Leadership & Productivity

Presenter Stacey Dooley and female business leaders discuss imposter syndrome

12 min read

15 May 2019

Features Editor, Real Business

It's Mental Health Awareness Week in the world of business, and one of the biggest barriers to success in the sector is Imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome is a feeling of internal self-doubt that says you do not deserve your success. Strictly Come Dancing star and TV presenter, Stacey Dooley, chairs a panel of female business leaders including Pip & Nut founder, Pippa Murray to discuss their experiences of the issue and what can be done to stop it.

“It’s healthy to have peer reviews, but what happens when the comparisons get negative?” – That was the opening question asked by the renowned presenter, documentary filmmaker, and Strictly Come Dancing star, Stacey Dooley to a panel of female business leaders at the NatWest #OwnYourImposter inspirational women panel earlier this month.

Imposter syndrome: The female business leaders speaking out

Part of a campaign run by the bank to help encourage and support the growth of female representation in business, the panel  included Michelle Kennedy, CEO, and co-founder of Peanut, an app for mothers that’s gone viral across the UK and US, Ebony Rainford-Brent, an ex-England cricketer turned BBC broadcaster who was the first Black British woman to play for England, Poorna Bell, an award-winning journalist and winner of the Asian Women of Achievement Award 2014, and Pippa Murray, founder of Pip + Nut, a health food product that’s stocked in major supermarkets nationwide.

All four women have faced imposter syndrome in their professional lives. But what is imposter syndrome and how does it manifest itself?

What is imposter syndrome?

Imposter syndrome is the feeling that someone ‘is not worthy’ to be at the level they’re at in business.

These negative feelings can dominate the minds of high-achievers, make them question their own validity, and lead to destructive behaviours such as a loss of confidence at the most crucial times in business leadership.

Imposter syndrome is, in short, that niggling feeling at the back of your mind when you’re pitching to investors, making a speech at a business gala, or being challenged by a colleague.

It’s that voice that says you don’t deserve to be in the position you’re in, that being chosen for a promotion or a job role was a box-ticking exercise, and nothing more. Although most people understand that these thoughts aren’t real, they can still be incredibly destructive.

Ex-England cricketer Ebony Rainford-Brent on her experience of imposter syndrome

Rainford-Brent’s has experienced imposter syndrome first hand. Source: Stylist

“One of my biggest imposter syndrome moments was when I got one of my first post-sports broadcasting gigs on the BBC,” says   Rainford-Brent.

“They wanted me to cover men’s international cricket matches. The deal was that I would be working with one of the big old-school broadcasters in the field, he was older, male and very respected in the industry,” she continues.

“Before I joined, I had nightmares that I would be dragged off the mic, and they would all say ‘you’re not good enough’.”

Peanut founder Michelle Kennedy avoided meetings due to imposter syndrome

Michelle Kennedy says imposter syndrome has stopped her going to meetings. Source: Youtube

“I remember those feelings so well,” adds Michelle Kennedy, “you’re half expecting someone to tap you on your shoulder and say move along, you’re not meant to be here.”

“It can happen when you’re pitching an idea to investors and a voice at the back of your says you’re an imposter, you lose your wording, you sweat, it’s that prickly heat,” she adds.

“In the past, those feelings of inadequacy have held me back from going to a meeting and networking with important people that could have helped my business grow, that led to countless lost opportunities for me,” she adds.

Pippa Murray: Holding your own against older ‘more experienced’ men

Pippa Murray has felt intimidated by more experienced peers. Source: Youtube

“I’ve felt imposter syndrome most strongly at networking events,” says Pippa Murray.

“I remember there was one particular event where I was meeting senior executives of global food retailers and huge business owners. I was thinking to myself, ‘you have to mingle and be authoritative’, but all I wanted to do was stand at the back of the room.”

“In short, I didn’t feel experienced enough to be there.”

“I remember thinking to myself, ‘why am I feeling this way? I’ve built a brand from nothing, with no prior business experience,” says Murray.”My products are stocked in all major supermarkets in the UK, why do I still feel inadequate?”

“There’s still a punishing element to success in this country,” says Murray.

Imposter syndrome: The feeling that you’ll be ‘found out’

“I worked in theatre production before starting  Pip + Nut, so I was from a totally unrelated industry, I didn’t know what profit or loss meant before starting the business, and now I’m working with big traditional retailers and manufacturers, but instead of patting myself on the back and saying, ‘haven’t I done well! ‘I’m asking myself, – will I be found out?”

Imposter syndrome: A distinctly ‘British’ problem?

Whilst many entrepreneurs experience varying degrees of imposter syndrome around the world, I think Murray might be onto a point here about self-doubt being a British feature.

Think about it, we’re taught to be modest about our abilities and success, therefore there isn’t a lot of room left for self-praise. This leads us on to the dangers of self-deprecation, the successor to imposter syndrome.

Self-deprecation is the successor of imposter syndrome

“It’s important that we pull each other up on imposter syndrome and this includes the self-depreciation that comes with feeling those emotions,” says Michelle Kennedy.

“When I took Peanut to the United States, I was really playing down my achievements to others, and that really doesn’t travel well outside of the UK,” she adds.

“Modesty and self-deprecating humour doesn’t work in a business context in the US, and certainly not in a board meeting, which I found out soon enough! But why was I doing it? I was doing it to make people feel more comfortable by playing myself down,” says Kennedy.

“Now I know it’s better to say actually what I’ve achieved is huge and deserves recognition, Americans by-and-large aren’t afraid to say when they’ve done well and we can learn from that,” she adds.

“Imposter syndrome is about people disregarding the fact that they’ve had a unique and impressive journey to success,” says Murray. “Call it comparing and despairing,” she adds.

How to counter the haters? Hold onto your moments of success, says Poorna Bell

Poorna Bell has first-hand experience with imposter syndrome. Source: scoopnest.com

“We’re always going to feel those negative thoughts,” says Poorna Bell, “but it’s about rewiring what you learn from those negative situations,” she adds.

“For example, you could be in a new job role where you feel quite vulnerable, and in my experience, there’s always one ‘Eeyore’ type character’ who will say something negative about you or your professional abilities,” she adds.

“I remember once where myself and a mate of mine were both promoted into new roles at a company, and a colleague said we shouldn’t have been hired in the first place, and that we wouldn’t ever match up to predecessor, but we did! There was evidence, our profits had risen, we had exceeded that person’s expectations on our own – countering imposter syndrome is about holding onto moments like that.”

You have to self-reflect and mentor the next generation

So, what does Bell suggest for combating imposter syndrome and ensuring it never happens again?

“Bringing someone else into the equation helps,” she says, “mentoring is a great way to start, it’s a two-way street, you’re helping the mentee but you’re also flexing your muscles about everything you’ve learned and worked hard for.”

“You need to invest in your brain,” adds Ebony Rainford-Brent.

“Having life coaching or even a business mentor can help, it’s about having someone who can bounce things back at you. We invest in commodities such as clothes, so why not our brains? Don’t assume you’ll be fine with getting over your insecurities by yourself, leaving them to fester is when imposter syndrome takes hold,” she adds.

Imposter syndrome affects women more, but men can be your allies

“You can ride on the coattails of people going ahead of you in business,” says Rainford-Brent.

“I’ve had men being my biggest advocates when I’ve had my doubts, they say, ‘what are you waiting for?’ Whoever you’re around in your life, professional, or personal, they have to be empowering.”

The importance of awards for diverse female entrepreneurs

So far in this conversation, it seems like Imposter Syndrome is quite a female issue in business. So what is the panel’s response to the question of whether awards that acknowledge the achievements of women in business are useful is dismantling Imposter Syndrome? Or do they encourage it and make women feel like token winners or box tickers?

“I respect the fact that awards can make businesswomen feel tokenised,” says Rainford-Brent.”But we’re so far behind men on the scene that we really need all the acknowledgments where we can get them, and especially if you’re a woman of colour where’s there’s even less amplification around acknowledging the achievements of our role models.”

“Take myself as an example,” adds Bell, “I won the 2014 Asian Women of Achievement Award, and yes that’s putting me in a category, but I’m such a small minority in my industry, I’m talking single digits,” she says.

“Being acknowledged for my achievements helps me compete in a more mainstream arena. We need these milestones and accolades, they’re important because they’ve never happened before for certain groups of women.”