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Wrestling with impostor syndrome reveals key career truths

In 2010, the Women’s Executive Network selected me as one of Canada’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women. My reaction was one of mixed emotions; I was honoured, elated, humbled yet a bit embarrassed.
Photo credit: Alfonso Arnold

In 2010, the Women’s Executive Network selected me as one of Canada’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women. My reaction was one of mixed emotions; I was honoured, elated, humbled yet a bit embarrassed. I didn’t think I deserved to win and honestly felt a bit of a fraud.

After I went on to win the award four times, I was inducted into the hall of fame. At that last award event I still didn’t feel like I had earned my right to be there. After speaking to other winners, I realized many of us felt the same way, each of us diminishing our own accomplishments as we admired the achievements of others.

After some research I wrote an article published in Business in Vancouver in February 2017 (“Impostor Syndrome Is Genuine Threat to Women’s Workplace Advancement”) in which I aired my “dirty little secret” to the world that I was the “ultimate impostor” because I own and run a technology company, yet I don’t have a technical background. I felt I didn’t belong and that no matter what I accomplished, I still felt like a fraud and that at some point, I’d be found out.

High-achieving executives and entrepreneurs from around the world reached out to me. It seemed I had tapped into something, and I’ve been asked to speak at numerous events about the topic ever since.

I’ve come a long way in my understanding of that feeling since that first award night. After much self-reflection, interviewing others and speaking about the subject of impostor syndrome, here is what I’ve learned:

•More women experience impostor syndrome than men. It is likely that women have fewer role models in many male-dominated fields, so we don’t feel like we belong because we didn’t. Having been in male-dominated fields most of my life, I tell women today to see it as an advantage to be one woman amongst many men. You get to stand out. I have had much media attention and speaking opportunities because I’m a female founder in technology. Furthermore, I find women are often underestimated, particularly in male-dominated industries. You can turn this to your advantage when people have low expectations of you but you can impress and surprise them with your results.

•Studies, now often cited, show that there is a huge confidence gap between men and women where women feel we must meet 100% of the qualifications before applying for a job or promotion, while men feel they need to meet only 60% of the qualifications before applying. My advice is to put your hand up anyway. The worst-case scenario is you don’t get that promotion or that job you applied for. If you don’t, ask the hiring manager or supervisor what areas to improve on for the next time you apply. Keep trying and don’t give up because you were told “No.”

•I have done things to procrastinate or self-sabotage to give myself an out if I end up failing. If I mess up a speech, it must be because I had five speeches that week and didn’t have time to prepare, not because I just did terrible that day. Why would I agree to five speeches in a week to begin with? Today I know that if I mess up, the audience doesn’t laugh or ask for their money back for wasting their time. The world won’t end. Give yourself the licence to not be perfect; perfectionism is a confidence killer.

•Many high-achieving people feel this problem possibly because with each level of achievement come new, bolder areas that at times require trail-blazing. How do you feel belonging when no one has done it before? If you’re a trailblazer, it’s OK to be afraid, but remember that others behind you are looking toward you to pave their way.

•Read Valerie Young’s book The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It. I won’t give it all away, but part of the advice she gives is to fake it till you make it.

•Acknowledge that you don’t, can’t and shouldn’t know it all. I’m all for continuous learning, but how many degrees or designations does one need? I’m a huge proponent of hiring the best people and surrounding myself with experts in each field. In fact, some say that where the CEO is strongest often becomes the weakest area in a company. Today, there’s a movement supported by many – including author and motivational speaker Simon Sinek and business leader Cameron Herold – who say that the CEO should be the dumbest person in the room. To me, stepping back and listening to the experts you hire can help you make the best-informed decisions.

•Having said that about listening to experts, trust your own abilities to make the right decisions once you’ve taken the appropriate amount of information, data and opinions into account. Don’t doubt your own gut and your own experience. As a leader, in the end you can’t abdicate your decision-making and authority.

•When I joined a prestigious board a while back, the feelings of impostor syndrome started to percolate again. What it caused me to do was to read multiple years of the organization’s annual reports, financial statements, governing documents, website and archived board documents before the full-day orientation session. During the orientation I paid unrelenting attention and took copious notes. I wanted to make sure that by the time I made it to my first board meeting I would be of value and prove my worth rather than take months to learn and ease myself in. The impostor syndrome made me work harder and made me a better director. So, if you feel these feelings creep in, go get prepared and prove those feelings wrong.

•If you truly don’t feel competent, go build your competency. Sometimes working harder and getting prepared isn’t enough. You might not have the skills to do something you haven’t yet done. Identify what your skills gaps are and go attain that knowledge or expertise through education, training or work experience that can help you learn those specific skills, or ask a mentor to teach you.

•My biggest piece of advice is to feel the fear but do it anyway. I do something almost every week that puts me out of my comfort zone. Start embracing fear and discomfort. I’m convinced this is how we grow as leaders and as people. •

Cybele Negris is co-founder and CEO of