Executive Development November 28, 2018

Kick Your Imposter Syndrome to the Curb

By Danna Lewis Former Chief Operating Officer

We’ve all had moments where we’ve felt like we don’t belong. Maybe it was your first week on a new job. Perhaps it was an interview, when applying to a master’s program, or presenting to a group of strangers. This feeling, “I don’t belong here,” can hit all of us—even at the highest peaks of our career. It’s called imposter syndrome, and it’s even been known to rear its ugly head here within the Athena Alliance network. I’ve noticed that during calls (too many calls) a potential member will ask if she has the right background, skills, or experience to join Athena.

If you’re unsure about your path to the boardroom or hesitant about adding to your already demanding schedule, that’s understandable. The Athena network is impressive. Many of our members are well-known within their industries and have accomplished a great deal in their careers. These are women who have transformed companies, created high-performance teams, taken companies to IPO, and built them from scratch. Many of them mentor junior women and other rising stars within their industries. These women are considered experts at what they do. Skepticism aside, if you are a C-suite, executive-level woman, female founder, or female investor with a desire to become more board savvy, board confident, and board connected, you are in the right place at Athena.

Yet… the imposter syndrome, it lurks behind even the most successful women. Why is this?

Imposter syndrome doesn’t discriminate.

Here’s the deal about imposter syndrome. It turns out, it doesn’t discriminate based on title or career experience. It can affect everyone, at any stage of their career. Women are more likely to experience the phenomenon than men. In fact, the Athena Alliance wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for impostor syndrome. Back in 2002, our Founder and CEO Coco Brown was asked to step up at Taos to the role of COO, Board Member, and one of only three owners of the company. Then in 2004 adding the title of President (with all functions of the company reporting to her, and her as the one report to the CEO). She deserved all of this after leading the company through a turnaround post-dotcom bust. But, she had many moments of wondering if the world around her would respect a female non-engineer CEO as the leader of a deeply technical company where 90% of the buyers were male technologists. It was for this reason that she started a dinner group of female CIOs (representing her top buyer). As Coco put it to me, “I wanted to enable them to create community and strengthen their sense of belonging and learning, while also doing the same for myself. One thing we all had in common was not seeing ourselves represented around us, so I had to create a space where we did see it.” How that then led twelve years later to Athena is a story for another time.

And for me, as a first-time COO with more than 20 years of dynamic operations, business development, and marketing experience, it sneaks up on me at times.

Self-doubt. The feeling that you were hired by mistake. That you’re going to be found out. That you’re a fraud! That you don’t belong among your peers. These feelings persist despite all the facts that say otherwise—your hands-on experience; the respect you’ve gleaned from colleagues; the jobs you’ve had and the titles you’ve held including your current position; and the promotions and salary you’ve earned. These proofs of your ability and your expertise cannot be made counterfeit.

Even Facebook’s iconic COO Sheryl Sandberg wrote about imposter syndrome in her book Lean In: “Many people, but especially women, feel fraudulent when they are praised for their accomplishments. Instead of feeling worthy of recognition, they feel undeserving and guilty, as if a mistake has been made. Despite being high achievers, even experts in their fields, women can’t seem to shake the sense that it is only a matter of time until they are found out for who they really are—impostors with limited skills or abilities.”

Influence instead of commiserate

I talked recently about prosperity consciousness as the mindset that there is more than enough available of what you desire and seek in life and work. I question imposter syndrome having some foundation in a perceived lack of opportunity. It’s easy to fall into the comparison and competition trap of believing that someone else has better skills or experience; that someone else brings more to the table.

What if your unique set of skills coupled with your experience, personality, and knowledge is the value proposition that sets you apart and makes you the right and best fit for exactly where you are?

While there may be more than one right person for a job or a board role, what if supporting each other in our endeavors allows a place of abundance? Taking this approach may connect us to opportunities we weren’t even aware of simply due to a lack of connecting, follow-up, or following through.

I see confidence within women who take the time for action-oriented support, a confidence in knowing that there’s enough opportunity to go around. A confidence in knowing that you can look to your network for just about anything, including evaluating an offer or connecting you with an opportunity. It’s confidence in knowing that, without a doubt, these women have your best interest in mind.

You don’t need to be perfect to advance in your career

There’s been some well-circulated research put out there that women do not apply for jobs unless they are a 100% perfect match, whereas men will go for an opportunity if they’re just 60% qualified. As women, we’ve been conditioned to check every box, to follow every rule, to get everything tidy and right before we take the next step in our career. While organizations will always look for their “unicorn candidates,” the only thing women achieve by not going for an opportunity is to close the door before it’s even been cracked open.

You didn’t get where you are today by being a leader born from a template. Organizations, despite their wishlist requirements for executives or board members,  are looking for dynamic individuals, ones who know their strengths (and weaknesses). They want leaders who can motivate a team and get folks on board to achieve transformation. They want individuals who can make informed decisions, work towards a greater vision and provide a diversity of thought

Reach for opportunities —not because you check every box today, but because you know that you have a solid set of accomplishments and the tenacity to conquer just about anything. Be confident knowing that your skills and experience are more than stepping stones up the ladder, they are transferable across many industries, functions, and titles.

Act like you belong (because you do).

Your relationship with Athena is personal. It’s between you and us. It’s about the goals you set for yourself. It’s not about where others are in their journey. It’s not about who secured which board seat. It’s not about private versus public company, your age, or your tenure. This is about making a promise to yourself to continue to lead at a higher level of impact — whatever you deem that to be. For some, that may be a board seat. For others, it may simply look like becoming more board-savvy and board confident.

One of our core values is that we meet members where they are. There is much more to all of us beyond our polished LinkedIn profiles, resumes, and titles. Athena embraces women who are curious about their potential as well as those who know and own their potential.

For prospective members, this means asking yourself:

  • What are your personal and professionals goals that you want support reaching?
  • Do you want to become more confident in your leadership skills and your value?
  • Do you want to feel empowered and prepared to present to boards and interact with boards?
  • Can you succinctly describe what you do and the value you deliver, in just a few sentences?
  • Do you want to cultivate and grow your personal brand?
  • Can you confidently own your accomplishments and communicate those to others?

Only you can know where you want to go—that’s your job. Our job is to support you in your personal journey.

You’ve earned it.