You’re halfway through your presentation and you feel good. Your audience is receptive, their body language positive and engaged. All except one person. He’s sitting with his arms crossed, defensive and with a troubled expression on his face. Suddenly, his expression changes, he leaps out of his chair and pointing at you, calls out ‘wait a second…he’s a fraud!’.
Maybe this hasn’t happened to you. It has yet to happen to me. And yet, it amazes me how often I feel like this is going to happen. And I’m not alone. This sense of feeling like a fraud, of always being on the verge of exposure is a common trait among strategists. This is imposter syndrome, and I believe on balance that it is a good thing for a strategist to experience.
Imposter syndrome is a term coined in 1978 by clinical psychologists Dr. Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes referring to high-achieving individuals marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a fraud. Simply put, those with imposter syndrome actively convince themselves that they do not deserve the success they have achieved and that it is a result of external factors such as luck and timing.
I believe that strategists are particularly prone to feeling this way due to the nature of our work. There’s the fact that the value we add is not by implementing the strategy, but developing it. This means that we are dependent on others to execute, and this makes us feel like we haven’t earned the outcome. Speaking of the team, these individuals are immersed in their areas of expertise to a much deeper extent than we are. That means that we often feel that we are being judged and found wanting by people that are much better versed in the industry than we are. There’s also the fact that this industry changes so rapidly and significantly that the hands-on experience we earned early in our careers just isn’t valuable anymore. Finally, there is the persistent belief that what we do as strategists is just not that difficult and can be done by anyone.
Imposter syndrome can produce positive outcomes for strategists and our clients. The first outcome is diligence. People that feel this way tend to overcompensate through hard work, where we put in far more effort in order to avoid being ‘found out’. Ironically, this extra effort typically leads to even more success, which leads to greater recognition and praise, which in turn inevitably ends with an even deeper feeling of being a fraud. The second outcome is use of charm to compensate for a sense of inferiority. This charm is critical for a strategist because it allows us to connect with our audiences, to help connect the binary nature of our work with the emotional needs of people. We’ve explored how critical this is when we discussed the importance of the human element in digital strategy. Again, this leads to ever greater levels of performance, which leads to a sense that we haven’t earned this success as a result of our abilities but have done so on the back of our charm.
These are positive outcomes, but only if properly managed. Too much work and we burn out. Too little self-confidence and we under-value ourselves and fall short of our personal and professional goals.
So how do we manage this so the outcomes are overwhelmingly positive for ourselves, our colleagues and clients?
First, recognize that you have a particular ability, that being a strategist is a skill unto itself, and that being able to connect the dots, to see across the landscape and to speak to both the rational and the emotional is a rare and valuable skill. The fact that you find this easy is an indicator of the value you bring. This is a rare skill, and you should not lose sight of that.
Second, remember that the value you provide is beyond your personal capabilities. You represent a team. You are not expected to be the subject matter expert. Neither are you expected to know as much as one of them in their particular field.
Finally, remember that luck doesn’t happen on its own. Luck is the place where preparation and opportunity meet. Opportunity doesn’t present itself; it needs you to actively seek and create it. As such, you create your own luck. If you are able to internalize this fact, it helps you begin to acknowledge, even internally, that your success is directly and indirectly related to your efforts and intellect.
We can’t stop feeling like frauds. But we need to understand that success is not an accident, and that we are doing something right to influence it. Imposter syndrome keeps us striving and pushing. And properly managed, it can be a good thing since it drives ever greater levels of performance for ourselves, our colleagues and our clients.
Next week on octopus, we will continue to explore the role of the digital strategist. Please be sure to comment below. I’d love to hear from you. Please subscribe for alerts about new episodes and content. Thank you for listening to octopus. I’m Nasser Sahlool.