Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of being interviewed by the Sunday Times on the topic of Impostor Syndrome and its crippling effect on many professionals. I had a very rewarding conversation with Carly Chynoweth around various coping strategies for gaining a sense of validation and self-acceptance. It is a topic which sits close to my heart, having battled my fair share of demons when it comes to professional confidence.
After the interview, it struck me that the strategies which I had gained over the years, to help me overcome my sense of inferiority as an individual, could also translate into the wider scope of the marketing department. After all, don’t we often mark ourselves down, compared to the efforts of other businesses? Aren’t we often feeling as if we lag behind, as if everyone else is latching on to the latest trends and the coolest new tactics, doing “real” marketing? And so we try to keep up and convince ourselves that we’re just as good, although we secretly feel like we are nothing like what we portray ourselves to be.
This certainly rings true for me.
What is Impostor Syndrome?
People who experience this challenge often have a constant grinding wheel of questions churning in their mind, asking themselves if they are good enough, clever enough or confident enough. They have the sensation that everyone around them is “Real”, whereas they are “Fake” and that they only ended up being successful by pure luck or chance. Remarkably, this is experienced by many top performers who – to the outside observer – seem to possess shatterproof confidence. Examples include elite athletes, senior executives, powerful leaders and influencers.
Strategy #1: Be comfortable with your uniqueness.
I once worked in a marketing organisation where a “messaging workshop” for a new product consisted of visiting a range of competitors’ websites, pulling out key phrases and descriptions from their product pages and mixing them all into a new constellation, attributing it to us. It’s safe to say that the exercise drained all creativity from the room!
This is an extreme example of what happens when a marketing team lacks the integrity of being a unique creature. By wanting to appear to be at pace with the other players, we were not comfortable breaking away from the pack. This approach stifles marketing innovation and may contribute to a continued sense of being a fake compared to others. The same thing also happens to many people on a personal level every single day – we hold back our unique selves for fear of being ostracised.
Strategy #2: Do something terrifying.
Growing up, I was convinced I was destined to be shy, quiet and timid. Throughout my personal journey, I found that the best way to prove myself wrong was to do the very things that scared me the most. It led me to take on one challenge after the next, culminating in a series of stand-up comedy performances which scared the proverbial socks off me. At the time, I’d have happily jumped out of a helicopter before standing up in front of a crowd of people – let alone try to make them laugh! But once I did it, I unlocked a whole new level of confidence.
When managing a marketing organisation, the same fear can apply when faced with the opportunity to change. We imagine all the horrible things that can go wrong, the embarrassment of potential failure – even though we may have several very successful projects in the backpack. This fear won’t let go of us until we let go of it, trust ourselves and trust our teams to deliver the excellence we strive for.
Strategy #3: Ditch perfect. Be awesome.
Both as marketers and individuals, we can be crippled by perfectionism. In many organisations, I dare say it is one of the biggest threats to progress. We fail to value the art of being quick and adaptive, over the concept of absolute exactness. Mature organisations can learn a lot from the entrepreneurial mindset of “Ready, Fire, Aim” – determining the detailed direction as you go along – borrowing guidance from the Agile framework and its interpretation for the marketing specialism. The more time we spend perfecting our campaigns, the more pressure we put on ourselves and the wider the gap grows between us and our more nimble competitors.
Won’t we make mistakes? Sure we will. Plenty of them. But we’ll have momentum, learning as we go along and gaining the confidence of someone who dares to be “good enough”. The war between VHS and Betamax springs to mind – where Betamax was arguably the better product but lost market dominance to VHS due to a sluggish (albeit not entirely self-inflicted) approach to the marketplace.
I have learnt that both as an individual and a marketer, I have strengths and weaknesses which make me who I am. I am unique, terrified and far from perfect; but for those very reasons I will continue to strive for success and will bring success to others along the way.