Dealing with imposter syndrome as a new CEO
Vistage StaffJanuary 26, 2021
Maya Angelou, one of the 20th Century’s most resonant figures, wrote poems that were adored by millions. Even so, she often felt like an imposter. “I have written 11 books but each time I think ‘Uh-oh, they’re going to find out now,” she once said. “I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’”
Talented, first-time executives often feel this way. Consider the case of Ricky Joshi, CEO of The Saatva Company. As a young upstart CEO, he knew that he was competent — he started a luxury, online mattress company posed for success in a changing market. Joshi trusted his own skills, but he told Authority Magazine that he also often felt like an imposter.
“That’s what’s so tricky about imposter syndrome: you know you’re good, but it doesn’t always show,” Joshi said.
The term “imposter syndrome” was coined in 1978 by clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes. They wrote that it’s a feeling of “phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement.” These people are motivated to achieve, but they’re worried that they’ll be discovered as frauds.
Imposter syndrome is stunningly common — 70 percent of people will experience these feelings at some point in their lives, research suggests. Often, people who feel like imposters limit themselves from exploring new opportunities or areas of interest, limits that can be devastating for executives.
Imposter syndrome has no bias for job, seniority, race, or gender. But it can be especially tough for new CEOs, who have put in years of work and now sit at the top, which can be a very lonely place indeed.
Luckily, there are ways for CEOs to realize 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.”
Kim Perell, an angel investor and former executive, told a story in Entrepreneur about imposter syndrome. A CEO of a company she had invested in asked if she ever doubted her own abilities, or perhaps like she didn’t know what she was doing. The questions surprised Perell, as this CEO had always seemed so confident. But she knew exactly how he felt — she had also felt this way, she told him.
“Talking out how you feel with successful people you trust can help you realize how common and normal your feelings are,” Perell said. “It can also help you see the way you look through their eyes.”
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 realize 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 feeling. 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. Maya Angelou, Ricky Joshi and Kim Perell may have all felt like imposters at some point, but it didn’t last long enough to stop them from striving toward their purpose.