Stepping into the top job can be exciting but also daunting, even when you are skilled and highly qualified. So, it should come as no surprise that many business leaders experience ‘imposter syndrome’ when they embark on their first senior executive role.
This phenomenon includes feeling overwhelmed in the face of new challenges and doubting your capability. Phil Smith, Chair of Innovate UK and a Criticaleye Board Mentor, compares how he felt when he represented Great Britain in the Triathlon World Championships to such a milestone in his exec career.
“I stood at the beginning of the triathlon thinking: ‘How the hell did I get here?’ It’s similar to when I took over Cisco in the UK and Ireland. I remember standing in front of all those people with their expectations, their fears and their aspirations, and I thought: ‘What do I really know about leading them?’” he says.
He suggests that this is particularly true when stepping into a CEO role, as all eyes are suddenly on you. It can leave you thinking: “I don’t really know how to run this organisation any better than I did yesterday, but I’m the CEO today.”
Recognise you’re there for a reason
So how can you overcome those feelings of doubt? According to Steven Cooper, CEO of C. Hoare and Co., you should start by remembering that you were chosen for the position above all the other candidates. “You’ve been put in that role for a reason – the Board will have done their due diligence, and, on the whole, everyone will want you to succeed,” he says.
Anne Stevens, Board Trustee of Reach South Academy Trust and another Criticaleye Board Mentor, agrees. “People don’t get high-achieving, highly-successful roles unless they have demonstrated their competence, but sometimes they forget that’s why they’re there. It’s good to reflect on this, rather than getting carried away with thinking: ‘Am I good enough?’”
She continues: “You’ve got to know who you are. Be really clear about your values, what you stand for and what you’ve got to offer; then you won’t feel like you’re pretending.”
Ahead of taking on his current role in January, Steven set himself up to succeed by speaking to lots of different stakeholders and building an understanding of the business. “I met former members of staff, management consultants, the external auditors, some competitors, and I met all the Board one-on-one, to hear their perspectives on what success would look like.”
Steven says you need to absorb that input, but then arrive ready to make your own judgments and challenge the status quo. “It’s important to start Day One with an open mind. If you come in with too many pre-conceived ideas, that’s not particularly helpful.
“Sometimes, a fresh perspective is useful. It makes teams think differently, because they’re being asked questions and challenged on things they may not have considered before,” he explains.
Be willing to learn
If you approach your new role as an opportunity to learn, rather than expecting to know everything as soon as you start, it will help you grow as a leader. Yetunde Hofmann, an NED at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development and a Criticaleye Board Mentor, says: “Arm yourself with four or five critical questions that you want to ask people. Make the most of your first few months and if you have a question, don’t label it as stupid. You don’t need to put any padding around it, just ask.”
Steven reflects on when he stepped up into his previous role, as CEO of Barclaycard Business Solutions, where initially he wasn’t as technically knowledgeable as a lot of people around him. He relished the opportunity to learn about a business which was “at the forefront of the technology and digital revolution”.
He says: “I remember spending a day with the tech team, drawing an enormous map to help me understand how the technology behind one of our services worked. It was fascinating for me, but it was also helpful for them, because they’d not really drawn out the architecture for a long time. As a result, we changed things.”
Richard Shoylekov, a Board Mentor at Criticaleye, suggests treating the early days in a new position as an opportunity to stretch yourself: “If you just do things in the same way as you have before, that’s not going to allow you to excel in your new, more senior role, because you’re going to need to bring different qualities to it,” he says.
He advocates experimenting by doing one or two things that you know you are already good at, but in a different way. “Think about experiences you have had in the past, whether in a work environment or otherwise, where despite feeling out of your comfort zone and unprepared, you’ve done a good job. What did you do that helped you succeed?” he says.
Draw on other resources
Despite preparing well and having the best of intentions, inevitably everyone in a new role will still suffer some periods of self-doubt. It is then that seeking external input can be valuable.
Tom Beedham, Director of Board Mentors and NEDs at Criticaleye, says: “Even seasoned CEOs benefit from drawing on the experience of others who have faced similar challenges. When it comes to testing their assumptions and strategic thinking, the Chair or another Non-executive Director may be helpful.
“However, top executives must balance seeking advice and support from their Board with the need to be a strong and inspiring leader. In such cases, an objective voice from outside the business – such as a mentor or a trusted CEO peer – can be more appropriate.”
In the end, being aware of where you need support can only be a positive. Anne says: “If you have imposter syndrome, you are probably spending all your time working out how to excel in every way.
“It means you’re not complacent and you’re not in your comfort zone, which can only be a good thing, because you’re still pushing yourself, challenging yourself and continuing to grow as a professional.”
Alice French, Editorial Assistant, Criticaleye
To hear more on the value that mentoring can bring – including further thoughts from some of the contributors to this article – click here.