In 2010, I received an email that informed me that I had been selected 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.
I arrived in Toronto at the gala alone, not knowing what a big deal it was, I didn’t invite anyone to come along. It was a daylong event with multiple sessions of speakers and then people got dressed up for the evening. I lined up with 99 powerful women, many in glamourous, shiny dresses. Music blared, and champagne flowed. Media was there interviewing winners. We entered the room filled with 1300 people who were cheering and clapping. We walked up on stage and I end up in the front row. The women beside me grabbed my hand and everyone danced and celebrated on stage until the music stopped. Camera flashes were going off and I was blinded by the light. I proceeded to my seat a bit overwhelmed and dazed. I realized I was beside Jacklyn Shan the inventor of ColdFX on one side and Christine McGee of Sleep Country Canada on the other. Then Margaret Atwood arrives on stage to do the keynote. She’s also a Top 100 recipient. I was in awe by the women around me. They were all famous.
What was I doing there? I felt small and like I didn’t belong. At that point, I was sure I had fooled everyone, and it was only a matter of time until I would be outed as a fraud. Some people might have heard of my company Webnames.ca, but come on…Margaret Atwood?!
So the funny thing is, I went on to win the award four times. I was inducted into the “hall of fame”. On that last award event I still didn’t feel like I had earned my right to be there. I spoke to a couple of the other hall of fame winners that evening and interestingly, realized something that shocked me yet finally opened my eyes and gave me some comfort – these other women felt the same way. One woman even said she was in awe of me as an entrepreneur and of what I had built and accomplished! She said she wished should could have had that courage to start her own thing but had “just worked promotion to promotion to get to where she was and that she had put in her time, paid her dues, until it became her turn.” This astonished me to hear how she was diminishing her own accomplishments to something that sounded like anyone could have done. I started to recognize how pervasive my own feelings of not measuring up were and often in highly accomplished women who I admired and looked up to.
I decided to do a bit more research and wrote an article titled Impostor syndrome is a genuine threat to women’s workplace advancement, published in Business in Vancouver a couple years ago. In that article, I aired my “dirty little secret” to the world that I was the “ultimate impostor” because I own and run a technology company (and have done so now for 19 years), 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.
Through writing the article I started to learn more about “Impostor Syndrome”. Many women and some men reached out to me after reading it. Some of these people had PhDs and are top of their field. Many were high-achieving executives and entrepreneurs who I thought couldn’t possibly feel the same way as I did. I seemed I had tapped into something as I was subsequently asked to speak at event after event about this topic. Then the craziest thing happened. I was asked to do the opening keynote for Dr. Valerie Young, the woman who wrote the darn book on the topic and an internationally-known expert on barriers to women’s achievement. Talk about feeling like an impostor that day!
I’ve come a long way in my understanding of that feeling since that first award night. After much self-reflection, interviewing others, writing the article 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 actually 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 considerable media attention and speaking opportunities BECAUSE I’m a female founder in technology, a largely underrepresented voice. Furthermore, I find often women are underestimated, particularly in male-dominated industries. You can turn this to your advantage when people have lower expectations of you, impressing and surprising 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 only need to meet 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/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 in order to give myself an out if I do 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 actually mess up, the audience doesn’t laugh at you or ask for their money back for wasting their time. The world won’t end. Give yourself the license 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 trailblazing. How do you feel belonging when no one has done it before? If you’re a trailblazer, it’s okay to be afraid but remember that others behind you are looking toward you to pave their way.
- Read Dr. 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 “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 for hiring the best people and surrounding myself with experts in each field. In fact, some say that where the CEO is strongest, that often becomes the weakest area in a company. Today, there’s a movement supported by many like 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 quite enough. You might not actually 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: 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.
About Cybele Negris
Cybele is CEO & Co-Founder of Webnames.ca, as well as a serial entrepreneur, seasoned board member, speaker, mentor, and columnist.
Cybele is on the board, audit, and HR committees of the Royal Canadian Mint, the board of BCAA, and the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver. She is Vice-Chair of the Small Business Roundtable of BC, and is appointed by the Minister of Job, Trade, and Technology to the three-member Small Business Task Force of BC. She also serves on the Technical Advisory Board for the Riverview Lands Redevelopment in Coquitlam, the advisory council of Science World, SFU Innovates, and other organizations.
A Hall of Fame Inductee of Canada’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women and nine time winner of PROFIT W100, some of Cybele’s other recognitions include BC Business Most Influential Women in Business 2018, 2017, 2015, and Business In Vancouver’s Influential Women in Business 2010 and Top 40 Under 40 for 2003.