Imposter Syndrome and Business Success – Grazia Pt 2

Women in Business



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Since Sheryl Sandberg wrote about in her book Lean In about “imposter syndrome” it has received even more attention. What would you say is the difference between having imposter syndrome; thinking that you don’t fit in and aren’t right for the job vs having trouble with your job/ colleagues and truly not being the right person for the job.

We need to normalise imposter syndrome. If you are trying new things, taking on new challenges or pushing yourself out of your comfort zone; then imposter syndrome is very normal and can be expected. It is simply a sign that you are growing and challenging yourself.

Imposter syndrome is a close sister of fear.

Any woman with an ambition to succeed, will also hold a fear of failure. So, when you are pushed outside your comfort zone, and there is an increased chance of failure, then there is an equally increased chance that you will be experiencing some form of “imposter syndrome”.

Decide to reframe these “imposter” like emotions into something positive and empowering by reminding yourself that this is an indication you are moving in the right direction and growing personally and professionally.

My advice is to see this for what it is; a sign of your expanded growth. Then have your tools for dealing with it in the moment it arises. For example: Keep a hype file of positive feedback and reviews from colleagues, clients or anyone whose opinion you respect. Instead of just telling yourself you are brilliant, this hype file will be your verified evidence that it is true.

You could also use powerful incantations that help you snap out of this state of fear or imposter syndrome in the moment it arises, and move into a more empowering state to feel more confident.

We can distinguish imposter syndrome vs not being in the right job as follows. If you feel like you don’t fit in or really don’t belong, then it is likely more to do with conflicting values between you and your company or colleagues. For example: If you value team work and community, but the team is set up in such a way that everyone is out for themselves then you may never feel like you fit in. Or perhaps management don’t have a clear sense of vision for your team so you don’t know where the opportunities lie for you to grow in your career. Another example would be if you have a strong desire to grow professionally but your company doesn’t invest in learning and development or support your advancement, there is a clear conflict in values. If you have a strong sense of ethics but you see your company cheating clients or not abiding by best practices, then again this can lead to a feeling that the job is not right for you. These are examples where imposter syndrome is not the issue, it is the environment.

In very few circumstances have I met someone that was so misplaced in a job due to competence that they could not be trained effectively in order to improve. Unless the person has the wrong type of attitude and genuinely has no interest in improving.

If this question is coming up for you, then ask yourself; is what I am experiencing due to external or internal factors. ie If I do the inner work and turn up with the confidence and self-belief to succeed in my career here, would things change? Or is the environment one that no matter how I turn up or adapt, I will never want to be a part of it?

Sheryl Sandberg wrote that she and a lot of the successful women she’s surrounded by experience “imposter syndrome”. What would you say from your work; is it something that is common place or is it an exception?

Imposter syndrome is just an internal experience that you are not good enough or competent enough to be doing what you are doing. If you are ambitious, driven and have high expectations for what you can achieve, then it is likely you will experience imposter syndrome. Again, we need to normalise it and focus more on what you can do when it arises, as opposed to trying to avoid it.

It means that you are performing at a high level in your career, but your sense of self-identity has not yet caught up. What I mean is, the women I work are incredibly accomplished and if I were to read out their list of successes to them under a pseudonym, they themselves would find that person impressive. However, their own self-identity, how they see themselves, is not yet matching their reality.

Moring affirmations and vision videos are two powerful techniques in retraining your mind and upgrading your self-image to support you in realigning with who you truly are.

If you need an instant shift in confidence; perhaps you are about to walk into a big pitch meeting or give a presentation, and have a sudden feeling of overwhelm or imposter syndrome; I advise to powerfully shift your physiology, your body posture. The impact of this is well documented in Amy Cuddy’s research and commonly referred to as adopting the “Superwoman” pose. You can simultaneously practice the feeling of gratitude; because you cannot feel the emotion of fear ie feeling like an imposter, and while simultaneously feeling the emotion of appreciation. This simple tool will help you shift out of that disempowering emotional state.

Do you see some changes in the companies regarding woman/man ratio and how women perceive themselves with recent movements that have a focus on encouraging women to be more vocal?

There are plenty of examples of incredible women rising to the top major organisations and fantastic male allies who are supporting this change too. For example; the company INvolve release an annual list of female leaders that are achieving incredible success in their industry, and playing a significant role in progressing gender equality.

To reflect back on my previous comments, it is important that as we learn from the research around gender equality in the work force and aim to support more women progress in their careers; we don’t simultaneously become a product of the research.

I think Diversity & Inclusion groups are great initiatives to have within organizations, but there is a risk that they become a band aid solution to a deeper-rooted issue and result in compartmentalizing the bigger challenges within a company. Gender equality is not a HR issue to deal with, nor is it for these networks (predominantly made up of women) to overcome. It is a business challenge that is critical to address, not only because it is the right thing to do, but it is also the profitable thing to do.

Sponsorship, creating a promotion process more conducive to support both male and female behaviors, addressing the challenges and cost of child support and an effective reintroduction process for women post maternity leave, are some examples of where companies can create meaningful change.

I had many opportunities to speak up in my firm and represent women in transactions and restructuring; but these were opportunities I largely created for myself and then I worked on my public speaking and presenting, so I could act upon these opportunities with confidence. It is not just about encouraging women to be vocal, but also about more women working on themselves so they feel confident to do so.

What would be the first steps to take in positioning yourself in a mostly male environment? Before we could read “tips and tricks” on how to fit in, now there is more and more talk that we should embrace things that make us women, and some say there is no man or woman type of behaviour, only a business one. What are your thoughts about that?

“Fitting in” is still important in any environment so you can build rapport, develop relationships, build your network and be supported. But I don’t think trying to be the same as everyone else, or becoming a man in a dress, is ever the right solution. You can “fit in” but remain true to who you are. That is key and the only way to succeed that will be fulfilling in the long run.

It can be tempting to squeeze all women into one box and seek out one magic solution to ensure all women succeed. Every woman is different, just like every man is, and so their styles of leadership and path to success will vary. It’s about creating workplaces and cultures where people feel supported and confident to succeed while expressing their unique gifts and strengths, rather than trying to impersonate a restricted definition of success.

My entire business model is built to support women. Whether they are working in corporate or are business owners, they are all very different, with different leadership and communication styles. As such, we must be conscious not to label all women as highly emotionally intelligent, or naturally nurturing, otherwise we are just creating another box for women to squeeze into in order to be accepted. If you try to win by impersonating the behaviours of others, then it will always be a lose-lose situation. Even if you get ahead, it will be to the detriment of who you are and will never be truly fulfilling.

Remember, you can never be a star player if you are trying to be someone else. You can always be the best if you aim to be your best self.

What would you say are the most important personal development strategies to be successful?

Personal development is a lifelong commitment to continuously becoming your next level best self. There are many strategies that I use with clients, but they vary depending on where the person is in their career/business or life.

However, some of the key strategies I would highlight are;

  1. Self-awareness.

This is key to develop so you can identify disempowering habits or patterns that are preventing you from moving ahead in your career. These could include disempowering thought patterns which lead to self-sabotage every time you are on the cusp of your next level of success or a divisive communication style that prevents you from developing rapport with key stakeholders, or lack of understanding.

2. Control over your emotional state.

Whether you are rising through the ranks of your company or growing your business, being able to control your emotional state is vital. The greatest leaders are calm under pressure and able to follow through on decisions regardless of whether they feel like doing so or not. 

A great way to begin developing this is by creating powerful morning routines. A method I teach is called “A.I.M. for Success” which represents Affirmations. Intentions. Movement.

3. Embracing fear and saying YES before you are ready.

The truth is you will never feel ready for the opportunities that will be life changing for you and your career. If you were then they wouldn’t require you to grow or push you outside of your comfort zone; which is where all the magic happens. Reframing fear and seeing it as an opportunity for growth is one of the most important decisions you can make to ensure your success.

You said that one of the most fundamental things that we should know is to have a clear vision of our career and where we want to go. How do you think one discovers that, do you have some advice?

Let’s caveat this before readers start feeling they need to have their entire career figured out, by saying this; your career plan and vision will change. That is good and you should welcome that. If you are still pursuing to the letter what you intended at age 19, you must question have you been expanding your mind to new opportunities or have become so married to a plan, that you have closed yourself off from seeking them out?

Some questions you can ask yourself to create a compelling career vision include; what am I really excellent at? What am I really interested in? What types of experiences do I want to have? Where do I believe I could add value in a firm?

The reason I say you should have a clear vision is so you can create clarity for yourself based on who you are now and what you know now. This enables you to move forward with conviction. When you transition to your next role, or have new experiences, you will begin to see things differently. You will have learned more about your strength as well as the type of work and roles you thrive in. You have a new understanding of yourself and what you value most. All these factors mean your desires and career vision will change.

The key takeaway is to make a decision, or at least a best guess, of what you think will be the ideal career path for you and then take action on it now and begin pursuing the opportunities in front of you. Know that you can pivot and change along the way. I have seen too many people stuck in analysis paralysis because they can’t make a decision about what next step to make and so they don’t take any. This will almost guarantee failure, or what I think is worse, mediocrity.

What are the biggest mistakes women make in their career?

Thinking they are the only ones making mistakes.

I understand this question, but my issue with it, is that it implies that the reason women may not get ahead is because of something they are doing wrong, which is not where we should put our focus.

While I do support women in their career development, working on areas such as developing their executive presence, learning how to dress and present with authority, how to network to position yourself for a promotion; those things are not the driving factors for why such a significant imbalance in the workplace exists.

I believe the focus needs to be on changing the system and the historic structures that support the success of a narrowly defined male persona; and creating a new system that works for all.

I coach many successful start-up companies being run by ambitious, young women who are committed to doing things differently and have decided to shift their focus from fighting to change a broken system, to creating a new one that is inclusive for all.

What would you say to younger self when staring your path?

I think something we all must remind each other is that you are better that you realise, and you are capable of achieving far more than even your wildest dreams permit you to believe.

As someone who always imagined themselves working their way up the corporate ladder at a large organisation, being CEO or Partner of a global company; to then walk away and start my own venture, pursuing what I am truly most passionate about now; I am proof that everything can change and fast.

So my advice would be; enjoy the journey. Create space to have more fun in the work you are doing. Be serious about your work, but don’t take it so seriously. Remember, you can always start over, tomorrow is a new day. You have the right to reinvent yourself and your career whenever you choose. So don’t let fear stand in your way, say yes to the opportunities while you have them now, and have the courage to pursue what sets your soul on fire.

First published in Grazia Magazine March 2021

Watch the associated Art of Feminine Leadership workshop here:

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