Have you ever oversold yourself to a prospective boss or client, and then kicked yourself for doing so once you were hired? I have. Many times. And when I admit to my long-time partner that I’m worried they’ll discover I’m a complete fraud, he always gives me the same advice: “Just act as if.” Act as if I’ve done this daunting task hundreds of times and am the most overqualified person they’ll ever hire.
Any you know what? I work like crazy to both learn and master the skill, and usually exceed the client’s expectations.
What I’m describing here is a phenomenon many accomplished people experience: impostor syndrome. In a smart, inspirational business memoir by Joyce Roché, cowritten with Alexander Kopelman, The Empress Has No Clothes: Conquering Self-Doubt to Embrace Success (Berret-Koehler, 2013), the author describes her own struggle with impostor syndrome through the first two decades of her stellar career ascent.
Impostor syndrome, says Roché, is the feeling that you’re somehow less qualified than your peers, less deserving of success, and that you’ll be “found out” if you don’t work longer and harder than everyone else. Interestingly, it mostly strikes highly successful people, like Roché herself.
Roché rose from humble circumstances to earn an Ivy League MBA and serve as CEO of the national nonprofit Girls Inc., from which she’s recently retired. Previous to that, she was COO and President of Carson Products Company, now part of L’Oreal, and Avon’s first African American female vice president, among other positions. She’s widely recognized as a pioneering trailblazer among black businesswomen.
However, especially during her younger years, Roché felt she had to prove herself over and over again to her peers, who were often male, white, and from more advantaged backgrounds. In fact, it’s women, minorities, and people from less privileged socioeconomic backgrounds who are especially prone to impostor syndrome, says Roché.
As Roché relates her own career story, and how she eventually came to trust her own abilities and inner validation, she weaves in anecdotes from 16 well-known leaders, who add fascinating perspectives to the topic. These include a diverse group, such as clothing designer Eileen Fisher; former General Motors CEO Edward Whitacre; Debra Lee, the CEO of BET networks; and Paula Bank Jones, a former vice president at PepsiCo. Drawing from her own experiences and theirs, Roché presents practical strategies for conquering impostor syndrome, and lessons one can learn about achieving success.
One of my favorites: Learn to metabolize external validation. In other words, when someone gives you praise or recognition, practice hearing their words and taking them in. Other insights: Share your fears with people you trust so you can get a more realistic perspective on yourself. And if those you work with cause you to doubt your abilities, don’t give power to their assumptions. Being black or a woman, for example, doesn’t make you less competent.
The book is filled with inspirational advice and lessons. Anyone who has reached a level of success in her or his field will recognize many of the sentiments here and benefit from Roché’s widsom. The important takeaway is that if you continue to excel, work hard, become self-aware, learn to be compassionate toward yourself, and develop personally and professionally, sooner or later you won’t need to “act as if.” You’ll grow into the very person you’ve been projecting. And, as Roché reminds us, you can then pay it forward by mentoring another promising person who’s struggling with self-validation as he or she climbs up the career ladder.