- September 20, 2018
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‘So, we’d like to offer you this position as head of this division and of the newly merged teams.’
‘Yeah right. Ha, thanks. It’s too early for your jokes. I need to get back and hand out these coffees, teas and breakfasts before they get cold.’
‘Err no. Please can you sit down? I’m being serious. We would very much like for you to take on this role. I know it’s totally unexpected for you but we think you are more than capable of doing it.’
This is a true story and it happened to me. Was I genuinely surprised by the offer of a promotion? Sure I was – one minute, I was the desk junior getting teas & coffees. Next minute, my world was upended and I was given a role that I hadn’t even thought about wanting, let alone getting. The thoughts running through my head aside from ‘F**k!! WTF!! JHC!! Seriously!’ and a few more expletives were along the lines of ‘OMG, I am now in charge of people’s livelihoods’, ‘What do I know about this? Nothing!’ ‘People are not going to take me seriously’, ‘I don’t even know how to decide what to wear in the morning, how on earth can I do this?’. Drama much?? After my internal freakout and a long walk, I pulled myself together and started to put a plan in action. First and foremost, business as usual. Next, clarify and articulate my vision, get the newly merged team on the same page with said vision, talk about the strategy and execute. Market this new plan to clients old and new and garner support from key stakeholders. I ran that team for over twelve years.
Did I feel like a fraud a lot of the time? Absolutely. I seriously thought I had no idea what I was doing. It didn’t help that lots of people decided I was fresh new prey and decided to turn my head to their political agenda. Accusations of sleeping my way to the top weren’t even subtle, implying that I did not deserve the job. Additionally, I wasn’t even gunning for the job so I was wholly unprepared. But guess what? I managed and I managed well. We were the only department to continue to deliver with little to no politics during the merger. We continued to deliver to the highest of standards on our mandate and yet, we managed to each give ourselves a new challenge whilst still having a foothold in the old world. It really helped that I had a very supportive manager and a fabulous team.
Imposter Syndrome is a very real thing that many experience. So what is it? It has been defined ‘as a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud”.’ Wikipedia
My Key Lessons
Looking back at that story, and seeing a similar phenomenon arise again when I launched my coaching business, I learnt two things.
- One, I am perfectly capable, smart and agile enough to make the most of situations, and to succeed. In fact, much as I hate to admit it, I do thrive when challenged.
- Secondly, if you believe you’re an imposter, then so will others. It seems like an obvious observation to make and yet, it’s amazing how impactful this belief in oneself (or lack of) can be. I asked for lots of advice when I started. To me, it was just a process of gathering information, in order to make informed decisions. For the advisors, they saw this as an incompetent young fool turning to the wise old man for the answers. Offers of help turned out to be a wish to puppeteer. Although naïve, I wasn’t a complete idiot and I put a stop to this soon enough.
Through coaching my clients, I have seen Imposter Syndrome occur more frequently than I care to admit. Here are two. These clients came to me to learn presentation skills.
X had been working for her firm for over twenty years. She climbed up the ranks from an administrative assistant to a fund manager. She worked very hard to get there, overcoming many preconceived assumptions about her abilities and she now runs her own fund. She successfully markets her fund as she has to and has a great rapport with many of her clients. Unfortunately, when she had to present to clients in front of senior management, she went into panic mode and reverted to being a quiet mouse, afraid of her own shadow. She was unable to articulate herself in front of the audience and she did not voice her opinions. Soon, she was relegated to pouring beverages and was asked to take notes. When we talked about this during sessions, she was clearly frustrated with senior management and for treating her like she was insignificant. However, as our sessions continued, we discovered that she was never fully able to shirk off the administrative assistant coat that was shrouding and suffocating her – in her own mind and that of senior management. By behaving like she did not deserve a voice, she got what she asked for.
Y was looking for a promotion and was told that he had a very good chance at getting an executive directorship. However, he needed to up his game and be more present with people in different divisions etc. He decided to volunteer to speak at a weekly meeting to present his and his team’s views. Sadly this process terrified him. Although naturally loud-voiced and gregarious, Y spoke with little conviction when opining and with little gravitas at these presentations. To him, he didn’t think anyone would want to listen to someone who did not have an MBA and had not travelled the world like some. This is despite the fact that Y was an expert in his area and had climbed the ranks swiftly and without hesitation to his current position. Suffice to say, his standing amongst his peers and colleagues did not initially improve when he first started with the weekly presentations.
As you can see, neither client was really there about learning how to present. Their sense of worth and confidence within their roles and companies were very much influencing how they were perceived at work, thereby affecting their presentation skills.
- Remember why you deserve to be there. If you need to, list your achievements, strengths and look at your experience. Why are you where you are? How did you get here? How do you contribute?
- If you’re not sure, seek out help from trusted internal and external sources. Get a coach (blatant plug here…) to help you think through your thoughts and your strategy
- It’s alright not to know everything. In fact, learning should be a continuous process and it will give you an edge over everyone else
- Do seek out mentors and advisors but be clear on your objectives and healthy boundaries. Advice is just advice, you don’t have to take it
- Have a vision and be clear about it. The advice you seek will come from learning how to navigate your way into delivering on that vision
- Be careful what you share and with whom you confide – some might use your insecurities against you
- Behave like you deserve the role – it’s the biggest draw
- You’re in charge of your life, not someone else, so don’t let others decide who and what you need to be. If you know you deserve that job, then prove your internal dialogue and the detractors wrong
There is the expression ‘Fake it till you make it’. At times I really dislike it but the gist of it makes sense. For me, it’s about the message you’re sending people when you interact with them. Would you ask someone to manage your money if they said ‘Yeah well, maybe I’ll do a good job. I should OK. I have the qualifications and experience but you know… Hmmmm…’??!!? I’m not in any way suggesting adopting overbearingly arrogant behaviour but you know what you’re capable of. Be bold, be fierce, be strong. You can do it!!
Karen Kwong is a highly experienced executive & business coach who has worked with start-ups and social enterprises through to large established corporates (including FTSE100 companies) across a number of industries including financial services, engineering, retail and media & communications. She also advises boards on their dynamics. Added to this, she spent almost twenty years working at a senior level in fund management. She also has a Masters in Organisational Psychology. For more please see here or contact her at: email@example.com
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