Imposter syndrome and the upside to experiencing it: Gillian Fox

The upside to experiencing imposter syndrome

Ever feel like your achievements are a fluke, or that you’re one conversation away from being outed as a fraud? Well, you’re not alone. Imposter syndrome is an affliction affecting many of us.

A wide range of leaders admit to feeling like an imposter: Atlassian co-founder Mike Cannon-Brooks, world champion surfer Layne Beachley, and Business Chicks global CEO Emma Isaacs.

Even actress/director Jodie Foster has said she feels like her Oscar was a fluke. So what can you do about it?

You can start by embracing it.

These feelings can be a reminder that you’ve pushed yourself beyond your comfort zone.

Debra Hazelton, who broke major cultural and gender barriers while working as Mizuho Financial Group’s Tokyo-based GM, says, “I’ve still got a sense that unless it’s difficult for me, I’m not bringing value.”

I’ve known and admired Hazelton a long time; she appears in Woman of Influence, my collection of interviews with twelve of Australia’s leading businesswomen. Imposter syndrome crops up frequently in the book, because whether you’re Janine Allis, Marina Go or any other success story, doubts about pulling it off go with the territory.

Leaders learn to reframe their thoughts, knowing such uncertainties aren’t founded on anything real. Those feelings of inadequacy and fear are all in your head, so try formulating a new way of thinking about your situation that supports your desired result.

When I was offered my dream role in publishing 13 years ago – a very high-ranking position – it seemed too good to be true. I was 31 at the time and was supposed to replace a terrific professional, a man 20 years my senior.

It’s extraordinary to think of this today but I declined the role twice, and then I read something that changed everything. It’s common knowledge now, but 13 years ago, the research was new: men believe they need 60% of the qualifications to apply for a promotion, while women won’t go for it unless they have 100%.

Over several weeks, I speculated that if a man pursued the role with just 60% of the credentials and landed the gig, I’d kick myself for the rest of my career.

So I took the job, leading 100-plus people, joining the executive board and running acquisitions and mergers. It’s the best thing I could’ve done. It taught me so much and still helps me excel in my business today.

Nonetheless, for the two years I spent in that position, I never felt qualified or good enough to be there. The horrible fear of being discovered was pervasive.

I walked away with terrific results, a high performing team and my integrity intact. I only wish I enjoyed the journey more because now I know there’s no point aiming for perfection. Perfection doesn’t exist.

These days I remember I’m in good company; it helps acknowledging that others feel like fakes too. You should also accept external affirmation because your inner judging panel is usually stacked with harsh critics. Other people think you’re great, so take their good opinion into account when the voices in your head start up.

Imposter syndrome isn’t a gender-specific phenomenon, but men and women do deal with it differently. REA Group’s CEO Tracey Fellows agrees women are much more open about it.

“My experience dealing with other senior women working for or with me reveals a constant theme: ‘One day they’re going to find out I’m not good enough.’ I rarely hear the same admission among men – don’t they ever have moments like that?”

I’m positive they do, but maybe they’re less likely to admit it to others. If nagging insecurities have become your Achilles heel, bask in their positive side effects. Being humble, being honest and acknowledging your flaws with humour and without fear: now that takes a leader.

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