Underestimate the underdog at your peril

Being underestimated at work can be a good thing - people don't see you coming until it's too late, says Natalie Campbell.

by Natalie Campbell
Last Updated: 17 Sep 2015

I have been debating the merits of being underestimated in your career or the workplace in general. Odd I know, but the idea is simple: when people are ignorant enough to underestimate you then they don’t see you or your takeover coming. Until it’s too late.

The rise of Jeremy Corbyn is a perfect example. When he threw his hat in the ring at the last minute the ‘frontrunners’ scoffed at his selection, ignoring him and ruling him out, as did the bookmakers. To begin with.

The beauty of not being on anyone’s radar is that you get to be yourself. You can say what you think and do what you want because, well, no one expects you do well anyway, so why not perform on your own terms from the outset?

The important rule with this of course it that you can’t inadvertently underestimate yourself. You must always believe that you can win, and make every effort to do so, even if those with the ‘power’ believe it’s not possible. They might not believe it’s possible until it happens. Barack Obama winning the primaries in the US is another good example. I can imagine the chatter in the Senate: ‘The day a black man becomes president, hogs will fly.’ They must have felt pretty silly on Inauguration Day. The first - and the second.

My own debate, which I had with colleagues recently, was about making the mistake of underestimating women. Only a fool would dare, but history and the present day shows that we are high on the fool-o-meter. Boudicca. Nanny of the Maroons. Helen of Troy (okay she’s mythical, but she’s a great example). Harriet Tubman. Eleanor Roosevelt. Margaret Thatcher. And, to the present day, Angela Merkel. Greece better not play with that woman, because she will cut off some balls.

Even when I reeled off a list of women history will remember as game-changing and history-making I was told that they were the exception not the rule. My own success apparently isn’t something another young woman could achieve - I was exceptional.

I nodded, because I do quite like my own brand of brilliance. But I am nothing special. A million women could be like me, better than me even. But we are underestimated early on, at school, university, work, which unfortunately leads to the self-underestimation and underperformance.

So, my point dear readers, is that when someone tells you who they want to be or what they want to do, believe them. I hope the political parties have taken note of this too. We have not heard the last of Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall. Especially Kendall.

Here is my own offering. I want to be the Mayor of London - one day. Underestimate me, and everyone else with an ambition, at your own peril.

Natalie Campbell is a founding partner at A Very Good Company

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