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Michelle Schafer on Why Self Belief Is Vital For Business Leaders

Michelle Schafer is the Owner and Career Coach with Michelle Schafer Coaching and understands the role that self-belief has played in their business journey so far. They took some time out to speak with The Industry Leaders about this powerful state of mind.

Firstly, can you give us a little bit of background about your business journey?

I’m a career coach specializing in career transition and leadership, a mom, a lover of the outdoors, a small business owner, and a proud resident of Ottawa, Canada. I love learning about the career stories of my clients, and how I got into coaching is a story on its own. I've been restructured twice and reinvented myself twice in my career – first from financial services to not-for-profit, then not-for-profit to small business ownership (8 years ago!) as a coach and the owner of Michelle Schafer Coaching. I joke that at age 46, I finally knew what I wanted to do when I grew up. A good coaching friend planted the seed years ago, as I had always coached as part of my job - then, when my position was eliminated a second time, I started networking with coaches to learn more and find out about their coaching specialization and what coaching school they went to. I realized after taking my first level coaching certification that this was something I wanted to do as a career (not just off the side of my desk), so I established my practice and, because of my own transition experience, chose to focus my coaching in the career space. The book “Answering Your Call” by John Schuster provided a lot of inspiration to me as I was contemplating this huge pivot in my career. When I work with clients, I focus on work that gives them energy. I am deeply fulfilled and genuinely inspired by the progress of others ‒ it's rewarding to work with someone who may be stuck when they come to me and end up developing new strategies and using new tools to help them take steps toward their career goal. I believe everyone deserves to find a career that allows them to do work that gives them energy, for a company that believes in what they believe in. That’s my “why.”

What role has self-belief played in your journey as a business leader? How has it influenced your decision-making and overall success?

Self-belief has been at the root and foundation of everything I've done with my business. I needed to trust my own abilities before deciding to take the plunge into small business ownership after being employed for years by large national organizations, or focusing my practice on career topics (like transition and exploration, job search and leadership), or establishing partnerships with other organizations to gain clients which has helped my business thrive. I remember being scared when I first started my practice - I had moments of "what the heck are you doing? You are giving up things like security, benefits and paid vacation!". But I realized I was also leaving behind doing work I didn't enjoy doing sometimes, or having to report to a leader instead of being my own boss. I was also gaining the ability to be flexible in my work, to have time to volunteer in my kids' classrooms, and to do work I truly love. If I did not believe in myself, and my ability to help people with their challenges and struggles, none of this would have been possible.

Can you share a specific moment or challenge in your journey where your self-belief was tested? How did you overcome it and what did you learn from that experience?

That's a great question. A short while after I launched my business, a few entrepreneur friends told me "be patient" and "never give up". Especially in the early days of my business, I leaned in to this guidance on multiple occasions. When progress and growth seemed slow, I kept telling myself that things take time - and when I ever considered throwing in the towel, I remembered to keep going and not to give up on my dream. This guidance became useful again in the pandemic - for a short while, my work ground to a halt and I was worried (I even paused my mortgage payments and property tax as revenue was not coming in the way I was used to). By being patient, and not giving up, I was able to get through those early pandemic months, and took the extra time on my hands to do more writing, provide support to leaders during this challenging time, and edit my website to reflect pandemic language that would speak to others as a way of increasing my client base. And it worked. My self-belief has been tested again very recently. In February, I suffered a femur fracture after skating with my boys. I had surgery to insert a titanium plate and screws (call me the Bionic Woman now!) and my recovery has been long. My mobility and energy have both been affected, and as a result, I have lost business (and money). Even though I know this period of time is limited (and not my "forever place"), I've questioned whether I can stay in business, and if I should supplement my current income with a part-time job I can do remotely and on my own time. This is something I continue to struggle with, and am working to overcome. Meditation (to encourage positive self-talk) has helped, as well as writing on LinkedIn (as I have lots of expertise to share about career transition and leadership) which helps to develop my brand, and promote myself and my business.

How do you cultivate and maintain a mindset of self-belief amidst the inevitable ups and downs of life?

One thing is for certain: each day is not a banner day! And if you don't believe in yourself, no one else will (and that includes clients). So it's essential to have ways of cultivating a positive mindset, which we can leverage for coping strategies when we experience tough times. I'll speak to a number of specific practical strategies later in the interview (and these are things that I do and also recommend for clients). One thing that can help reinforce our value (and what we can lean on in times where we doubt ourselves) is to keep a "sunshine file". I keep an electronic file on my computer where I store messages of thanks from clients, and notes where they have articulated the value I provided to their job search, or their leadership development. Whenever I doubt my own abilities, I read through that file to remind myself of the positive impact I have on clients.

Are there any specific strategies or practices you follow to boost your self-confidence when facing uncertainties or setbacks in your business?

The entrepreneurial community is a large and supportive one. So when I am experiencing a setback, it's helpful for me to check in with other coaches. I remember when I first started out, I experienced a big dip in my income for the summer months. I thought for sure this only happened to me, and because I was new! But then I chatted with other coaches, who confirmed what I was experiencing - a summer lull is typical in the industry. Had I not spoken to others, I would have not known that, and for years to come, that knowledge helped me plan accordingly for my business knowing the summers were slower than other months (note - since the pandemic, this "summer lull" has disappeared, as the job market is always active and doesn't have a slower period now). Speaking with other business owners can help you gain a better understanding of their experience, and also an opportunity to brainstorm ways to respond to these setbacks or slower periods, and new activities you can engage in to generate more interest in your business. Asking for help is important (even though it can be hard to do).

How do you handle self-doubt or negative self-talk that may arise as a business leader? Do you have any specific techniques for reframing negative thoughts?

There are three questions I'll ask myself, or things I'll tell myself (and I recommend these to clients as well): 1) "Is this fact or is this narrative?" (sometimes negative thoughts are caused by assumptions and judgements - this is our narrative, and the story we create ourselves, which often is very different than the actual facts) , 2) Is this a limiting belief? (and our limiting beliefs have a strong influence on what we do - often, they prevent us from taking action because of something we believe is true) and 3) "This is not my forever place" - even in the toughest of times, I know I will make it through, and as uncomfortable as it may feel in the moment, I know it won't always be like this.

What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs who struggle with self-belief? How can they start building a stronger sense of confidence and belief in themselves?

The hardest part of getting established as a career coach in a competitive market was gaining clients as a relatively "green" coach. When I started my business, I had zero clients and had just completed my coaching certification. So I had to do a lot of networking to promote myself and gain the trust of clients who needed coaching support. And I had a lot working against me - the coaching community in Ottawa is huge, and I was surrounded by coaches who had far more experience than me, and who were very well established in their business. But I had one thing working for me - my extensive and very supportive network. So I started reaching out to everyone I knew and worked with - I drank lots of coffee in those early days over networking chats to explore their needs and how I could help. And I kept telling myself "I believe in you". Slowly, I was able to build my business, one client at a time. That was nearly 8 years ago, and now I have a thriving business with 3 income streams (and two productive partnerships) that support me. My supportive network knew I had lots to offer my clients, even though I was very new compared to other coaches who were far more established. So - talk to those people. Engage your cheerleaders. Reach out to others if you are having low points where you doubt yourself, as they can remind you of times you have added value. Take out your resume - remind yourself of all the achievements you have had up until this point. Every entrepreneur experiences low times. The key is not to get paralyzed by these doubts and limiting beliefs. Acknowledge them - and move around them.

Have you ever encountered external skepticism or negativity regarding your business ideas or decisions? How do you stay grounded in your self-belief despite external influences?

Oh yes! When I started my practice, I was part of a government-funded program which helped small business owners (sadly, this program was discontinued 8 years ago. I had to interview to get accepted into this program. One of the two interviewers questioned my decision to get into coaching, saying coaching is a competitive industry and there were already a lot of coaches in Ottawa who are more established than me. I started to doubt myself, wondering how I would set myself apart from all these coaches who knew more than me and who already had clients. But this skepticism fuelled me - I was determined to set myself apart and to be successful in my practice. About 90% of small businesses fail in the first year - I've been coaching for 8 years now. Even in that interview, I knew in my gut this was right for me.

Are there any books, podcasts, or people you'd recommend checking out for anyone who wants to change to a more self-confident and belief-rich mindset?

I love Jeff Warren's "Daily Trip" on the Calm app. Jeff's guided meditations do wonders for turning around a negative mindset into a positive one. And anything by Brene Brown ! Also, surround yourself with positive people in your network - when there is positive energy all around you, it will lift you up and keep you moving forward even in dark times.

Finally, what are some practical tips or exercises you can recommend for entrepreneurs to strengthen their self-belief and mindset on a regular basis?

Daily meditation (especially when struggling with negative thoughts) can be very helpful to cultivate a positive mindset, as well as reflecting on your "wins" for the day (even on the worst day imaginable, there is something in your day that went well - so reflecting on that is key for reinforcing belief of self). Something I bring to my clients who are struggling with their own internal critic, is to ask them to not dismiss their negative thoughts, but rather do a "dance" with them. Instead of pretending they don't exist (we all need to validate our feelings - they are our reality), acknowledge their presence, then address them, saying "I see you, and I'm not going into that rabbit hole today". Lastly, in each client session, I'll ask them "what's one thing you are taking away from today's conversation?" which helps reinforce learnings for clients, but it's also a way for me to know in which specific ways I'm adding value to my client's lives.

Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge with us here! Where should people follow you to find out more about your work?


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