m curious about the organization’s role too, so like we talked about the individual and I am super, that’s where I live .I live squarely at the intersection of work and life with individuals. When you broaden it and think about organizations, if you were consulting, let’s say, with the leadership team of an organization, what can they do to create cultures that are more inclusive, where everyone feels more enabled and encouraged to speak up, where they’re not talked over. What does that look like?

You know, I’ll give you two examples. I was talking with two male CEOs of financial services organizations. Male CEO number one says, “Hey, I love your focus on women. He did enroll some women in my coaching program. His C -suite is all still men.” know, he kind of said to me, well, I, you know, he goes, these guys are here through no fault of their own. Fair enough. But what am I supposed to do with them? Just like, let them go to bring in more women. Okay. Response number one. Okay. Response number two. And this is an organization that I have continued to deepen my relationship with. Get on a call, read my book, love your book. He goes, I’m challenged. He goes, I have an all male leadership team. He goes, but you know what, this is really important to me. So you know what I think I’m going to do? I’m going to add a couple more positions to my leadership team and I’m going to make sure that we heavily recruit women or people of color because we need them. And that like scarcity versus abundance mindset was so different because he said, you know what, why not make a bigger change? Just widen the circle. Yeah. Why don’t we just widen the circle? And then the other conversations that he had with his leaders that he frankly told me about was telling them We need a commitment to diversity. Our industry is changing. If we want to grow our talent pipeline, we need to see, people need to see themselves in our leadership team. Otherwise they’re going to go and apply for jobs, look at the C -suite and be like, nope, can’t see myself. It’s all white dudes and close out of it. You know, the other really interesting thing that we’ve had conversations about, I’ve had with other leaders, is how they define executive presence.

Because, you know, sometimes, not sometimes, lots of times when organizations call me up and say, “Hey, can you coach this person?” One of the things I hear, and it’s usually from a man, is they need to work on their executive presence. I’m like, “How do you define executive presence?” And they usually give me a very white male, masculine definition of executive presence. And so it opens up an opportunity for me to say, “Are you willing to look at that differently?” I would say the last thing that organizations can do besides looking at the data is, like, who’s in your leadership team? Who are you promoting? Where is regrettable turnover happening? Is it gender -based? All those sorts of things I can encourage them to look at. But the same organization with the very abundant -minded CEO. I was actually on one of their off -sites a couple of weeks ago. And he stood up in front of the entire room, which was 80 % male, and said to them, “I am really excited to be here tonight with you all but I’ve been traveling a lot and family is a very important value for me so although I want to spend the evening with you I’ve made a commitment to my family to leave here at 5 pm. and be home for supper. That seems so small but when you think about that for a man to stand up and model that sort of balance like I was like oh my gosh can all the male CEOs be this way and so you know what do you do with organizations? My bottom line is I work with willing organizations who are willing to look at things a different way. I can’t walk around and consult and make male CEOs change their mind who don’t get it. I’m working with willing organizations who already understand the business proposition of diversity and diversifying their leadership teams. I can’t convince them, but you know who can convince them is their male peer CEOs in the marketplace.

Yeah. And it’s interesting, like, that male CEO’s comment could go either way, right? Because it could be seen as performative and, like, you’re going to get so much credit for this and everyone’s going to say what an amazing person you are, whereas if the female CEO said the same thing, it would probably not be received the same way. So it’s a double -edged sword on them modeling the behavior. I love to quiet modeling of that behavior where, but I do think it’s enabling when you have somebody in a senior position, really being transparent about the choices that they’re making and the trade -offs that come with it, you know, like I think it’s a double -edged sword that men candidly are trying to walk on that line. It was to go back to the women around what makes, I feel like you’ve analyzed this for years now, and I’m super curious about what you think is really at the root of it? Like, we all have heard the memes, right? It’s like, oh, there’s this confidence gap and women don’t show up. Why? What is the thing that you’re learning about what’s underneath that behavior broadly?

Alright, so let’s just go back to, okay, I’ll give you a story. So one of my favorite role models, I always think about her when I’m at my family’s farm in Western Nebraska is my great grandma. There’s a bus that sits out there. And every time I look at that bus, I’m like, oh, because here’s the thing, my great grandma bought that bus with cash in 1961. And why might you be thinking to yourself like, Oh, well, what’s the big deal? You have to remember that in 1961, – That 1961, my grandma was a widow. So she had to buy that bus with cash. When her spouse died, she had to run a 1 ,000 acre farm and ranch on cash. She bought tractors on cash. And you know, it’s interesting, my dad used to primarily raise my dad. So my dad would tag along with her to like business deals. And she was like 4 ’11”. She’d walk into these like farm and part stores and like the employees would just go get the manager because she was there to negotiate to the bottom dollar. Now, I’m sure she was called all sorts of things, but to think that she had to run this business on cash because women couldn’t get the right to open a bank account or have credit in their own name till 1974, okay? There were women who were not in the workplace, okay? So this is like my mother’s generation. This is recent. In 1978, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Ims did a study in which they called the imposter phenomenon and they wanted to understand why these seemingly high achieving women, you know, felt like they were going to be found out at any moment or they didn’t belong in the rooms where decisions were made or like all of their success was a result of luck. And you know, one of the things that, you know, they said was they were the only women, they didn’t have role models of people who looked like them. So much perfection was expected because, you know, well, we hired a woman once and it didn’t work. I mean, you would never hear people say like, oh, we hired John once and it didn’t work. And so what we have to remember is that in the long arc of work, women in the workplace are new. And more research studies have found that people are more likely to experience imposter feelings when they have been discriminated against racially, when they are expected to be stereotyped based on their gender or they work for an organization where like brilliance is prized above all else, like high performance cutthroat, sometimes education. So I think a lot of this just continues to stem from, like women are still new in the workforce when you think about the long arc of history. We haven’t seen ourselves in the rooms where decisions are made. We haven’t seen, you know, all different types of women using healthy self -advocacy. We haven’t seen a lot of history where women could fail and still like to have a great career. Like, hello, Adam, at WeWork. Like, Duke can lose billions of dollars in money. Everybody’s like, “I’m just gonna skip it more,” right? So like the demands for perfection and all these sorts of things just aren’t there yet. And that’s why I really advocate for that. – I think the newness comment, the newness comment is so, that’s thought provoking. You know, that we’re still relative, this is still kind of the first generation that’s been broadly in a lot of these arenas.

I remember having a professor at my university who said, “We won’t really know what women are capable of until girls grow up in an environment with 50% of the Supreme Court, 50% of the Senate, 50% of the House, 50% of the pilots, and 50% of the physicians and dentists they see.”

We’re not there yet. In this generation, we haven’t reached that point. It’s getting better, but still, in most of those professions I just mentioned, the picture that comes to mind, even for young girls, is still of a male.

I think there is a very insidious, almost invisible, imposter syndrome that can emerge from that. I wish it didn’t. I wish that weren’t true. But if you don’t see yourself reflected at least half the time, it starts to feel like you’re driving along without a clear picture in your head. That’s a great insight on newness. So then, in your view, what does the future hold? If we look at the next five to ten years, where do you think this trend is heading for women in leadership?

You know, I was actually talking about this morning. This is my hypothesis: Corporations are going to drive more social change than the government ever will. Let me give you a couple of examples to explain why I think this.

Recently, Bank of America, led by CEO Jane, announced that they now offer a standard 16 weeks of paid maternity leave and an extra 8 weeks for the birthing parent. Our government isn’t providing that. We are so far behind, even compared to third-world countries in this regard.

I was talking with a colleague this morning who was instrumental in offshoring products for companies like Nike and Adidas to China. When Nike and Adidas saw the working conditions many women faced, with little babies sitting next to them and needles flying everywhere, it was the companies, not the government, that insisted on better work environments, standard working hours, and benefits.

So, if companies are driving more social and progressive change than the government, then who is running these companies? That’s why it’s so important to continue accelerating women into leadership roles.

In the next five to ten years, we know that women are going to inherit more wealth, as research shows with the baby boomer generation passing on. But we also need more women in the talent pipeline to fill these roles. The good news is that more women than ever are enrolled in law school, medical school, and higher education. It’s not a lack of qualified women; it’s that men are still making most of the decisions right now.

And there’s an attrition rate, right? Women are in all these educational fields, yet the attrition rates remain astronomical.


Do you think it’s going to change?

I don’t know. We’ll have to see. The trend is moving in the right direction, but will it change as fast as we want? Probably not. But as Martin Luther King said, “The arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” We have to trust that.  Just ten years ago, we didn’t have 26% of women in the C-suite; we had 10%. Slow change is happening over time. Continued conversations, development, and advocacy from men who understand that diversity benefits everyone will slowly change the makeup of leadership over time.

To bring this back to our opening point about getting women in all the rooms where decisions are made and not just in the room but having an impact in those rooms—is that your passion and purpose? Is that what you’re here to help people with? And where can we find you?

Yes, absolutely. My favorite place to hang out on social media is LinkedIn. You can find me at
LinkedIn.com/in/KelliRayThompson. My second favorite place is Instagram, where I share more personal content along with some work-related stuff. You can find me there at Instagram.com/KelliRayThompson. Head over to my website at KelliRayThompson.com for some freebies you can download. My book, “Closing the Confidence Gap: Boost Your Peace, Your Potential, and Your Paycheck,” is a Next Big Idea Club must-read, available on Amazon. If you like Audible, I will kindly read it to you, or you can get it in ebook or hardcover format.

Amazing. Thank you so much for sharing your ideas and your confidence, which shines through. It’s something people can grab onto and use as inspiration as they take this work out into the world.

Thank you.

If you’re new to the show, welcome! I’m so glad you found your way here. I hope you will become a subscriber of the Brilliant Balance Podcast so that you never miss an episode. This is super easy to do from anywhere you listen to podcasts.

Also, come over to the website at brilliant-balance.com and check out all the great resources we have for you. Thanks for tuning in today. Until next time, let’s be brilliant.

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