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20th March 2014 - Views

Women, Coaching, and the Imposter Syndrome

Author: Ali Reardon, Senior Consultant, Right Management

I meet incredibly bright women in my work as an executive coach and not once have I been brought in because the female executive was too self-assured and confident in her pursuit of plum assignments and promotions.

I wish it would happen. That would be a good day for me as a coach because it would signal the beginnings of a rebalancing of the workplace power structure.

While women constitute about half of the workforce in most countries, they remain woefully under-represented in senior positions. In 2011, women held only 20% of senior management positions globally, according to one research study. Here in the UK, where I’m based, the percentage of women on the boards of the largest companies is 17.3%, the lowest showing since 1999.

What is holding women back? Certainly, there are societal and institutionalized roadblocks to advancement in many organizations but in my experience, there are self-imposed barriers as well. Time and again, I work with female executives – well regarded and highly valued by their managers and business associates — who are held back by self-doubt. Comments like these are typical:
I worry that I’ll be found out. That people will realize I’m not as good as I think.”

I’ve never made a career plan. It feels too presumptuous, like I’m claiming I have the capability to get there.”

I’ve felt like an impostor all along. I still do.”

Ironically, the Impostor Syndrome is associated with high-achieving people and it is rampant among female workers, particularly in fields like financial services that have strong male-oriented environments. The good news is that executive coaching can have a tremendous impact on helping these women understand and overcome their feelings of inadequacy.

One woman I’ll call Jessica described herself at the outset of coaching as rating 2 out of 10 on the confidence scale. She couldn’t identify one thing she liked about herself. I laid a series of Strengths Cards on the table to get our dialogue going. (Each card contains an adjective that describes a specific strength/skill and the coachee typically sorts the cards into piles reflecting those that describe her all/some/none of the time.) Jessica became quite emotional because it was impossible for her to look at a strength and say to me (or to herself) that “Yes, I’m good at that.” As we worked together and I challenged her patterns of thinking, she began to take hold of the problem. After six coaching sessions, Jessica rated herself an 8 on the confidence scale. She was engaging in complex, difficult situations without anxiety and is now operating at board level with more presence and impact.

Jessica’s story is not unusual. Here are some coaching techniques for other women striving to become more self-assured:

  • Limit self-limiting thoughts. Spend time challenging thoughts like “I won’t be able to operate at that level.” Look for evidence to the contrary. Eliminate unhelpful phrases from your vocabulary, such as “I’ll never be good enough.” or “I’m not as good as ….”
  • Accept your flaws. It’s part of being human. Flaws don’t define the whole of you and they shouldn’t prevent you from pursuing opportunities. Don’t wait to feel confident before you do something – act first and the confidence will follow
  • Discover your strengths. Take this strengths survey. Talk about and use your strengths as much as possible.
  • Get to know your inner voice. Who does it remind you of? Is it supportive or critical? Is it helpful or obstructive? Would you put up with someone else speaking to you as it does?
  • GPS your belief system. Are you internally validated — how I feel about myself is what counts the most? Or externally validated – I depend on what others say, awards, promotions, qualifications? If the latter, try to develop more of a sense of what you think and feel is good about you.
  • Find a mentor who will challenge, inspire and believe in you.

Organizations have a tremendous opportunity to utilize coaching to help their talented female employees grow into leadership positions and ascend the corporate ladder. The thing is, it’s smart business. Evidence suggests that companies with a higher representation of women at the board and senior management levels outperform lower-ranking companies in terms of return on equity and other financial metrics.

Businesses today face a significant talent shortage. Doesn’t it make sense to unleash the full potential of all of your workers – female and male – in pursuit of your goals?

If you are a female executive, where do you fall on the Impostor Syndrome spectrum? Take our poll.