Conquering the ‘Imposter Syndrome’

Have you just been promoted, or likely to be soon? You might be surprised to suddenly feel like you’re not capable of handling the move. But a very specific set of steps can relieve the feeling that you’re faking it when you step into a higher position.

When I was rising up the ranks at Beasley Media Group where I’ve worked for more than 30 years, the concern around women trying to break through the “glass ceiling” was at the top of my, and most of my female colleagues’, minds. I believe women have made significant strides toward gender equality, and though we still have a way to go, they are being promoted and placed in high-level positions more frequently than ever before.

For men and women alike, when those promotions happen, a perhaps surprising kind of panic can set in:  the fear of not being prepared, and of not being competent or smart enough, for the new title they’ve just been given. It has happened to me, as well as many friends and colleagues.

Self-confidence, as it turns out, is a problem that even the most seasoned veterans in every industry wrestle with. Self-doubt can be a very real part of our human nature, and it can be awoken whenever we’re given a challenge — especially one as major as taking on new role with greater responsibilities and expectations.

Sarah Levitt, who has spent the past 20-plus years as a strategic business consultant and executive coach, and who created the Magnificent Leadership Executive Forum community, among her other accomplishments, tackles the issue of self-confidence for those in the media industry who have been — or perhaps will soon be — promoted. She shares her experience in her column titled “The Imposter Syndrome” in the January/February issue of The Financial Manager, the magazine for members of the Media Financial Management Association, of which I currently serve on the board.

Not only does Levitt pinpoint the reasons why leaders may feel a sense of dread soon after they’re promoted, she also provides an incredibly useful list of recommendations on how anyone who is dealing with self-doubt can learn to conquer it. I highly recommend you read her article to get the full picture, but I want to summarize her brilliant suggestions below.

First, she notes, you were promoted by people who know what they’re doing. They wouldn’t have chosen to elevate you if they didn’t think you were cut out for it. These individuals likely spent hours conferring over who in the company was best suited for promotion, reviewing candidates’ past accomplishments and present capabilities, before choosing you. They have something at stake, too:  this person or team stands to look bad if they make a poor promotion decision.


Second, Levitt says, is that growth requires us to stretch. It means taking risks to see a greater reward. It also means that we have to try new things — sometimes things we never imagined trying — to avoid complacency and stagnation. While it can be frightening to take on a new responsibility, particularly in leadership, it’s also an opportunity to grow and assure yourself you have what it takes to meet the challenge.

Third is “know your values, what you stand for, what matters,” she says. Similar sage words have carried me through a number of difficult situations, when I had to regroup and return to the tenets and beliefs that made me who I am. There’s no reason for you to change who you are, either, simply because you’ve been placed in a more prominent position. Chances are, you were promoted because others respect your principals and ethics in addition to your capabilities. Use your values not only as a rudder to steer you through choppy seas, but also as a reminder to be true to yourself.

Fourth, identify trusted colleagues and peers who have walked a similar path as yours, and invite them to provide input into your journey. Simply learning that you’re not the only one who fears they might be found out as an imposter once you step into their new role may be enough to assuage your anxiety.

In addition to building a team I can go to with my questions, fears and doubts, I believe having a solid mentor is crucial to becoming a strong leader. I was fortunate to have several mentors during my career who helped shape my future and who continuously encouraged me to move forward. Having this support system allowed me to address and overcome my self-doubts.

It’s also important — and very rewarding — to eventually become a mentor yourself, coming alongside individuals who you believe have potential for growth and greater success.

Levitt’s fifth recommendation is one that I find extremely useful, since it speaks to the job at hand:  it’s to get both tactical and practical. Even if you have developed the confidence you need for your new position, you shouldn’t try to wing it, particularly when it comes to board presentations, media interviews or all-hands high-stakes company meetings. You may want to consider hiring a professional who can coach you through these types of events.

Particularly when you’re giving a presentation, you should consider learning how to calm your internal system before you start, in addition to speaking more slowly and engaging your audience more often. The first 10 minutes of your presentation are likely to dictate how the rest of it will go.

On a day-to-day basis, look at ways to influence key stakeholder buy-in, to effectively set strategic priorities and to build and surround yourself with a strong team. Levitt suggests undertaking these activities during your first year in your new position, which will help you bypass common pitfalls and reach your goals more easily.

Levitt says: “I tell clients that the key objective, when they’re under the bright spotlight, is to be confident, comfortable, connected and capable. That combination is hard to beat.” I’m going to commit these “four Cs” to memory.

Finally, Levitt advises leveraging your fear into self-mastery. She notes that every outstanding leader she knows is on a self-appointed path of stretching themselves, taking risks and venturing into uncharted waters — and at the same time questioning themselves, and feeling afraid and sometimes unconvinced they can pull it off. As numerous great leaders have been quoted, “do something that scares yourself every day.”

By becoming confident through your risk-taking, practical learning, and time in the saddle, you will know that the “imposter syndrome” is just that — a syndrome, and not your reality.

And speaking of building confidence, MFM will present its CFO Summit, an annual retreat for senior financial professionals in the media industry, on March 3-4 in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. During these two days, numerous high-level CFOs and other executives will address the burning issues facing CFOs and other senior media executives in no-holds-barred discussions. This yearly event is one of MFM’s most popular, and particularly relevant in this rapidly changing business environment. I hope to see you there.

Marie Tedesco serves treasurer of the 2021-22 board of directors for the Media Financial Management Association and its BCCA subsidiary, the media industry’s credit association. She is chief financial officer of Beasley Media Group and can be reached at [email protected] or 239-263-5000.

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