What is imposter syndrome? It’s the belief that you’re not as capable or successful as others perceive you to be, despite evidence of your competence and achievements.
For this month’s blog, we wanted to get a first-hand look at this phenomenon by tapping into the wisdom of successful women in leadership roles. We asked them to speak candidly about their experiences with imposter syndrome and how they have handled it throughout their careers. Read on for inspirational insights, sage advice and the comforting knowledge that if you suffer from imposter syndrome, you’re far from alone.
*Responses edited for brevity and clarity.
1. Over your career, when have you been most likely to experience imposter syndrome? Can you share some examples of what triggered it and what you thought/felt at the time?
KIM VAN ORMAN – Senior Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer, USI Insurance Services:
I am more likely to experience imposter syndrome in a room of people who I deem to be smarter than I am. The voices in my head say things like, “You have nothing to add that anyone will want to hear,” or “They already know this, so don’t bother asking that question.” I have had to silence these voices and remember that if I am in the room, I am there for a reason.
EMILY GLASS – CEO of Syncro:
It’s completely normal to have a healthy amount of self-awareness, and that can sometimes masquerade as doubt. I’ve been more likely to experience imposter syndrome when the organization I am working for creates an environment that feeds on that self-doubt, e.g., an unsupportive boss. It can be especially hard early in your career, because it’s easy to think that you should know everything. It took me some time to really internalize that everyone has strengths and weaknesses. An organization can help normalize this by letting us know that it’s okay to question our skills from time to time and to ask for help, as that is what helps us to find gaps and grow. If you feel intense pressure to prove yourself, it can be counterproductive to learning.
CAROL JENSEN – Consultant and former Chief People Officer and Chief Marketing Officer:
I’m likely to experience imposter syndrome when I’m challenged with a particularly complex business initiative or project whose outcome is important to the business. For example, I questioned whether I was the right person to lead the team and doubted my own abilities to be successful in the role.
CATHY JIRAK – Founding Partner and COO of QueBIT:
Early in my career, I was put in a position where I had a lot of responsibility. I requested some management training, but internally I struggled because I thought people would see me as a young person and doubt my ability. Luckily, I had some great managers that helped me see that age was not the only criteria for managing a department.
Also, when I started my own company, people were looking to me for leadership, guidance, and expertise. I felt inept at times because I did not have all the answers and sometimes thought people were questioning my capabilities. In hindsight, they may not have been, but I was the one who let it make me feel that way. I now know that I do not need to know everything all the time–no one does.
Imposter syndrome has also come up when I was asked to present at an industry event. At times, it would manifest itself as panic attacks, so I had to take time to breathe deeply, relax and realize that I was doing the best I could.
2. What strategies have you used to combat imposter syndrome?
I remind myself that for the most part, my male colleagues are not listening to any negative voices in their heads! Either they don’t have any, or their voices are only positive. I put myself in their shoes and ask, “How can my voice be more like theirs?”
If you are lucky enough to be in the room, speak up! Ask the question, provide the answer, participate. You deserve to be there. If you don’t speak up, you may not get invited back. Even if you get the answer wrong, or the question you asked wasn’t the most brilliant, people may not remember what you said in the long run, but they will remember if you sat there silently like a potted plant.
Self Awareness – I recognize that I am trying something new, and it’s totally expected that I don’t have all the answers on day one. I accept my current strengths and focus more on the experience and skills I will acquire through this new endeavor, rather than placing negative attention on all the gaps I currently have.
Name It – I have found that by acknowledging to my boss or team my areas of strength and weakness in tackling the task at hand, it dispels a lot of the expectations that I might put upon myself. Acknowledging that I am very confident I can do “X,” but it’s the first time doing “Y” has not been perceived as a weakness, but rather presented opportunities to ask for support in areas where I am uncomfortable. It also enrolls your leader as a champion in your learning journey.
Seek Support. I seek out support from those on the team or in my circle who can help me, depending on what I need. For example, it could be words of encouragement or reminders that I can acquire the skills needed, expertise on a particular topic, or a discussion with a small group where I can understand how they are thinking about the challenge and can learn alongside them.
I create concrete plans and share my approach with others to get feedback, additional ideas, and gain support for future iterations of the plan. I also share my feelings and worries with a supportive and trusted colleague or mentor who will help me regain my confidence and put to rest some of my concerns. I remind myself of similar situations in my career where I’ve been successful, review the things I’ve accomplished, and remind myself how much I’ve learned in situations that challenged me.
I used to think that if I spent a lot of time trying to know more than the people I was working with, I would feel better. While ultimately that was beneficial for me, it did not always help me overcome imposter syndrome. Having someone who listens and supports you, such as a partner or boss, is key. If you don’t talk through it, you may never get another perspective and see that others believe in you.
3. In what ways have you proactively advocated for yourself?
I personally find it hard to challenge someone of authority in a public setting when they are wrong. If I have better data, or more insight, or even if they are just mistaken, I hesitate and agonize before I speak up because I don’t want to embarrass them. But typically, no one else would hesitate to put me in my place if I was wrong, and probably not do it as nicely as I would. We can’t expect others in the room to moderate or keep things fair. Only we can even the playing field in those situations.
When I was asked to lead a team ten times larger than any previous team I’ve ever led, I knew I could figure out the business problems and provide leadership, but I was unsure of how I would manage cultural change and the travel component. So I made sure to clarify the success criteria for the role, outlined how I could get to those goals, and then made two asks: 1) help with the travel piece so I didn’t have to take that on myself, and 2) an executive coach to talk through elements I was going to face for the first time, so I had an expert’s advice and outside perspective when needed.
I proactively asked for a new role that had recently opened that was a stretch for me. I made a case for what I would bring to the expanded role and how I would approach the new responsibilities to ensure success. I also discussed how my current role could be backfilled (which also allowed for development of other individuals). I also advocated for additional resources on the team I led to provide betterservice to the business, create career paths on the team, and better manage workload for me and team members.
I asked for help. When I was younger, I asked to participate in some management training, which really helped me throughout my career. Looking back, I noticed that at some times, I felt more confident than others. For example, when I was a young mom, I was sensitive that others thought I wasn’t working as hard because I needed to go home to be with my family. I let that impact some of my decisions, and I later regretted it. Ultimately, I needed to seek some outside help for that. So never be afraid to ask for help or advice.
4. How has advocating for your accomplishments and aspirations impacted your career and benefited your organization?
Working to overcome obstacles means that the next time you face them, they are easier to conquer. For example, if I say, “Excuse me, let me finish,” then the interruptor might not interrupt me next time. Even better, maybe they won’t be as quick to interrupt the next person who comes along. Also, a strong woman leader clears actual or mental paths for others. I need to slow down and take that responsibility very seriously. This is not just my struggle.
The feeling of inadequacy lessened for me when I had a champion–especially when my leader was clearing the path and supporting my ideas and progress. I try to behave this way with my team, helping to create a supportive environment that lifts up people to do their best work instead of doubting whether they are capable. If I have asked you to attempt something, then we are in it together, and it’s both of our responsibility to make sure you have the tools to succeed.
Also, being very clear on what’s important helps the person focus. This can help defray the impact of imposter syndrome since it limits the potential for overwhelm. For example, “I need you to lead this project and the most important outcome is that the team learns how to be more agile as a result.”
Asking for expanded scope in roles, or even a new role, has allowed me to continue to learn and grow over the course of my career. Changing roles (e.g. moving from Chief People Officer to Chief Marketing Officer in one company, or moving from one industry to another) offered me the opportunity to learn new skills and form relationships with a new set of stakeholders. The variety of roles and experiences benefitted the organization because it helped me to be a stronger performer who could analyze teams and issues more quickly, and creatively solve problems.
It is about valuing yourself. You are as important as anyone else, and you need to acknowledge that before others will. Sometimes we sell ourselves short and don’t think that what we have accomplished is anything special, but it is. Once you realize this, you become a role model, mentor, coach to so many. I also believe that because I have had moments of insecurity, I have more empathy for people in my organization. I can spot when someone is struggling and not judge so quickly. That is very valuable to my company.
5. What tips would you give to women for overcoming imposter syndrome?
- Train the voice inside your head to be kinder. Stop kicking yourself every time you don’t perform at your best or make a mistake. No one performs perfectly or knows the answer every time.
- Give yourself every opportunity to feel confident. Wear something that makes you feel fantastic. Go for a run or do a Peloton class that makes you feel accomplished, so when you walk in the room you stand taller or prouder. It will likely show in the projection of your voice, your smile, and how you hold your head. And those things matter in feeling like you belong, which is the first step in making sure others see you that way too.
- Do not start your sentence with an apology or a dismissal of what you are about to say. For instance, “Sorry if I missed this, but…” or “This might not make any sense, but …”
- Try to shift your view and remember this is more about your environment than you.
- Spend some time to reflect on your career accomplishments and catalog your core values and strengths. Keep this updated over time as a reminder of what you’ve learned and are capable of. Reflect on whether your current role is aligned with your skills and goals.
- Make sure you have a support system in place that allows you to check yourself.
- Help others. When you are doing something for others, you don’t have time to dwell on yourself, and you also realize how much you can impact others.
Wisdom from Senior Leaders:
Top 5 Tips for Overcoming Imposter Syndrome
Avoid apologizing or minimizing your opinions
Reflect on accomplishments and values
Focus on personal development
Establish a support system that allows you to check on yourself
Train your inner voice to be kinder
We thank each of these impressive and authentic women leaders for taking the time to share their valuable insights! If you’d like to dig deeper into the topic, below are some additional resources to explore: