Agency Leadership and the Danger of Impostor Syndrome

imposter syndrome

Tell me if this sounds familiar: as you’ve grown more successful, you’ve experienced more self-doubt. You wonder if you’re making the right decisions and if you can continue to lead your agency to the next level. Maybe you’ve questioned the rates you’re charging, afraid the cost doesn’t match the value you offer. You wonder if your clients like you, what they think of you, and whether others could be right about you in some way you’re not even considering.

Many agency leaders and other professionals in the creative, media and technology spaces start to question their own success, as if maybe they’ve been fooling everyone the whole time.

Impostor Syndrome and Its Deeper Implications

Impostor syndrome is the feeling of being a fraud: you don’t belong in your industry, and your success is due to luck rather than your ability—luck that could run out at any moment. It’s not just you. About 70 percent of people will experience that feeling at some point in their lives.

Where does this come from? Why do fully capable, intelligent, talented people feel worthless?

Specific personality traits, the pressure to achieve, being compared to others, or feeling different from your peers in some way (different race, different gender, or perhaps all your colleagues went to Harvard and you went to community college) can all lead to impostor syndrome. For many of us, this starts in childhood, when our parents may have over-praised us, over-criticized us, or both.

When the impostor phenomenon was first discussed in the 1970s, it was believed to affect only women. Though research has since indicated that both men and women can experience impostor syndrome, women face other unique challenges in the working world that could contribute.

A few years ago, after more than a decade of running my agency, I was interviewed for a Forbes piece about women entrepreneurs. The article talks about how women often feel the need to be liked and helpful at work, and how certain professional behaviors or expectations that would seem very business-as-usual in men can be perceived as aggressive or inappropriate in women. I also noted my own tendency to write long emails as a part of my “…need to prove something, over-explain, give more back story than [was] needed.” Trying to fit your unique strengths into a setting that, perhaps, doesn’t recognize them or misconstrues them can make you feel like a fraud.

The Issue with Impostor Syndrome

The big problem is that impostor syndrome can get in the way of how we do business and ultimately stunt our growth. If you’re constantly lowering your prices or cutting deals for clients who complain you’re too expensive, or if you’re avoiding a growth step, like a bigger office, because you feel like the gig’s almost up, you’ll never reach your potential as a leader.

Your employees and customers will sense it, too. They might not be able to call it for what it is, but they will pick up on indecision and self-doubt, which could make it harder for them to trust you. You’ll start straining to earn their trust, which will contribute to the feelings of falseness—a vicious cycle that won’t take you where you want to go.

How to Rise Above It

Robina Bennion, a fellow coach who focuses on relationship to self, soul, and money, says, “Worthy is the new wealthy.” Trusting your own talent and ability is essential for truly effective leadership.

Consider these tips and strategies for identifying impostor syndrome within yourself and shutting it down before it hurts your agency:

Recognize Your Expertise: Take stock of what you do well and remind yourself of how hard you’ve studying, what you’ve learned, and the conscious decisions you’ve made that have led you to where you are today.
Change Your Mindset: Stay positive, stay open to learning, and monitor your thoughts. When you hear yourself downplay your success to chalk something up to luck, stop and reframe it. Remember the work you put in and the connections you made that brought about the successful outcome.
Be Willing to Be VulnerableEffective leaders embrace vulnerability. Let a colleague see a project while it’s still in development or listen to your speech before it’s polished. Accept that no one is perfect, but you don’t have to be perfect or know everything in order to own your success.
Talk to Someone: This might be a therapist, a mentor, or a coach—someone who can help you see your triumphs for what they are: actual triumphs, created by you. This is one of many things we can work on in your Agency Transformation Coaching sessions.

You got where you are because of your dedication, hard work, and unique talents—and don’t forget that. If the doubt starts creeping in, as it does for many of us at various times, reach out. I can help you get you and your agency back on track.

Author: Kelly Campbell
Kelly Campbell is an Agency Leader Transformation Coach based in New York. The former owner of a cause marketing agency for 14 years, she helps creative leaders transform their businesses and their lives—focusing on the 5 P's: purpose, people, positioning, pipeline and profitability. She speaks at agency growth conferences across the country, has been featured in The New York Times, Woman Entrepreneur and Forbes, gets vulnerable on Medium, and is currently authoring her first book on the awakening process that creative leaders experience in their pursuit of purpose. She is the host of THRIVE: Your Agency Resource, a bi-weekly video podcast sponsored by Workamajig that helps agency owners navigate personal and professional growth.

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