Getting a top leadership role at a company or securing funding for your startup is a huge affirmation of your skills, talents and ideas. But if you experience impostor syndrome you won’t see it that way.
Instead you’ll believe your success should be credited to anything other than you, like good luck or good timing, because you think you’re not as smart or as talented as others in your field.
In fact, you feel like a fraud and you’re sure you’ll be found out at some point.
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“Impostor syndrome is the voice in your head that overlooks, discounts and discredits your accomplishments,” said Jerry Colonna, a coach to founders, CEOs and venture capitalists and author of “Reboot: Leadership and the Art of Growing Up.”
It most often shows up when you’re taking on a new role or stretch assignment, and can be particularly acute when you’re in a high-level position.
First-time CEOs and entrepreneurs often feel out of their depth or much less confident about their ideas than they appear.
Veeral Rathod has doubted his abilities at various points during his fast-rising career.
After working in finance for a few years, Rathod decided to create a new way for men to shop and put together a stylish wardrobe. So he and co-founder Hil Davis started J. Hilburn, a custom-made men’s clothing company.
“I was a first-time entrepreneur and it was my first time in apparel,” said Rathod, who knew nothing about manufacturing clothing at the time.
After soliciting money from investors – the company raised $26 million in total, according to Crunchbase – he immediately felt the heavy weight of responsibility not to blow it.
“There’s always doubt. I’m taking millions of dollars from them,” Rathod said.
Despite Rathod’s fears, the company was a success, and he eventually moved on to lead another business.
Rathod left the J.Hilburn last year and today is CEO of Spence Diamonds. “I’ve probably purchased two diamonds in my life. My first day at Spence and everyone else around the table had more experience than I did,” he said.
Counter impostor syndrome with reality
The mental churn of doubt and feeling fraudulent is a waste of valuable energy – energy that could be better used tackling your business.
When you start to feel like an impostor in your role, despite years of success, executive coach Kathryn Saxer recommends disputing that feeling with evidence to the contrary. “You have to catch the ridiculousness of it.”
First, she said, create a “kudos list” to remind yourself of the many times others have complimented you on your work or otherwise expressed appreciation for who you are.
Second, create a “job fit” list and itemize the duties of the role in which you feel like an impostor. Next to each, put down examples during your career when you’ve successfully done something similar.
There is one potential upside to impostor syndrome: It can be a signal in some situations that there’s more for you to learn.
“Often the more sure we are about something, the more likely we are to be wrong,” Saxer said.
Rathod said he chooses to counteract rather than succumb to his self doubts, first by acknowledging that as a leader in a new industry he needs to rely on others’ experience. And he works quickly to build trust with his team by conveying how he values their input.
“You need to show an understanding that you’re a part of a team and your role is to think ahead and rely on the expertise of the team you have,” he said.
And to get a real-world perspective on his concerns, he consults with peers in the international leadership organization YPO.
Along the way Rathod has learned that not knowing everything doesn’t mean he’s unqualified to lead.
To the contrary, Colonna said, “a leader’s job isn’t to have all the answers but to create the conditions for really, really talented people to find them. It’s to ask ‘What resources do you need to succeed?’ And then see if you can get them.”