Everyone has moments of self-doubt, questioning if they have “what it takes” to succeed in a project or career change on the horizon.
The only people who don’t experience feelings of inadequacy or self-doubt fall into one or more of these three categories:
- Those unwilling to admit their insecurities to others
- Those unwilling to admit their insecurities even to themselves
- Those who are raging narcissists
Despite the natural occurrences of questioning your abilities, this is often labeled as “imposter syndrome” and tied to a mindset of putting the responsibility on the individual to “fix it.”
The premise of “imposter syndrome” focuses on the individual and developing a mindset to help push away those feelings of “I’m a fraud.” A 1978 study by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes coined the phrase to describe the self-doubt high-achieving women felt, “despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, women who experience the imposter phenomenon persist in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise.”
Whilst this study focuses on women, imposter syndrome is experienced by as many men as it is women. A recent Harvard Business Review survey (2023) canvased Fortune 500 CEOs and found that 95% of them had suffered at times from imposter syndrome, or feeling they would be ‘found out’ that they weren’t up to the job.
Luckily, there are ways for CEOs to realise the truth: They are not imposters. Here are four ways new CEOs can ease the feelings of imposter syndrome.
1. Speak with a trusted colleague
Sometimes, relief can be as simple as telling someone else about how you’re feeling and hearing the two most empathetic words in the English language: “Me too.”
In fact, Vistage Chair, and 2023 Chair of the Year Award Cat McManus suffered from imposter syndrome for much of her career having risen through the ranks of the male-dominated world of business consultancy and now, as Vistage’s youngest ever Chair.
Needless to say Cat’s no stranger to the concept but she is a firm believer that imposter syndrome should be seen as the norm and that in order to see success business leaders must learn to feel comfortable feeling uncomfortable. Her guiding motto is ‘fake it until you make it.’
One of the hardest things about imposter syndrome is the accompanying loneliness, the feeling that you’re the only one who feels like an imposter. It can be alienating. By finding others who feel like you, the world will feel less lonely.
2. Have a mentor and a sounding board of peers
For CEOs who want to overcome imposter syndrome, there are few better ways than finding a mentor or group of trusted colleagues.
A good mentor has myriad experiences of success and has suffered numerous setbacks. Setbacks may be nerve-wracking for a first-time executive, but a good mentor knows that many things, good and bad, will happen in even the best careers. What matters more than the setback is how you respond—imposters slink away or cast blame, good executives learn and try again.
First-time executives can also find value from joining a group of peers. Executives are often amazed that they aren’t the only ones with their set of problems. When a new CEO attends a group filled with other CEOs, they hear the problems of others and realise that everyone, at times, feels outmatched by circumstance. Despite this feeling, they press on and succeed.
This combination may not end imposter syndrome, but it will give first-time executives the knowledge that they are not alone in their feelings. This makes feeling like an imposter far more manageable.
3. Define what success looks like in your role
Imposter syndrome means that you’ve become aware that success is important to you. While doubting your abilities is deleterious, self-awareness is a positive — it means that you care.
Use self-awareness to your advantage by asking yourself what, exactly, success looks like. Are there benchmarks for success? How can you ensure that each day, week, month and quarter are successes? What should success feel like? How will you celebrate success with your team?
Be specific in how you answer these questions, as your answers will drive your results. As Peter Drucker once said, “The best way to predict your future is to create it.”
4. Adopt a growth mindset
People who have a growth mindset — a belief that skills and intellect are the result of effort, not pre-determined talent—will not feel like imposters for long.
When you believe that you can grow, each day is a chance to work hard, gain new knowledge and make your mark. If you felt like an imposter yesterday, that leaves today, tomorrow and the rest of time to prove that you belong by dint of your curiosity, drive and work ethic.
People who adopt a growth mindset see obstacles — like the feeling of being an imposter — as temporary, as things that can be overcome. Frank Lampard, Lewis Capaldi and Sarah Willingham may have all felt like imposters at some point, but it didn’t last long enough to stop them from striving toward their purpose.
Vistage is the world’s leading business performance and leadership advancement organisation for small and medium sized businesses. For more information visit www.Vistage.co.uk.