3 ways to defeat imposter syndrome — and build executive presence

By Oliver Rowe

Many workers — including accountants — at times doubt their abilities. Even after years of training, people can “feel like a fraud” in the workplace.

These are the characteristics of what has been termed “imposter syndrome” or “imposter phenomenon” — the term first used in 1978 by Atlanta-based psychologists Pauline Rose Clance, Ph.D., and Suzanne Imes, Ph.D.

Clance and Imes originally described this internal experience of intellectual fraud as being particularly prevalent and strong among high-achieving women. Today it is recognized as affecting a much broader group of workers.

For Matt Rampe, principal at Rampe Consulting in the United States, while imposter syndrome is not a medical condition, it is very real and affects an estimated 70% of people at some point in their lives.

Rampe, who is speaking on how the syndrome can be overcome at the AICPA & CIMA ENGAGE 2021 conference, said: “Some of the characteristics of imposter syndrome could include self-doubt, inability to realistically assess your competence and skills, attributing your success to external factors, overachieving, or sabotaging your own success.”

Accountants and finance professionals, he suggested, “are very primed for this because often [they’re] very data driven … very analytical, perfectionistic.”

He added: “As part of the job function, you're trained to always have an answer and to always be right. And I think that sets up a great equation for feeling insecure.”

Addressing the problem

Rampe suggests three ways to counter the syndrome:

Focus on your strengths. Often a person’s strengths are invisible to themselves. To “surface” strengths, Rampe recommends using a Gallup strength finder, coaching sessions, or 360 feedback from colleagues or people who know you well. This process takes you out of a place of doubt and into a place of confidence and competence.

Adopt a questioning leadership style. Often imposter syndrome can be triggered by taking on a large project or being promoted — people feel they need to have all the answers on day one. Instead, lead by asking questions, Rampe suggested. “Often you’ll see CEOs do this in the first 90 days. They’ll go and they’ll talk to stakeholders. They’ll talk to customers. They’ll talk to peers. They’ll talk to all kinds of people and get information and say, ‘What’s important for me to know? What’s important to you? What do you think some of the challenges are? What am I missing?’” This not only educates the leader but also takes the pressure off.

Make specific plans. “Imposter syndrome is similar to anxiety … where you’re worrying about a potential future or a negative future,” Rampe said. His advice to “tame it” is to make very specific plans, to ask yourself, “What am I worried is going to happen or what are the areas I know I need to do well in?” Then make a list of everything you’re concerned about and make concrete plans to address those things.

Writing a plan allows you to identify where your gaps are — either in your own skills, or a problem with the team or project you’ve taken over. “If there are realistic gaps in your abilities, you’ve brought it down to [something that’s] manageable and something that's under your control,” Rampe said. If the gaps are only perceived and not real, the plan will reassure you of that, he added.

Executive presence

Putting in place steps to counter imposter syndrome then allows you to go on to build “executive presence,” Rampe said. “This is an ability to inspire confidence in your subordinates, in your peers, in your senior leaders, and I would say in yourself, too,” he explained.

Despite its name, executive presence is for finance professionals at all levels of an organization — anybody who needs confidence and poise in their work.

Think tank and advisory group Coqual found in its survey of 4,000 college graduate professionals in large corporations that executive presence “accounts for 26% of what it takes to get the next promotion.” According to Coqual’s 2013 research, “[Executive presence] depends on getting three things right: appearance, communication, and gravitas — itself a set of behaviors.

Rampe said that executive presence not only can aid promotion, corporate advancement, and getting paid more, it also makes people feel better. “Executive presence, in a lot of ways, is being comfortable with who you are, and feeling good in your own skin, and that calm and confidence translates to everybody else in the room,” he explained.

Author and leadership expert Olivia Fox Cabane in her book, The Charisma Myth: How Anyone Can Master the Art and Science of Personal Magnetism, sets out three elements that define charisma or executive presence: power, presence, and warmth.

Rampe said there are several cues people look for to make a judgment about a person’s power. He explained: “Some of them are clothing, and a lot of it is nonverbal, so body language is a big part here.”

In a non-COVID-19 environment, “presence” means “closing your laptop in a meeting, turning your cellphone off, putting distractions away, and being truly present with the person, or people, or task that you're working on,” he said.

Warmth — like power and presence — can be developed. Rampe said: “[By mindfulness and meditation] you can practice extending kindness or extending warmth to other people … it’s like a muscle that you can build in advance so that when you go in to difficult situations, you’ve got more of that capacity.”

Oliver Rowe (Oliver.Rowe@aicpa-cima.com) is a JofA senior editor.

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