In a keynote presentation yesterday at the Women in Retail Leadership Summit in Miami, sponsored by Synchrony, Sharon Price John, CEO of Build-A-Bear Workshop, gave an inspiring speech that ended with attendees giving her a standing ovation. John described her unlikely path to success in the world of advertising and retail, and offered insights from her experiences to help other women reach the full potential of their careers.

While attending the University of Tennessee (she grew up in a small town in the state), John decided that after graduation she wanted to get a job in advertising. But not just any job. She wanted to be hired by a top 10 agency in New York City, the industry’s mecca. Oh, and John gave herself all of a week to accomplish her goal.

John researched all of the top agencies in New York, pushing hard to get her resume noticed. And her persistence paid off. She lined up 15 interviews in one week — the amount of time she could afford to stay in the city. The next piece of good news was that she was offered a position for $24,000 annually. Seemingly out of nowhere, according to John, she countered that she would take the job if the salary was increased to $25,000. The company agreed to her demand, and John had met her goal.

So what led to this series of events? John summed it up in one word: confidence.

Be Confident … or Miss Out

John’s confidence in herself led her to a top advertising agency in New York, and for her to negotiate the salary for her first job — both things she says too few women are doing.

“There’s a lot of data that women that lack confidence,” said John. “Sometimes you do better when you don’t know better. Has knowledge ever interfered with confidence? Don’t logic your way out of an opportunity.”

John cited statistics to back up her argument. For example, the percentage of men that negotiate their salary is 52 percent, compared to just 32 percent of women that do likewise.

“There’s zero downside of negotiating your salary the first time you’re being hired by a company,” John said.

Further stressing her point that women lack confidence — and men do not — John pointed to a study that asked men and women how they believe they will perform on a test. Men consistently ranked their performance 30 percent better than the actual performance, yet women consistently underestimated their performance. The actual results? On average, the two genders performed the same.

When presented with a choice, opt for the more empowering belief. Men are more likely than women to do this. That needs to change, John said.

“Women who have the confidence level of their skill set are the exception more than the norm,” said John.

Perfectionism is a Disease

In addition to a lack of confidence, which is an inhibitor to achievement, women are more likely than men to be perfectionists. John said she was a perfectionist early in her career, and it stymied her growth.

“I was trying to be perfect,” conceded John. “Women are more likely than men to be perfectionists. Don’t hold yourself back. You’re never going to be 100 percent of any outcome. Being a perfectionist makes you less likely to be successful. [You] Can’t be afraid to make mistakes. Without risk, you’re never going to get that great job.

“Perfectionism creates stress, anxiety and depression. It doesn’t even correlate to success. It’s actually the opposite. I believe it’s an exhaustive excuse for a fear of failure.”

An addiction to perfectionism also impacts women looking for new jobs. Women are much more likely than men to believe that they must meet every qualification for a position. Women need to take the initiative — and risk — to apply for jobs even when they don’t check every one of the qualification boxes.

“If it’s the wrong job for you, they’ll tell you no,” John said. “That’s fine. Let them tell you no. We need to own that. Is that linked to the lack of female leadership? I’m not saying there isn’t discrimination, but I think those numbers can change if we take the initiative.

“As the CEO, I’m in charge of the entire organization. For example, I’m running IT — and I don’t know anything about it. I’m learning. You have to get comfortable with the fact that you’ll figure it out. Don’t be desperately trying to check that last box.”

Don’t Be Afraid of Failure

During the course of your career, you’re going to make plenty of mistakes. How you respond to those mistakes is a big part of defining your individual success. When faced with failure, women tend to internalize, which leads to pain and fear. For men, failure is externalized, leading to insight, knowledge and empowerment.

“When an endeavor goes wrong, women are more likely to blame themselves,” John noted. “Yet when something goes right, they credit the circumstances. Men do the opposite. Interpret failure as empowering, and you’ll never get on the negative cycle.”

John shared personal stories from her own career in the hopes that other women at the Summit could learn from her and become the future generation of female leaders.