Who’s the Boss? Part 2 – Impostor Syndrome Between Strategic Partners

This is the second installment of a three-part series that explores the complex role of a Force Multiplier (Chief of Staff or Executive Assistant) and how they are called upon to lead and assist various stakeholders across an organization. You can read Part 1 How Force Multipliers & Executive Assistants Juggle Multiple Stakeholders here.

Impostor syndrome in the C-Suite? Preposterous! Aren’t these some of the company’s and community’s most confident and capable leaders? Yes. And, contrary to popular belief, C-Suite executives and their Force Multipliers aren’t superhuman (yet), which means they, too, can fall victim to impostor syndrome. In fact, it may be more prevalent than we think, which can lead to a whole host of challenges and further complicates the relationship between a Principal and a Force Multiplier.

What is Impostor Syndrome?

Impostor syndrome is the persistent inability to believe that one’s success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one’s own efforts or skills.

Impostor syndrome can affect anyone for a variety of reasons, but we’re going to focus on business leaders and their strategic partners here. Where we see this happening most often is with newer Executives who are promoted into the C-Suite, thrown into the deep end and expected to swim better, faster, and stronger, than the leader who came before them. By their side? Yup, often an Executive Assistant or Chief of Staff who has been in the company and part of the leadership team longer than they have been. Not only do they need to lean on their Force Multiplier to learn the ropes, many times EAs or Chiefs are asked to onboard and “train” their new Executive, which certainly begs the question, “Who’s the boss?”

Now, a skilled Force Multiplier should be able to navigate this situation with ease. His or her role is, in fact, to help this Executive get up to speed and making an impact quickly. However, sometimes EAs and Chiefs are so good that even years later, the Executive is still doubting their own effort and skills. Force Multipliers are behind the scenes telling the Exec when, where, and with whom to meet, they are preparing their agendas, talking points, and communication, managing their various meetings and projects, and in some cases, also hiring and leading teams, holding them accountable, and furthering the growth of the company. Personally, I think this is exactly what a great Force Multiplier should be doing and I have had the privilege of working alongside a leader who gets it. Adam believes that its his job to work on himself and on the business (casting the vision, providing clarity and direction to team, and removing roadblocks), not in it. The rest? He’ll leave that to me, our Executive Assistant, and the rest of our team. But this is exactly why impostor syndrome creeps in for some Execs! When they are not “doing” the work they start to question their contribution and value to the organization.

Let’s turn to the Force Multipliers for a minute. Executive Assistants and Chiefs of Staff are not immune to impostor syndrome. Force Multipliers have to dance between confidence and deference on the daily. No wonder impostor syndrome runs rampant! They are powerful by association, whether they want to be or not. They are often called upon to act in their boss’s place. Force Multipliers are privy to incredibly high-stakes information and high-impact decisions. They also have the privilege of travel perks, getting to the front of a queue quickly, and making things happen (yes, oftentimes by using their Execs name). Force Multipliers are powerful and must use that power wisely. The minute EAs or Chiefs forget that they have this authority because of the leader or organization they work with, the minute they’ve slipped from impostor syndrome to the Dunning-Kruger Effect (a.k.a Expert Syndrome, which is thinking you know more than you do).

It’s very easy to feel like a fish out of water when you sit down at a table surrounded by some of the best business minds in your industry and are asked for your input. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has asked themselves, “How the heck did I get here and will anyone see if I sneak out of this conference room?” Don’t get me wrong, I always wanted to have a seat at the table (and often invited myself in the beginning), but it didn’t make it any less uncomfortable to be there. Questioning your knowledge and skills, and the value you bring to the organization is not reserved for the Principal. Force Multipliers have to navigate all the complex relationships within an organization, as well as their own insecurities, their wants and their needs. What a tangled web we weave!

Now, I’m no psychologist, but here’s what I know: to combat impostor syndrome you must work on yourself first. Business may be an infinite game, but leadership is an inner game. The next generation of leaders are just as committed to their inner growth and spiritual life as they are to spreadsheets and bottom lines. When you work on yourself first, everything else will fall into place.

Here are 4 ways to combat impostor syndrome that will have you confidently owning your role and consciously leading through others so everyone succeeds:

  1. Get vulnerable. The first step is awareness and understanding your own feelings of fraud and then share (with those who have earned your trust). Vulnerability is a valuable trait in a leader. Sharing your struggles may help someone else share theirs. There are a lot of negative side effects from impostor syndrome, such as blame, shame, anxiety, aggression towards others, micro-managing, risk-aversion, and more. Once you’ve spoken about your impostor syndrome, you can start to right any wrongs and work with your Executive or Force Multiplier to start constructively moving forward.
  2. Separate facts from feelings. Sometimes you may feel inadequate, small, or incompetent in a meeting or with another team member. That doesn’t mean you are. But it may mean that you need to level up your skills or knowledge in a particular area. That you can get to work on immediately and be more knowledgeable and prepared the next time around. One thing I did early in my career was learn as much as I could about my Executive, the industry, and our organization, as well as stay up to date on global and economic news, industry trends, and whatever book or podcast my Exec was listening to. This gave me an edge with all my interactions. Fact – I didn’t always have the answer. Feeling – I didn’t allow my lack of knowledge to define who I was or effect my beliefs about myself. Easier said than done. Which brings us to number 3.
  3. Make peace with the outcome. This is not a one time event, but an ongoing practice of separating yourself from the situation, conversation, or person in front of you so that you do not become the challenge, failure, or even the success. Yes, as a new Executive, you may show up to a board meeting, questioning your value and why you got the job, but if you are prepared (with help from your Force Multiplier) and make peace with however the meeting goes, then you have nothing to fear. Making peace with the outcome doesn’t mean that you don’t put in the work and show up as the best version of you, it just means that no matter what happens, it will not change who you are at the core. There is peace in that.
  4. Build confidence. Confidence doesn’t mean you have all the answers or know everything. Confidence is knowing you can find a solution to any challenge that comes your way. And, I hate to break it to you, but the only way to build confidence is by getting uncomfortable. Just a few months ago, I was invited to speak in front of 10,000 people at an industry conference. On top of that I was being interviewed by one of the most brilliant leaders of our time, Gary Keller. Talk about feeling like a fraud! Who was I to be up there? Who was I to be sharing with the audience? What did I know? You know the saying, “Feel the fear and do it anyway?” That’s what I did that day and then I continued to work on myself, so that the next time around there would be no panic or hesitation, just a simple, “I’ve got this.” In fact, I got invited to speak on two more panels next month and not only did I say, “I’ve got this!”, I was excited to present. That’s growth.

One final note. When a Principal and their right hand have open dialogue about feeling like an impostor (on both sides!), then the strategic partnership strengthens. Impostor syndrome will eventually be replaced by influential leadership. But only if you put in the work.

Have you ever experienced impostor syndrome? How did it manifest for you? What did you do to combat impostor syndrome?

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