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Learning to Believe in Herself, in High Tops or Heels

06/17/2014 11:44 am ET | Updated Aug 17, 2014

Raised to be self-sufficient, accountable and "suck it up" when needed, Linda Drumright believed she had always been acutely self-aware.

But Drumright, the general manager of Clinical Trial Optimization Solutions at IMS Health, had that belief tested when she was confronted by a female co-worker a few years ago.

During a conversation about trust with some other women in her company, Drumright confessed that she didn't think some of her female colleagues trusted her yet. One turned to her and said, "Well, I don't trust you."

"I looked at her and tears welled up in my eyes," Drumright recalled. "I had a ton of respect for this woman. She's wicked smart and really aware. But she said, 'I don't trust you because you never ask for help. You're too strong. You're too self-sufficient. I don't trust that you know your blind spots or that you'll be able to ask for help when you're in over your head, or that you'll even risk revealing yourself in being vulnerable.'"

Drumright was speechless, but she realized the woman was right. She had been taught not to be vulnerable; she didn't know when or how to reach out to others. So Drumright began asking for help on how to ask for help. And it taught her a life-long lesson.

"People connect at a level of vulnerability -- not when you're strong, not when you know everything, not when you have the answers," she said. "They connect when you're most vulnerable. That's where empathy happens."

That was not the first time she had to face her own feelings about herself. After one of the first companies she worked for was sold and she lost her job, she did some soul searching. When a friend told her she'd make a great CEO, she brushed off the idea, thinking she was more a good "right-hand gal."

"Then I thought, 'Why do I think of myself that way?'" Drumright said. "Everybody around me sees something different. What is blocking me?"

It's a pattern of thinking that burdens many women in the working world. Even as we continue to make great strides up the corporate ladder, the thought that we are not good enough, or don't have the ability to lead, hinders some of us. An article in the Harvard Business Review last year examined this phenomenon, arguing that "[i]ntegrating leadership into one's core identity is particularly challenging for women, who must establish credibility in a culture that is deeply conflicted about whether, when, and how they should exercise authority."

Some working women rebel against this, assuming stereotypical A-type male characteristics like aggressiveness, competitiveness and self-promotion. Drumright once even dressed like her co-workers when she was the only female programmer in an all-male group.

"Everybody wore polo shirts, jeans and high-tops, so I bought a bunch of those and I wore them," she told me. "I didn't wear makeup. I put my hair in a ponytail. I cut my nails. I did this for six or seven months until people could hear and see me. After that, I began to introduce my own clothes and started wearing makeup. At first it was, 'Oh, you look nice today.' But then we'd get right down to the work and I could actually just be myself. They saw Linda and not a 'girl.'"

Drumright defeminized herself, she said, to help the men "get out of their own way;" to help them get beyond deeply ingrained prejudices -- conscious or not -- before they could see her as an equal.

Eventually, she started seeing herself as her friends did. She began to market herself as a management consultant to gain broader experience and better understand how others viewed her strengths. She worked with venture capitalists and first-time CEOs and discovered that she had skills that could be "very, very useful," as she put it.

"In my mind, you needed to have run sales before and you needed to have experience and done all these things before you can be CEO," she said. "In fact, that's not the case. I have really great instincts. I'm a quick study. I have learned how to leverage my team and how to hire great people. You can be a great CEO and not have specific industry experience."

After consulting for a company called DecisionView, she was hired as its COO and then got promoted to CEO. That company was then bought by IMS Health, which provides healthcare data to more than 5,000 health care companies worldwide.

Drumright has asked herself if she could have moved further along faster if she had learned to promote herself more -- something she believes men are much better at than women. But her answer is always the same.

"It wasn't genuine for me," she said. "If I wasn't going to move up in a company, then I went outside the company and I looked for a job in a place where I was going to be recognized. For me it's not about self-promotion; I just stay focused on the results of my work. That's what matters most and I trust that will take care of everything else."

So far, it appears it has.

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