How to Overcome Imposter Syndrome
Susan M Barber, Author, Former Fortune 500 IT Director, turned Professional Certified (PCC) Executive Coach helps business leaders who want to play bigger, increase their visibility and finally, shine a light on their leadership strengths so they can elevate their position in the workplace. She brings strong business knowledge to her coaching from 25+ years of experience at Kraft Heinz where she successfully held multiple leadership roles in Sales, Supply Chain and Information Technology. She started her own coaching and consulting company shortly after leaving Kraft Heinz in 2015 so that she could marry her love of people development and her passion for helping companies solve business challenges.
In her book, The Visibility Factor, she shares stories, actionable advice, and an easy-to-follow process for readers to create authentic visibility for themselves. Publishers Weekly calls The Visibility Factor: “A clear-eyed persuasive, and encouraging guide to standing out for the better as a leader within a company.” The book is helping her create a visibility movement for leaders to show their value and be seen for their true talent. Susan lives in the northern suburbs of Chicago with her husband and their three children.
“Why are you playing small? You aren’t adding value in the meetings that you attend, so why do you show up?” This is a portion of the feedback that I received about 12 years ago. I walked into that meeting as a confident, top talent and left as someone who wondered if she had a career anymore. It was painful to hear but deep down inside I knew it was true. I worked hard, but I felt like an impostor, and it kept me from being the leader that I knew I could be. This conversation was my “hit the wall” moment. I had to accept the feedback, admit to myself that I was playing small, and do something about it. I didn’t know where to start, so I hired a coach to help me. That coaching helped me regain my confidence, learn how to show my value and advocate for myself and my team.
Now as an executive coach myself, leaders come to me for coaching, and many are frustrated that they aren’t advancing fast enough. Each of them has their own “hit the wall” moment, which may look different than mine, but it is no less devastating. High achievers are used to success. They do so many things well, so it is hard for them to believe their own behaviours, and self-beliefs could be what is hurting their success and holding them back. The reality is that their perception in other people’s eyes has shifted, and they don’t know how to fix it.
This may be the first time where they feel like a failure and that realisation can destroy their confidence. It leads to feelings of shame, anger and frustration. For senior leaders, this is especially difficult. There is no one to share their struggle with at work, as it could be seen as a weakness by others and used against them. This has led many leaders to go outside the company to seek out a coach to help them. Hiring a coach accelerates a leader to grow, gain a new perspective on their situation and provides a trusted partner to help them improve their leadership challenges quickly.
As a coach, it is important for me to build trust quickly and meet them wherever they are. Much like a detective looks for clues, a coach actively listens, observes behaviour and creates a strong partnership to support the client in the best way. My role is to help the leader look at their beliefs, assumptions, patterns and thoughts to ascertain if they are helping them or hurting them. James Allen, a British philosophical writer and the author of a book titled As a Man Thinketh, said, “All that a man achieves and all that he fails to achieve is the direct result of his own thoughts.” Following that logic, if you believe you will be a success, you will have success—or, if you believe you will fail, you will fail. Leaders who function on automatic pilot have no awareness that they are operating in the world based on their limiting beliefs. I never questioned my thoughts either until I became a coach. I had no idea that I saw everything through the lens of fear, and I let those limiting thoughts take over. That approach kept me safe, but it wasn’t going to help me get promoted.
This fear shows up for many business leaders under the guise of impostor syndrome. I wrote a chapter on this topic in my book The Visibility Factor, because this is what deters leaders from being visible and reaching their potential. Impostor syndrome was first identified back in 1978 by Dr Pauline R. Clance and Dr Suzanne A. Imes. They found that this challenge impacts overachieving women who try to fit in and be perfect. High achieving women attributed their success to mistakes, luck, or that someone hadn’t yet figured out that they didn’t belong in their role. Although this initial work focused on women, it happens to men as well.
Here are some ways that feeling like an impostor can show up for leaders:
- They start a new role and have doubts about their ability to succeed
- They compare themselves to other leaders and don’t feel they are good enough
- They use language that diminishes their work and their value
- They don’t say what they really think for fear of not being liked
- They play it safe and stay in their comfort zone to avoid failure
They feel like impostors, and as a result, operate with fear, a lack of confidence and don’t see their own value. Brené Brown, best-selling author, shame and vulnerability researcher and professor says, “Leaders must either invest a reasonable amount of time attending to fears and feelings or squander an unreasonable amount of time trying to manage ineffective and unproductive behaviour.” These fears will continue to show up unless they are dealt with and resolved.
It isn’t easy to tell a leader that what they are doing is causing issues for them and their team, but a coach is there to tell a leader the truth. It is important that they see how their current behaviour is impacting them, their team and their perception. My belief of any leader that I coach is that they are doing the best that they can with what they know. The way that they lead their team may be the only way they have ever been led by others and they don’t know any better. Through coaching, we uncover the negative beliefs and fears that they have and then help them to shift to a more positive view of themselves. Learning to lead with a neutral style and leveraging a positive approach allows the leader to deal with challenges more effectively. Coaching can help them transform their behaviour and become a leader who is respected vs. feared.
When I coach a client who works for a leader who is struggling, I want them to think about what could be happening for this leader and why they are showing up in a negative way. For example, Covid created many ambiguous situations with no playbook to follow. Leaders who couldn’t operate in this environment reacted in negative ways. Having compassion for their manager can help the leader look at the situation differently and move out of frustration. I coach clients in this situation on ways to bring back their own confidence, how to advocate for themselves, and show their value so they can succeed without relying on their manager.
Leaders will always face challenges, but it’s how they react to them that makes the difference in their success or failure. To remain competitive in business, transformations are necessary. Viewing these situations from a neutral perspective allows leaders to see options, make better decisions and be more present with their team. There is no need to feel like an impostor anymore. Ask for the help you need to move past any resistance. Breakthrough your fears, stand in your own power and become the authentic leader you were meant to be. The world needs leaders who can influence change and make an impact. Step out of your comfort zone and be that leader.