‘Now, I look at work and life and what I know in a different way, it’s almost like I’m attuned to looking for opportunities to bring my thinking together and get it out there by way of a book.’
Michelle Sales never thought of herself as a writer. She didn’t even particularly enjoy writing her book, The Power of Real Confidence (though she LOVES having written it). Maybe you recognise how it went:
‘How I had thought to structure my writing was to block out my Fridays and I would get to Friday morning, and I would do a 9:00 Pilates class. That would finish at 10:00, and I’d do it with a girlfriend, and we’d say, “Oh, we might as well have a coffee.” So we’d hang around and have a coffee and a chat. And inevitably it’d be about midday before I’d get home, and then I’d think, “Oh, I have to start writing now.” So I’d open it and close it and open it and close it and think, “I’m not really sure I’m into this chapter.” Then at about 2:00, I’d think, “Oh, it’s Friday afternoon. I think I’m done.”‘
In this conversation she describes how she found a different way to write that worked for her, and also how the process, rather fittingly, challenged and built her own confidence.
Michelle’s site: https://michellesales.com.au/
Michelle on Twitter: https://twitter.com/michelleksales
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Alison Jones: Hello, and welcome to the Extraordinary Business Book Club. It’s a delight to be here today with Michelle Sales. Michelle is passionate about helping people tap into their true potential in leadership and in life. She’s a speaker, facilitator, coach, and author, and she’s helped thousands of senior leaders and their teams learn to show up as the best version of themselves, to build their confidence and influence of others, and to maximise their leadership and performance. She also, of course, is an author. So, welcome to the show, Michelle.
Michelle Sales: Thanks, Alison. Great to be here.
Alison Jones: It’s fantastic to have you here. Obviously, you’re writing on confidence, which is kind of the Holy Grail for leaders, and I think, indeed, for business book writers, because it’s something we all suffer with. There’s probably not many people listening to this that wouldn’t say that at some point they have struggled with their confidence. Why is that, and why does it matter so much, do you think?
Michelle Sales: Yes, and certainly I had that experience myself in writing this thing, my first book. I think it’s well-known now that competency is no longer enough. So it’s not enough just to be great at what we do, and we can use that as all we need to get a promotion or get ahead or step into new things. And I think for just about everyone, that confidence can wax and wane through our lives. So, we have moments, and sometimes that’s even weeks and months, when our confidence can take a real hit. Sometimes that’s when we step into something new or when we’re challenged by something, when we’ve had some criticism, and we can take a dip in our confidence. Sometimes it’s just one aspect of our life. So, we can be really confident in you know the sporting field, and then we start to write a book and we think, “Oh my goodness. How am I going to approach this?”
Alison Jones: How true, isn’t it?
Michelle Sales: Yes. Confidence waxes and wanes for all of us.
Alison Jones: I love that point, actually, because that’s so true. You get some real hard hitters in the business world. But when it comes to write a book, it’s like this is completely out of the comfort zone. There’s no particular reason that that confidence should spill over into that field. You’re right.
Michelle Sales: Absolutely. And certainly as I said, that was for me. I’d had 26 years in the corporate environment, and been running my own business for six years, and I had lots of colleagues and clients, actually, saying to me, “You should write a book.” And I thought, “Aw, why not. I’ll give it a go. I’m always a bit of a why not person. What’s the worst that could happen?”
Alison Jones: How hard could it be, right?
Michelle Sales: Yes, that’s right. How hard could it be? And I sat down and thought, “Oh wow. This is going to be interesting.” So I’ve had to actually employ many of the tactics in my book for myself through that process.
Alison Jones: That’s great, walking the talk. Well, let’s talk about … The book is called, ‘The Power of Real Confidence’ and I love that phrase real confidence. I just wanted to kind of explore that with you a bit, because you do often hear fake it ’til you make it, and there’s this sense that confidence is something that you kind of almost put on like a mask. So, what does real confidence look and feel like, and how’s that different to other forms of confidence?
Michelle Sales: That’s a great question, and a conversation I’ve had a lot over recent years. For me, the real element of real confidence is about that authenticity and the building the confidence really from the inside out, so that it is real to each individual. And that will look different to every person. It’s opposed to the bravado. So the realism and authentic sense of confidence that’s built at an individual level. I’m not totally throwing out the fake it ’til you make it. I think there’s always times that you’ve got to step up on stage or get in front of a big team or step into a new role where there’s an element of fake it ’til you make it.
But what I don’t love about that and am not a fan of is the fake it element. So, that’s why real confidence, to me, is so important and the real element of that. And I think there is an element that I support in the fake it ’til you make it is the take action, and as you do small things, your confidence builds. So, as you’re stepping into saying yes to things you wouldn’t normally say yes to, the fake it ’til you make it element is there, I suppose, but yes, I don’t love the faking it.
Alison Jones: Tell us more about that inner game piece, because that sounds like the game changer.
Michelle Sales: I’ve got a model that I use in the book that has four elements to it, but at an overarching level, there’s the work that we have to do on the inside to be able to show up and be confident on the outside. So the work that we generally will do on the inside is really tapping into knowing who we are. Who we are at our best, what we’re great at, what our values are, what’s central and core to us. Having a really good sense of self-awareness in terms of how we can show up. Knowing really what our purpose is and why we’re here. And when we do step into our confidence and step into, maybe if it’s leadership, step into bigger roles, etc, when we’re challenged, really having that sense of resilience that will take us through and will bring us out the other side in a really good way. So that’s the work that we will generally do internally so that when we show up, and what I mean by that is, by the time we walk in the room, we’ve got a really good sense of who we are. We’re centred in that, and that gets us a really long way along the confidence journey already.
Alison Jones: And this is particularly relevant for women, I’m guessing. I mean, it’s for everybody, but I’m guessing that you did a lot of work with women on this.
Michelle Sales: I do do a lot of work with women, and it’s a really interesting point, because I actually started writing the book for women because I do do a lot of work with women. I happened to be talking to and working with quite a number of very senior men at the time I started writing, and they said to me, “I hope you’re not writing this as a women’s book, because as leaders, this is a challenge for both men and women.” So I discussed that with quite a few male leaders, and that really got me to the point of, “I’m writing this for leaders, not for women.” But you’re right, because in working with really thousands of women over many years, women can be particularly challenged by it. And for a number of other reasons practically, as well for women when we come back from extended leave, like maternity leave, it can often be very challenging to our confidence. So there’s different points in our careers as women that can make that confidence journey a little bit more challenging.
Alison Jones: Yes, and I think negotiating how you show it in the workplace is more challenging, as well, because confident behaviour from a woman can be interpreted differently to confident behaviours from men. There’s that whole kind of politics around that, isn’t there?
Michelle Sales: Absolutely.
Alison Jones: I guess the more authentic it is, the less likely that is to be an issue.
Michelle Sales: Yes, absolutely, but there are stereotypes, as you say, for women that can work against us. So having an awareness around that is helpful, and exactly like you say, the more authentic we are the better that is perceived. But I think we have often still in organisations, the decision-makers at the top of organisations are male, and so that’s why there’s an external element to the confidence model, because it’s not enough to just feel confident on the inside. We have to portray that. Otherwise we can be perceived to be not confident, and judgments made against us negatively in that, “Oh, she or he is not ready for the next role. They’re not confident enough. They’re not stepping into this enough.” And there’s critical judgments made based on confidence, which may or may not be correct.
Alison Jones: Yes, and that’s … Well, let’s go back to that four-part process that you talked about because it is gorgeous, and I love a bit of structure. So I was particularly struck. I thought, “This is gorgeous,” because you have your four-part process, ‘show up, stand up, speak up, step up’, which in itself is great because it’s memorable, it’s resonant. It’s also I love the way it’s active. It’s an invitation, almost, isn’t it? I love the way you phrase that, and it makes complete sense now you’ve described exactly how that works for us. But also, the bigger, the macro shape of the book, it’s in three parts – Learn, Lead, Live – which I love because yes, it’s a business book, yes it’s for leaders, but it’s about so much more than just how you are in the office.
Michelle Sales: Absolutely. And confidence really is a life skill. You know, when you think about any of those elements. You know, being able to show up, it’s not just about showing up in business as your confident self and the best version of you. That can be, as I said earlier, on the sporting field, in community environments, in boards, in business, with your family. And really that sense of authenticity and realness in how you do that, I think that’s really important that we integrate that through our whole life, because we are a whole person. We don’t just have to show up as confidently you in the workplace, and then it stops when you walk out the door. I like to think, as well, that the model is a very active one.’ So when we’re talking about show up, it’s about showing up with confidence, but it’s doing the work to build the confidence to show up, as well. So it’s got a couple of different dimensions to it.
Alison Jones: And I’m guessing that that structure, that beautiful three-part structure and then the four-part model within it, that didn’t just kind of drop fully-formed from the heavens, did it? How did you get there?
Michelle Sales: Well, I have to … I had a fantastic developmental editor, Kelly Irving, who has just been a dream to work with. Without her, this book wouldn’t be in existence. So, she helped me write from before I put pen to paper all the way through. It was very much a collaborative process. It’s interesting with the models, because I developed the models through the book as I wrote the book. I didn’t start with everything neatly in place. And I know that’s not always the case. In fact, a colleague of mine is just completing her first book at the moment, and she had all of her beautiful models completely developed and ready before she even started writing. But for me, it was an iterative process as I went through the book. I would get to a point and go, “Oh, I think I need a model now.”
And as I was writing and starting to write all of this text about confidence, I stood back from it and I said, “What is this really about for me? What are the elements of it?” And I would do this work, you know. I did strength work with clients, I would do work on values and developing a purpose, loads of work on how to find your voice and speak up and develop your executive presence and have a different impact, how to have great sponsors, your person brand, getting the right mindset. So I would do all this work, but I actually hadn’t developed it into a model that depicted the confidence in one way.
Alison Jones: And that’s brilliant, because I think that’s one of the great reasons to write a book, isn’t it? It’s not just to be the business card and to position you as the thought leader and the go-to person. It’s actually to really pull together what it is that you do into a distinctive bit of intellectual property.
Michelle Sales: And it was so helpful for that for me, because we have all of this work that we do in our minds, and in fact, I spoke to quite a number of clients and colleagues before I started writing, because I had a number of ideas in my head, and I said, “Why do you buy me? What do I represent for you? What value do I provide to you?” And the theme very strongly across the board was around confidence. So I thought, “Right, well, that’ll be my first book.”
Alison Jones: I’m going to come onto that in a minute, actually. Hold that thought. I just wanted to pick up on something else that you said, which is I hear so often, and it’s so important, again. Firstly, you’re talking to people. You’re engaging people. Secondly, you’re working with someone who, your development editor is going to be a brilliant professional development editor, but won’t be an expert in your subject. And there’s such good value in that, because they get to ask you the dumb questions, and they get to see things more simply than you see them because you know every nuance and kind of shade of meaning in these things. And that can be really helpful when you’re trying to communicate something quite simply, can’t it? You have to abstract it for them.
Michelle Sales: Yes, absolutely. She’s so great. I actually felt by the end of it all, Kelly’s an expert in confidence now, too. But totally at the start, she would be able to say to me, “These concepts seem like you’re doubling up. You’re talking values here, you’re talking about it there. You need to create some clarity.” And I think those conversations also helped me to get to the point of the model. And in fact, because I probably left it so late in the piece to put the model into my thinking, it actually came quite quickly.
Alison Jones: Hmm. When it came, it just dropped into place.
Michelle Sales: It did, yes. As did many of them. And some of the models I had already, and I was working with and others have been developed through the process. But yes, Kelly was great at being able to challenge and prompt and suggest and really helped me to shape this into what it is.
Alison Jones: Brilliant. I love that. And that moment when it does land, when you go, “Oh, I see, what we’ve really got is false dangers.” And then you can call them this and there’s that lovely kind of click as everything fits into place, isn’t there?
Michelle Sales: Yes. Absolutely.
Alison Jones: Love that moment. Now, to that point that you said this is your first book, but you’re actually saying that you’re confident it won’t be your last. So tell us, why is that? What was so great about writing a book?
Michelle Sales: Oh, well. I think that’s a separate question for me, what was so great about writing the book. I did not love writing the book, I have to say. I love having written it. If I’d go right back, English was a subject, probably my worst subject at school, in terms of my enjoyment. I didn’t love it. Mum used to do all my English assignments for me. I had never … I’ve got loads of colleagues who always say ‘There’s a book in everyone’ and ‘I can’t wait to write my book’. I was never that person. It was just really so many people saying to me, “You need to share this more broadly and you need to write.” As I said earlier, I said, “Oh, why not give it a go.”
So if I didn’t have someone beside me like Kelly, I think that would have been so much more challenging. But now, I look at work and life and what I know in a different way, because it’s almost like I’m attuned to looking for opportunities to bring my thinking together and get it out there by way of a book, in one example. So I’ve become attuned to it, I think.
Alison Jones: That’s really interesting. Just tell me a little bit more about that. So, when you look at things, when you think of things, when you see things, presumably when you’re working with people, you’re kind of translating it mentally into, “How would I communicate that in a book?”
Michelle Sales: Mm-hmm. And looking for themes, looking for what would that … Is this important for people to know about? Am I having this same conversation with 10 clients over the course of the last quarter, and therefore it’s something that people would find value in? And if I think about that more holistically, that’s connected to that, and therefore, this is actually all about strategic influence, for example. Or all about networking with warmth. Whatever it is, I start to actually create something bigger in my mind that’s connected and might be of value. A book is one thing that I notice a lot about me, now. And the other is, as I was writing this I would sometimes go off on a tangent and say to Kel, “Oh, I think actually this is … Maybe I could write some more about confidence at a team level.” So, this was really pitched for individuals and often in a leadership lens. So then my tangent would be confidence for teams. And then I would get all excited and think, “Oh, what about confidence for organisations?” And in the end, I said, “Okay, that’s book two and book three.”
Alison Jones: Which is a great lesson, isn’t it? You know, it is the first book, and you have to keep the scope quite tight, otherwise it just goes out of control.
Michelle Sales: Yes, absolutely. And starts to not make sense, I think, because it’s just wandering a bit too much.
Alison Jones: Yes. But I love that. I’ve never had anybody express it like that, but I know exactly what you mean. Almost the fact that you’ve done that work that you are now tuned into the way of thinking like a writer, makes you think differently about the world, and it provides that kind of reflective … I was going to say reflective practitioner. I suppose it is a bit like that, isn’t it? That kind of filter against which you weigh your experience and pull out the key points from it and think about how they fit in with everything else, which is a gift.
Michelle Sales: Yes, but it’s interesting. Even you saying writer, I still, it’s hard to own that. And maybe that’s my own confidence. And one of my team, Caroline, who has started updating and editing my bio, that now has author in it. And I look at it and think, “Oh, jeez. I’m not sure I earned that yet.”
Alison Jones: Well maybe by the third book you’ll be able to.
Michelle Sales: Yes, maybe.
Alison Jones: Brilliant. So, if somebody’s listening to the show, and they’re like, “I can’t believe she’s thinking about doing two or three books. I’m struggling with my first”, what would be your one best tip for them? And I’m guessing because you’ve come from that place of not being a writer, this is going to be really interesting for them, actually.
Michelle Sales: Yes, so one of the things that I did about a quarter of the way into writing was, I did a strength profile for myself, because I was doing some study studying positive psychology, and so I did a strength profile. One of my weaknesses showed up as writer. And I thought, “Oh, this is very interesting,” because how I had thought to structure my writing was to block out my Fridays and I would get to Friday morning, and I would do a 9:00 Pilates class. That would finish at 10:00, and I’d do it with a girlfriend, and we said, “Oh, we might as well have a coffee.” So we’d hang around and have a coffee and a chat. And inevitably it’d be about midday before I’d get home, and then I’d think, “Oh, I have to start writing now.” So I’d open it and close it and open it and close it and think, “I’m not really sure I’m into this chapter.”
Then at about 2:00, I’d think, “Oh, it’s Friday afternoon. I think I’m done.” So when I did the strength profile and my weakness was writer, it was not a big surprise to me. But what came up for me as an unrealized strength was narrator. And I really enjoy telling stories. So I approached the writing of the book differently to leverage my strength, which was, I would start a chapter, sit down and at the very start of writing a chapter, I would think, “What do I know in terms of the stories of my clients, colleagues, what stories do I know that tell me about this piece of work or this element of the chapter that I want to write about?” And I would start by writing a story. Maybe that was 300 words, and once I’d written my story, which flowed really well, it would just flow out of me, I was on a roll then and I knew what I was doing and I’d got some momentum and off I went.
So my biggest tip that I learned through the book, and I reflect on it even more now I’ve finished it, is to write in a way that you’re leveraging what you’re great at. So, if you’re great at solo work and you really enjoy sitting and writing on your own in the quiet, then do it that way. For me, that didn’t work. I’m an extrovert, so I would love to work being around people. So for most of the time I tried to do that where I had other people in the room, even if they’re our friends doing their own work, or colleagues. But I liked a bit of noise. I liked to be able to bounce off people. In fact, I’ve definitely seen myself as more speaker than a writer, and I’ve got a colleague who actually speaks her whole book out when she writes a book. So I’m inclined to try that as a process next time.
Yes, so my biggest tip would be write in a way that really leverages what you’re great at, rather than think writing a book has to be about sitting in solitary and just writing away.
Alison Jones: That’s an awesome tip. And I love the way that you can be quite playful about it. You can see what works for you. I mean, take the strength profile, because that’s great. And I love that narrator is a thing. That’s brilliant. But even mixing it up sometimes, because there’s different modes and there’s different energies. Writing nothing from a blank page is one job, and going back and rewriting something is a different job, and maybe they need different modes, as well.
Michelle Sales: Yes, absolutely.
Alison Jones: I found I had to be with people for the initial bit to get things going, because I’m an extrovert, too. But actually, when I was rewriting and polishing and kind of pulling it all together, I had to be on my own. It was really interesting. So even your writing preference isn’t fixed, because there’s different aspects of the job and there’s different times of day and different modes in which you operate. So I think having knowing that you have this whole kind of palette of different tools and skills and ways of doing it is good to know.
Michelle Sales: Absolutely. And then know, even when I look at my confidence level, know that at times, you need to be more resilient. You need to do some work. I actually took myself away for a week to a health retreat and did some writing there. And actually, being in a really lovely environment where you’re actually working on your own health and well-being at the same time helped me enormously for the writing, because everything was kind of congruent. I would wake up in the morning, go for a beautiful walk, have a lovely, healthy breakfast, perhaps do a yoga class, and then come and be able to work really effectively for three hours and then have a break and do the same in the afternoon.
Alison Jones: Wow. I mean that is … That is your ideal, isn’t it? That’s just a perfect way to write a book. That’s what I aspire to. One day…
Michelle Sales: It was rather wonderful.
Alison Jones: Rather than just in scrappy minutes snatched between the school run and stuff.
Michelle Sales: Well, come to Australia, because I’ve written about Golden Door, the health retreat in the book, as well.
Alison Jones: It sounds amazing, yes. One day. One day, this too will be mine. Now Michelle, I always ask people to recommend a business book. So obviously, they should go and read ‘The Power of Real Confidence’ but apart from that one, what business book do you recommend that everyone listening to the podcast should go away and read?
Michelle Sales: Oh, I find that question really challenging, because I have … If you could see my bookshelves, I have got so many business books, and in terms of my style of reading, I don’t read cover to cover of a business book. So I pick it up and use it and get value from it in certain elements, I’m not a cover to cover person.
Alison Jones: I think that’s how most people use them, to be honest with you.
Michelle Sales: Oh really? Good. Okay, I’m not unusual then.
Alison Jones: No, you’re really not.
Michelle Sales: So, to recommend one book, I’ve found it quite challenging. There are two that I pick up and use very regularly, and that’s Patrick Lencioni’s ‘The Advantage’ which I love, and I love using with clients because it stands.
Alison Jones: It’s story-based. I can see that, yep.
Michelle Sales: Yes, some of it’s story-based, and it’s very practical and pragmatic, and it’s his work that’s evolved over the years to organisational health from quite a simple five dysfunction model that he used. So it’s matured and evolved into organisational health. So I really enjoy that. And I am a big fan of Brene Brown, so ‘Daring Greatly’ I would always recommend, as well.
Alison Jones: Yes. Amen to that. Brilliant recommendations. Thank you so much, I’ll put those up on the show notes so people can go. And also to put on the show notes, if people want to find out more about you, Michelle, and more about ‘The Power of Real Confidence’ where should they go? And I’ll put those links up, too.
Michelle Sales: To my website is the easiest, michellesales.com.au. The book link on my website is the best place to purchase the book, as well.
Alison Jones: Fantastic. That was such an interesting conversation, and it’s so interesting to hear somebody who isn’t a natural writer and find out the ways in which they negotiated that and what they learned through it, and I think you were able to articulate the benefit of it so much more than somebody for whom it comes really instinctively. So I think that was particularly valuable for people listening who find themselves in that situation. Thank you so much.
Michelle Sales: Thank you, Alison. It was a pleasure.