Kick Impostor Syndrome to the Curb with these Calibrated Questions

Imposter Syndrome, Impostor Syndrome, Self-Awareness

Imposter Syndrome, Impostor Syndrome, Self-Awareness

By Starla

July 21, 2022

 Minute Read

The Founder of a biotech startup decided it was time to add a Chief Scientific Officer (CSO) to his leadership team. After sharing this decision with his Director of Science, Amy, she began thinking about which of her peers and mentors would be perfect for the role. (Yep. You read that correctly. She didn't even consider herself.)

A little later, the Founder revealed that he believed Amy was the right person for the role and could easily grow into it. With the help of an Executive Coach, any existing gap areas in knowledge, experience, and expertise could easily be addressed. The CEO, Board of Directors, and Private Equity Firm all agreed, and after much consideration, Amy accepted the role.

Fast Forward A Few Months

During a recent coaching session with Amy, the following conversation ensued after she mentioned struggling with Impostor Syndrome.

Starla:

"This is your first time serving in a CSO role, isn't it? And some of the work is new to you. You've never done it before, correct?"

Amy:

"Yes, that's correct."

Starla:

"Okay. Then in some respects, you are like an impostor because you agreed to do something you've haven't done before, but I'm pretty sure that's about as close as it gets. When accepting the role, did you deceive the company in any way by misrepresenting your skill set, experience, or what you are capable of doing?"

Amy:

"No."

Starla:

"Did they hire you under the impression that you had been a CSO before?"

Amy:

"No."

Starla:

"Then you're not a true impostor because impostors pretend to be someone they're not and do it with clear intentions to deceive. So, technically, you are NOT an impostor, but for some reason, you still feel that way, so what's happening in your environment that makes you feel like an impostor?"

Amy:

Amy explained that she loses confidence when involved in conversations where she knows very little about the topic being discussed. Typically, they are conversations about the business side of the business.


Aha! Now we're getting somewhere! Amy is likely struggling with a type of Impostor Syndrome called THE EXPERT, as identified by Dr. Valerie Young. You can read about the Five Types of Imposter Syndrome here.


To help her work through this (and kick her Impostor Syndrome to the curb), here are the questions I asked:

Starla:

"Now that you are in this CSO role, is it your expectation that you should know everything and have all the answers no matter the topic?"

Amy:

Her answer, of course, was no. It's an unrealistic expectation for even the seasoned CSO.

Starla:

"Does the company expect you to know everything and to have all the answers? And is that the primary reason they hired you? If your answer is yes, share all the evidence that supports that – what you are seeing, hearing, and experiencing in your work environment that proves this expectation is real."

Amy:

Again, her answer was no.

Starla:

"Okay, if that's not the reason, then why did they hire you for this role? What do you bring to the table that justifies (in their minds) why you are in the CSO role?"

We discussed this at length and landed on her:

  • excellent critical thinking and problem-solving skills
  • track record of learning, growing, and figuring things out
  • empathetic leadership approach
  • unique ability to 'talk science' with clients and people at all levels

Starla:

"After having had this conversation, should we conclude that your confidence waivers unnecessarily due to an unrealistic expectation that ONLY YOU have and isn't serving you well in any form or fashion?"

Amy:

Of course, her answer was yes, so I moved on to my final question.

Starla:

"When your confidence begins to waiver due to a lack of experience, knowledge, or understanding, what would be a better, more productive way to channel your energy. Where should your focus be in those moments?"

We discussed this at length and landed on the following:

  • Acknowledge that an unrealistic expectation has crept back in, and it isn't going to serve her well. 
  • Then Redirect Her Focus onto what she does best – combining her intellectual curiosity and thirst for learning with her critical thinking and problem-solving skills to deepen her knowledge and understanding of the topic at-hand.

If she does this every time it begins to happen, her internal need to be the expert will dissipate, and over time, will be replaced with a healthier habit of defaulting to intellectual curiosity to deal with a lack a knowledge or experience.

NOTE: Names and identifying details are changed to protect the privacy of my clients.

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