It’s Time to Kick Imposter Syndrome Out of the Boardroom
November 7, 2023
“The Prime Minister will see you now.”
There I was, a 20-something-year-old imposter, sweating it out in the waiting room of a Caribbean Prime Minister’s office, palms soaked and knees rattling. I should have been so proud and stoked to be there, to share my ideas and negotiate with a world leader, but instead all I could think was “What am I doing here? I don’t belong here!”
The PM’s assistant patiently waited for me while I readied myself and smoothed my skirt, trying to muster enough bravado to go in and meet my fate. I actually expected that at any moment a guy with a clipboard would jump out in front of me to check off my credentials one-by-one and validate my expertise, but of course, he didn’t appear. Instead, a warm face greeted me, eager to get the discussion underway.
That’s when it dawned on me. My boss had faith that I could do this. I know my stuff. I earned the right to be here. “Don’t freeze, Ivy!” I told myself. “Move forward and shake the guy’s hand!”
And there it was. I wasn’t an imposter; I just had a momentary bout of imposter syndrome.
As an advisor to boards, I have met a thousand directors and I still get surprised by the people who confidentially express to me that they feel a sense of intimidation when approaching the boardroom table. How is this possible when they’re accomplished executives, subject-matter experts, entrepreneurs, and business leaders? These people have earned their seats on their boards, typically through disciplined, strategic board recruitment and appointment processes.
Two words: imposter syndrome.
You’ve likely heard of imposter syndrome before, but you might be surprised to learn that it impacts people at the highest levels of leadership. And because imposter syndrome disproportionately affects people with marginalized identities—women, racialized people, LGBTQ+ people, and people with disabilities, to name a few—it is actively in conflict with the modern push for board diversity.
What is imposter syndrome?
Imposter syndrome is the persistent inability to believe that one's success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one's own efforts or skills. It is a feeling of persistent self-doubt in high-achieving people, despite their objective success. People with imposter syndrome often have the perception that they haven’t earned their achievements and that they are an imposter in their position. This misperception causes them to struggle with accurately attributing their performance versus actual competence.
People with imposter syndrome may live in fear that they will be “found out” as a fake. They also often attribute their achievements to luck or circumstance rather than claiming them. Although imposter syndrome is not an official psychological diagnosis, it is nevertheless endemic among groups that are underrepresented in the boardroom. It was first documented in women in the 1970s, and has since been applied to other marginalized groups in high-powered positions.
How is imposter syndrome impacting the push for greater board diversity?
Traditionally, board membership was made up of “Vanilla Suits,” directors who we typically saw in movies and photos, sitting around the boardroom table smoking cigars and drinking scotch. We do not typically envision marginalized people or think about who we don’t see. It’s not easy to picture yourself on a board, or feel that you deserve to be there, when you don’t see board members who look like you. People from marginalized identities may feel they aren’t qualified for a position because they have no examples of what it might look like for someone like them to reach that level of success.
Imposter syndrome prevents great people from pursuing board positions. If a qualified candidate doesn’t believe they deserve a spot on a board, they won’t put their name forward. Moreover, sometimes the recruitment process has not deepened the pool for diverse candidates and/or the orientation process has not adequately prepared new directors to be confident in their roles.
Think about it. How many women CEOs of TSX-listed companies can you name? Now how many openly LGBTQ+ CEOs? Black committee chairs? South Asian board chairs? Tough, right? Now imagine how that knowledge might impact someone from those identities. The research tells us that more diverse boards create stronger companies and better business outcomes. But we won’t see true board diversity until we also address imposter syndrome in the boardroom.
What can you do to combat your own imposter syndrome?
First off, identify what you are feeling, learn about it, and validate those feelings. It’s okay to sometimes have doubts—we all do—but that doesn’t mean you don’t belong or cannot move forward. Even one of my heroes, Michelle Obama, once said “I still have a little [bit of] impostor syndrome, it never goes away, that you're actually listening to me.”
Overcoming imposter syndrome as a board member or candidate can feel overwhelming. As a woman or a racialized person, you might be operating in an environment that traditionally didn’t look like you—and it’s intimidating and even ostracizing sometimes. However, if you recognize the signs of it, there are a few things you can do to mitigate the negative affects and embrace your accomplishments as your own. And that’s the first step to feeling like you belong in the boardroom.
Identify your feelings
You can’t fight the issue until you acknowledge it. Pay attention to your self-talk and notice when it’s negative. Notice when and why the feelings emerge. Then think to yourself, is that really true?
Learn about it and recognize its various forms
Now that you’ve identified your feelings, recognize their unique focus. According to Dr. Valerie Young, internationally recognized expert on impostor syndrome and co-founder of Impostor Syndrome Institute, imposter syndrome can be separated into five types:
- The Perfectionist: Has extremely high expectations for themselves.
“I have achieved 99% of my goal and I still feel like a failure.”
Remedy: Accept your mistakes or see them as an inevitable part of larger success.
- The Natural Genius: Believes that if they have to struggle to learn something, it’s proof they’re not
“I restrict myself to skills that only come easily.”
Remedy: Think of yourself as a “work in progress” and challenge yourself to practise the kind of skills you
don’t master immediately, rather than labelling them as something you simply “can’t” do.
- The Rugged Individualist/Soloist: Believes they need to accomplish everything on their own.
“I never ask for help because I equate it to weakness.”
Remedy: Speak to someone or look up to someone who inspires you and learn what contributions led to their success. You may be surprised to hear they had help along the way.
- The Expert: Needs to know every single piece of information before doing something or else they feel incompetent.
“I’m afraid to ask questions and look stupid.”
Remedy: Move away from “hoarding” knowledge and recognize that you’re capable of improvising and learning knowledge as you go.
- The Superhero: Pushes themselves to work harder than everybody else to prove they aren’t an imposter.
“I must excel at everything in life!”
Remedy: Resist external validation as the measure for your self-worth and draw healthy boundaries.
Fun fact: Even after 25 years of governance experience and CEO of a successful consulting firm, I sometimes identify with type 1 and type 5. Does that out me as a fraud to my entire network of peers, academics, clients, or anyone else reading this? Nope! It makes me human, provides me with the information I need to identify what’s what, and helps me identify remedy tools to move forward.
Talk to someone
Expressing that you’re struggling with imposter syndrome can be so freeing, especially when you’re talking to someone else who has experienced something similar. Seek out a trusted fellow mentor or friend with whom you can talk about it. Please also leverage the board’s governance professional and discuss ways they can help you such as providing more orientation, director development, or even planning more relationship-building opportunities with your fellow directors.
Reframe and reprogram
Once you’ve learned to recognize your feelings of imposter syndrome, make a point to correct them as they pop up. Remind yourself of all the reasons you have earned your success and assure yourself that you deserve it.
Be forgiving (of yourself)
People with imposter syndrome are undeservingly hard on themselves and even small mistakes can reignite self-doubt. You’re human first and a director second. Mistakes are normal and in no way discount your success.
Be confident and celebrate success
You got this! Give yourself some credit for getting there. You were appointed to the board for a reason— your expertise and unique perspective. If you don’t pipe up at meetings to ask questions and provide your ideas or guidance, then you are not only doing a disservice to yourself, but you are also not fulfilling your role on that board. As long as you are giving everything you have, then that is something to be proud of.
And to those that are shying away from applying to a board, don’t doubt yourself. Just hit send on that application. Note: If you were not selected for a role you really wanted, don’t automatically chalk it up to an unsubstantiated assertion that you were not good enough. Most boards have a strategic recruitment process and are looking to fill a very specific skills gap.
Eschew societal (ab)norms
Let’s face it: society pressures us to aspire to unreachable ideals—to buy into hustle culture, hone a perfect social media profile, and be successful at everything. It’s simply unrealistic, and you shouldn’t link those ideals to your self-worth. Self-worth is how you value yourself. It should not be based on external factors, the unsubstantiated opinions of others, or the things you have (or haven't) accomplished. It comes from within.
What can companies do to prevent imposter syndrome?
It’s not up to people experiencing imposter syndrome to deal with it on their own. Companies can support current and prospective board members by taking their own steps to improve board diversity and build confidence in their board members.
Actively seek out diversity
If you only seek out board candidates from within your existing board’s networks, your board will continue to look the same. To find candidates with diverse backgrounds, knowledge, and experience, you must reach out beyond your current circles. Member-based organizations such as the Board Diversity Network and Women Get On Board can help with this, as can a good executive search firm and of course, an open, welcoming perspective.
Set measurable goals for diversity on your board, including targeted actions with ownership and an end-date when you expect to reach them. A board skills matrix is an excellent tool to help identify what experience currently exists on your board and what is needed, especially considering any strategic priorities your company might be undertaking. For example, if your company is undertaking a material change management initiative that requires considerable IT, you should ensure that there is someone on the board with these skills. You can also communicate your board diversity strategy with your stakeholders, as they will often provide you with savvy insights.
Leverage board roles
In an era of modern governance, the board’s governance professional plays a critical role in supporting the board, as well as its individual directors. Empower your GPs to facilitate board education, director orientation and let them leverage tools such as diversity skills matrices, evaluations, and relationship-building events. The chair should also play a key role in ensuring that all voices are welcomed and included at the table. If someone is new to the board, the chair should actively nurture the relationship to welcome them, build trust, bring them into the fold, and enable their equal voice at the table. Of course, I would be remiss not to mention leveraging independent third-party expertise which can help in a myriad of ways, such as bespoke onboarding programs and confidential board evaluations.
It doesn’t help that we still have plenty of work to do to make boardrooms feel more inclusive. Boards need to understand that it’s not enough to improve diversity in the boardroom. Steps must be taken to ensure that marginalized voices are heard, and they have decision-making power in those rooms. Once you’ve improved your board diversity, don’t stop there. Take steps to ensure that the voices of your new members are heard, amplified, and incorporated into decision-making. You can also help members combat imposter syndrome by connecting them with mentors and resources.
Some boards carry old, stodgy values—including biases against women, racialized people, and other marginalized groups. The best way to deal with existing bias is to acknowledge it and address it. This can take a variety of forms, but you can actively educate your board to target this issue.
Ask board members from marginalized groups about their experiences, and really listen. Then, ensure that you meaningfully address their feedback. No one knows what you need to do to address imposter syndrome better than the people experiencing it.
As we push towards a future with more diversity around the boardroom table, everyone must think about how addressing imposter syndrome can help. When underrepresented people feel confident to claim their achievements and know beyond a doubt that they’ve earned their roles, that’s when we’ll be on the path towards better boards and stronger, more equitable companies. Moreover, it is essential that we focus on the future and enable sustainable governance. This will only happen with diversity of thought and perspective. Once boards empower all kinds of directors, they will be enable effective decision making and oversight, continuously over time, for the benefit of the organization as well as the needs of its stakeholders. It is in this way that we will be able to hold each other accountable, formalize inclusive direction for the greater good, and kick imposter syndrome out of the boardroom.