“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” T.S. Elliot
I want to tell you my story. Not to impress you, but to give voice to my personal Impostor syndrome. I know what it was like for me to battle with it, what it cost me and what it felt like to finally resolve it. This doesn’t mean I know what it is like for you, but perhaps you’ll see something of yourself in these words.
In 2019 I was invited to give a talk to a roomful of Chartered Accountants in one of the hallowed colleges of Cambridge university.
After the talk, I walked back to my car and began tearing up. It took me a while to figure out why my emotions had shifted this way. The day was a symbolic waymarker of just how far I had come in resolving my sense of being the impostor.
I don’t know when my lack of confidence and belief started, but it is as far back as I can remember.
With the correct application of effort, I could have had the best educational start in life. I was bright, but I chose to play the classroom clown over applying myself to my studies. Small for my age, I avoided kickings from bullies through a sharp sense of humour and a keen eye for reading people. I was constantly comparing myself to others around me; how they looked, their sporting prowess, the house they lived in, the stuff they had… It was rarely a favourable comparison.
This affected my school experience, so I left education at the earliest opportunity and entered the world of work at Sixteen.
After two years of drifting through a series of dull clerical jobs, I found myself doing an utterly tedious manual accounting job in an NHS Authority. It was there that an internal job advert caught my eye.
I ignored it the first time the job appeared on the internal vacancy sheet. It was two grades above my current position, and it sounded complicated. However, I threw my hat in the ring when it came around again. No one had applied the first time.
To my complete shock and surprise, I was successful and bagged the job. My role was to be an Internal Auditor, reporting to a newly recruited Chief Internal Auditor, Ronald. We both had one thing in common. Neither of us had the faintest clue of what we were supposed to do.
Ronald thought he knew what was involved (a classic case of Dunning Kruger syndrome if ever I saw one). He had an odd personality, which earned him a reputation as a bumbling fool with people in the authority. I realised that there was more to this role than I had thought and that to avoid my reputation being dragged down with dear old Ronald, I needed to get myself up to speed quickly.
This was the mid-1980s. The internet was not available to help me. So instead, I reached out to other Authorities’ Internal Audit departments and pieced together the what and how of being an Auditor. I also discovered that there were Internal Audit professional standards and qualifications. I had inadvertently stumbled into a profession!
After a year, I started studying for the qualification and moved to a Trainee Audit Manager role at Selfridges. Now I was working with people who knew what they were talking about. I began to identify what looked like model behaviours and ways of being and modelled myself on them. This pattern of mimicry would be a characteristic of my career.
I outgrew Selfridges and moved to work at Tesco in their Corporate Audit team, where I spent six years (and finally finished my exams). The team consisted almost entirely of accountants (or people studying to be one). There was no doubt that my qualification was viewed by others as inferior.
There was also a sense in Tesco that Internal Audit was where all the failed accountants ended up. So the younger team members were desperate to get out of Audit into a line finance role. I applied for several non Audit / Finance jobs, and though I showed a good understanding of the company, I was always told that I lacked commercial experience (whatever the hell that was).
My behaviour became increasingly combative (albeit delivered with good humour). I wasn’t afraid to challenge the status quo or argue my point; not the behaviour you would expect of someone lacking confidence, but in fact, it was a suit of armour I wore because I felt like the dumbest person in the team.
Towards the end of my time at Tesco, I became involved in work at the cutting edge of the Audit profession. Several high-profile corporate failures highlighted failings at the Board level and within the Accountancy profession. This led to calls for improvements in corporate governance.
This turned out to be pivotal to my career. My new skill set got me invited to talk at several high-profile risk management conferences. I was headhunted twice within a few years, accelerating my career. I became a Senior Manager in the consultancy practice of a big five accountancy firm.
This saw me surrounded by ambitious, driven and a few very clever people, which accelerated my sense of being an impostor. However, I didn’t settle with the cut-throat culture of the practice, and I left within a few years. Still, my career outside continued to thrive, and I was offered increasingly exciting opportunities and promotions.
The pinnacle of my Corporate career came when the VP of Finance at Orange promoted me to the Senior Finance Leadership team as Director of Financial Operations. I was responsible for six hundred and fifty people, eleven direct reports and fourteen complex financial processes transacting billions of pounds. It should have been a moment of immense pride, and it was something the sixteen-year-old school leaver couldn’t have imagined in their wildest dreams. Others were clearly seeing something in me that I couldn’t see. It felt like a combination of luck and maybe the naivety of others serving my career well.
I had thought that the higher I climbed the ladder, the more I would believe in myself. But, in reality, my self-confidence continued to plummet. I was convinced that others were cleverer than me and that I would be outed as a fraud.
This wasn’t always helped by my immediate line managers. For example, the VP of Finance told me in my appraisals that he had a nagging doubt about my intellectual ability because I didn’t have a degree or a proper accounting qualification. From time to time, he would forensically drill into the detail of one tiny aspect of the massive operation I was running. It felt like he was trying to expose my feelings (although a rational outsider would not have seen it like that).
No one would have guessed this was going on and when years later, I asked previous people that worked for me to describe my style, the idea of a lack of self-confidence didn’t figure. I hid it well behind a suit of armour made of combative, humourous and loud leadership. My Direct reports enjoyed working with me, and my combative but humorous style worked well. I was not particularly good at building relationships with my peers and was somewhat adversarial, but I still managed to achieve a lot in the role.
My lack of self-belief and confidence made me increasingly anxious, and inevitably I experienced some physical stress-related symptoms. I would suffer stomach cramp attacks, sleepless nights and regular headaches. I put this down to the environment I was working in rather than myself and decided to leave after I was headhunted by British Gas. To my surprise, the VP was devastated when I told him I was going.
After the honeymoon period at British Gas, the same feelings and thinking began to pollute my experience again. A few years in, things came to a head in a strange way. One day I was looking out of the window towards the middle of a large lake behind our offices. A large Pike was basking in the sunshine below the lake’s surface. As I stared at it, a thought entered my head; ‘If you are still working here in a year, they’ll take you out in an ambulance.’
This wasn’t one of those thoughts that would wash over me. Instead, it had a sense of truth and clarity that just couldn’t be ignored.
Six months later, I engineered my way out and left the corporate world. I had no idea what to do next, so I took a few months off. You’d think this would be a fantastic opportunity to step back and take some time out. It was anything but. My lack of self-value made it miserable as every day, I worried about not being able to get another job.
Instead of thinking about what I wanted, I panicked and spent an eye-watering sum buying a business coaching franchise. I felt that the training would finally resolve my lack of self-belief in myself and give me the knowledge and tools to pursue a new life.
I headed to Las Vegas for the eleven-day training, full of enthusiasm and excitement for this new start. However, within a few days, I realised something was wrong. I already knew everything I was being taught, most of which was weapons-grade guff. I could see that, whilst well-intentioned, the content I had parted with my money for was wafer thin. By the end of the training, I was not feeling happy or confident in the investment I had made. However, we were where we were, and I could at least see how I could be helpful to the type of client I wanted to work with.
Actually, persuading business owners to speak with me, let alone part with money, soon had my impostor syndrome rearing its ugly head again. Who was I to advise these intelligent, clever, and very successful entrepreneurs to whom I was pitching my services? I did build up a good client base, but I was clearly never going to have the success I experienced in the corporate world.
My well-being continued to decline, and in the desperate search for answers, I ended up attending a weekend program with an experienced and successful coach, who would go on to help me finally deal with the real problem. We did an exercise that completely blew my thinking open.
I won’t go into too much detail here, but, in essence, it was a new way of looking at my career and the skills, experience and knowledge I had amassed. The result was an instant and profound transformation in how I saw myself.
Just weeks later, I negotiated an expensive exit from the franchise. Since then, I have been working with my own frameworks and ideas, drawing from my own experiences, those of my clients and valuable ideas I find along the way.
I no longer doubt myself or my ability to affect change in the people I work with and their companies.
It’s not that everything has come good since then. The challenges of running a business remain, and the business world is still complex and uncertain. I haven’t become a famous Tony Robbins-like multi-millionaire coach. What is true is that I have no doubts about my capacity to help anyone, no doubts about the value of my skills/experiences and no lack of confidence or belief in myself.
I learned to love and respect myself for what I know and don’t know, embracing my strengths and weaknesses. As a result, I can show up as the best, most authentic version of myself. This has made my working and personal life much more enjoyable and rewarding.
It’s also become the intention I hold for every individual I work with and the most fundamental guiding principle in my coaching.
If you feel somewhat isolated in your thinking about yourself and potential Imposter Syndrome, why not get in touch to have a chat? I have helped a wide range of Managers and Business Owners change their thinking, change their outlook, and change their performance.