Updated: Mar 26, 2019
If you’ve ever felt a dusting of imposter syndrome, or are looking for a confidence boost, read this. Gaining awareness into how talented you are, who values those talents, how much they value them, and being able to articulate this to others is one of the things that set me free. I hope you find it useful, too.
Recently, I went in for a fireside chat at Sailthru’s Women in Tech Forum (which is satisfyingly abbreviated to WTF… as if you needed any other sign that these women are brilliant!)
I was blown away by the group of women and their insightful questions. I walked out knowing that I had to share our experience more broadly, in some sort of a blog post or series, so here we are.
I’ve kicked off by selecting the two questions below, but am dying to know what matters to you. Let me know in the comments (or DM me) and I’ll write about them in the next post!
Question: In your LinkedIn you mention you help founders pinpoint their unique strengths. Is there one strength or quality you see women undercut the most or have trouble identifying in themselves?
A sense of endorsement. Let me explain.
A couple years ago, work moved me to London for a high urgency initiative. My first week on the ground, I was joined by a swat team from the US. Considered to be experts on the project, we just so happened to be 5 women (incidentally, 4 of us were also Asian.) In most meetings, we were joined by 3–10 partners who were all older white men. Sometimes they’d have a token woman on their side. These men had decades of experience on us. And we were on a new continent — their home turf. You can imagine the contrast in those rooms. It was easy to feel out of our depth.
There were two ways to see the situation:
We were hardly qualified to run these projects. We didn’t know the industry as well as they did, and we weren’t subject matter experts. We weren’t trained for this.
There was no one better equipped to do this job. We were the world’s foremost experts on our company’s strategy, product, and plan. We brought the background, skills, and experiences that landed us this role. This project had never been done before so all of us, on both sides, were new to it. What we didn’t know, we had the tools and resources to figure out.
This dualism played out in my head acutely. I was overseeing an enormous directive with international impact, yet my title hadn’t changed. I had never done anything like this before, yet I was the best person for the job. Was I just some accident who got lucky, or could I actually be one of the best business development executives in my industry? (By “best,” I’m referring to the fact that my employer was one of the most valuable companies in the world, and one of the best places to work for — they had their pick of hires.)
#1 and #2 are both 100% true. One deflated us and the other empowered us. Which one would we choose to believe?
When we tried on #2, it changed our entire attitude and approach. We started to see ourselves differently. Instead of some scrappy team of generalists, we realized we had been installed (and paid!) to be at the table. Our employer could have hired anyone to do our jobs. They could have easily hired the more experienced male counterparts who sat across from us. Many qualified candidates were interviewed for our roles. They chose us. You could even say they anointed us with the responsibility.
Stepping into a sense of endorsement was a game changer for our confidence, our sense of collaboration, and our ability to design the best outcome for both sides.
It cleared my personal puzzlement, too. It allowed me the best of both worlds. My humility encouraged me to listen and learn, while the realization that I had been chosen because of my skills and abilities gave me confidence. The responsibility I felt allowed me to get over myself and focus instead on how to best represent my company. I was inspired to utilize all of my experience and gifts in my role. Confusion was replaced with a strong sense of purpose and alignment. It was calming and thrilling at the same time.
I see it in women across the board, from individual contributors to executives, first time to serial entrepreneurs, fresh grads to seasoned professionals, single women to moms. A missing sense of endorsement. A dusting of imposter syndrome. For some reason, it’s not as easy for women to realize that they are the only human beings on the planet with the unique perspective, training, experiences, or constitution to be doing exactly what they’re doing. And that that, by itself, has value.
Yet isn’t that the truth? How did you get to where you are? Why are you the one leading your team or managing that client? What insight allowed you to see an opportunity others missed? What series of hard knock lessons has made you specially equipped to win? Wasn’t it that single calligraphy class Steve Jobs audited before dropping out of Reed College that led to his obsession with design on the iMac? You are the sum of your experiences, and that is your unique advantage.
It all comes down to what you choose to believe. What do you say aloud to yourself? Where will you spend your attention and direct your energy? Will it be:
“I don’t have the experience.”
“I’ve never started a company before.”
“I don’t know what I’m doing.”
“I have exactly the experience I need.”
“I will be more proactive in asking for help from the best people I know.”
“Not having done this before is an advantage — I’m not bound by old rules.”
What will you choose to believe, and how does that serve you?
Can you imagine if every woman owned her right to be seen and heard? If every woman realized the immense value of her unique perspective and experiences? I sometimes wonder if we “live in a man’s world” because they feel more comfortable asserting their viewpoints and opinions. They don’t question it. Why do we?
You are the only person on Earth that has experienced it the way you do. You have a unique vision of the world. And that uniqueness IS your differentiator. I hope you spend the time to figure out what it is, name it, and then claim your rightful stake on the world. Which of your innate talents are responsible for your success? What group/s of people could be served because you’ll use your voice to express their needs? Only you can give yourself the sense of endorsement you need.
Question: What mentors have you had in your life, and what characteristics do you think make a great mentor, especially for young female professionals?
I love all the advice out there about getting a mentor, but few women I know actually have a longstanding, regular one, myself included. Most mentor matching programs I’ve seen have trouble getting folks to meet regularly, no matter how high the interest. But I’ve had many, extremely powerful mentoring moments.
The best mentors, especially for young female professionals, see your highest potential.
In a final round interview with a startup, one of the investors looked across the table at me, and said, tears in his eyes, “I see CEO in you.” Before that moment, I had never been audacious enough to see myself as a CEO. I had never even realized that being a CEO is something I would enjoy. His words jolted me like a lightning bolt, because they had weight. They came from someone who was hugely successful, extremely well connected, and had assessed thousands of people. The fact that my talent stood out to him made the observation that much more impactful. He seared the possibility of CEO into my brain. I walked out of that meeting high as a kite. (I didn’t end up accepting the offer, and I haven’t spoken to this investor since, but the damage / benefit was done.)
Another mentoring moment occurred when I was gunning for a promotion. A very insightful woman who had a decade more experience than me invited me out to lunch. After some chit chat, she said point blank, “Amy, what are you doing in payments? You are far too creative to be working in payments.” (No offense to anyone working in payments. “Creative” was just the word she chose to push me; she knew it was what I needed to hear.) She knew, long before I did, that I was in the wrong place. In that single statement, she slapped me awake. She saw the artist in me, when I was too scared to admit it to myself. She showed me that the corporate ladder was not my dream, but a facade I had unconsciously succumbed to. She called me by my real name: a creative. And by seeing me as such, allowed me to see it, too. Would I have come to this realization on my own? How many months or years of toil did she save me?
Good mentors listen, offer advice and perspectives, and make connections. Great mentors know how to spot the truth of your talent. Because of their vast real world experience, great mentors see what’s special about you or your idea, and they help you see it too. They cut through the bs and point you to the door of highest potential.
If you have someone in your life that does this for you, spend time with them, even if it’s only once a year. Listen to them. They know the world and your industry in a way only experience can beget. Don’t ignore what they say.
Last, if you’re in a position to mentor others, and you see what’s special about them, tell them. Don’t wait. It’s a game changer.
Here are the rest of the questions I got that day. I’m inclined to answer the first one first, but let me know what matters most to you!
Looking back, what advice would you give your younger self?
How did you know it was time to make a major career change, and what signs would you recommend others look out for?
What would be your first piece of advice for women looking to eventually find their way into leadership?
What motivated you to become an inspirational speaker?
How do you think the idea of mindfulness is changing “work” — how we work, how we relate to work, how we build work culture, how we interact at work with our colleagues etc?
How have you found that working internationally has changed you / made you a better professional / better at your job?
Do you think you leverage your undergrad training in Psychology in your work / professional life?