Executive Search Consultant Jen Meyers Pickard is an expert in higher education practice, though her research makes sense for business leaders. In her article that discusses the interview process, Meyers Pickard notes that candidates vying for top roles struggle with using “I” or “we,” wondering if they sound boastful or insecure.  I’m not on the job hunt, but I certainly relate to the dilemma.

Magnifying the challenge is the fact that most job descriptions call for collaborative leaders. It makes sense to use “we” to signify that one likes to collaborate, yes? Well, says Meyers Pickard, not always.

“Sitting in interviews, I’m shocked by how often candidates either make the conversation all about them (the ‘I’) or, in other cases, fail to promote their unique, individual role in the collaborative process (deferring to the ‘we’),” she writes.  “Search committees immediately pick up on a candidate leaning either predominantly toward the ‘I’ or predominantly toward the ‘we.’”

When to Brag, When to Be Humble

My female colleagues have shared that they struggle with this balance since they have humility and compassion, and their confidence allows them to empower subordinates or colleagues. They don’t seek the limelight. But we might carve a more significant path if we can assume credit for hard work.

“Many of us, especially women, are leery to own our full role in collaborations, preferring to talk about being part of the team rather than one of the key leaders,” says Meyers Pickard. “The use of team language defaults us to saying ‘we,’ which leaves the search committee wondering what role the candidate truly played in the achievements of the institution. In an interview, if nowhere else, you must give yourself your due credit.”

Easier said than done, but Meyers Pickard offers some tips. For example, take credit for something while honoring others. Here are her suggestions:

  • “I was the co-chair of the initiative, which meant I was responsible for A, B, C while my colleague oversaw D, E, F. Together, the group accomplished X, Y, Z.
  • We moved X initiative from A to B. Y was my contribution to those efforts.
  • Colleague X and I brainstormed Y idea and then convened a group with A, B, C to flesh the idea out and move the initiative forward to Z outcome.”

It Does Take a Village

Meyers Pickard says that we should acknowledge that we accomplish nothing alone generally. “At the start of a question that involves discussing complex collaborations, begin your response with this simple phrase and then switch the narrative to focus on what you have done,” she writes. “For example, ‘First, I want to acknowledge that no one person achieves anything on their own. It’s always a team effort. However, in terms of moving initiative A forward, I did X, Y, Z.’”

Love Yourself

Benevolent people are not alone in this plight. Renowned speaker and Professor Brené Brown, who talks openly about vulnerability, shame and empathy, put it best: “Owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing that we’ll ever do.”

I admire so many women who have managed this balance. I learn something new from them every day.