Take action. When you procrastinate you perpetuate the idea that you’re not good enough. When you put one foot in front of the other, you make progress, and it helps you shrink your inner imposter.
As a part of our series about how very accomplished leaders were able to succeed despite experiencing Imposter Syndrome, I had the pleasure of interviewing Alisa Cohn.
Alisa Cohn is an Executive Coach who has worked with C-suite executives at prominent startups (such as Venmo, Etsy, Draft Kings,) and Fortune 500 companies (including Dell, Microsoft, Google, Pfizer, and The New York Times.) She is the author of From Start-up to Grown-Up. She was named the Top Startup Coach in the World at the Thinkers50/Marshall Goldsmith Global Coaches Awards and the #1 Global Guru for Startups. Her articles have appeared in HBR, Forbes, and Inc, and she’s been featured as an expert on BBC World News and in the NY Times and WSJ.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’?
Thank you for inviting me! Early in my career I was in the non-profit world and got extremely interested in what motivates people to work in alignment with their organizations or, sadly, not. I went to business school to explore that, but eventually studied Finance, Accounting, and Strategy. I went to a Big Four Professional Services Firm in their accelerated program; I was on the fast track to partner. One morning, after about 2 years, I woke up and thought: “I hope I get the flu, so I don’t have to go to work tomorrow.” Eighteen hours later, I got rushed to the emergency room with the flu. So, I realized the hard way this was not my path. I had to find out what to do next. Then, I met a coach at a conference, and thought “This is it! This is what I want to do!” Although I thought I was too young to be a coach, I took a job as the CFO of a start-up, attended coach training, and started to coach people as a sideline. Then, after a few years, I made the leap to become a coach.
Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take away’s” you learned from that?
Many interesting stories! I coached the CEO of a media company throughout COVID-19. Covid was an existential threat to his events business. We worked together to help him calm his employees and re-forecast the business plan. He and his team created two new business lines and over delivered on the bottom line. My takeaway was that if you can keep even keeled and allow yourself to be creative, constraints and even crises can lead to opportunities. The key is to have the mindset to see them.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
First, I’m very direct — which most of my clients appreciate — and I’m down-to-earth, which helps me deliver tough feedback. Few people will tell the CEOs I work with the truth, so they value my insight. In addition, having seen many dynamics and situations, I am very intuitive; I can pattern match and see around corners. For example, often one of my clients will tell me they are concerned one of his employees plans to quit. I have a perfect track record predicting who actually will and won’t quit. Also, when I coach, my strong business orientation makes me stand out.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
When I was a new coach, I contacted the legendary executive coach, Marshall Goldsmith. He invited me on a long walk. Then, we worked on a project, and we continued doing so, shoulder to shoulder, for several years. Marshall’s been a mentor and friend for over a decade. I am grateful he also named me as one of the first 25 coaches in his 100 coaches project, a global gathering of the top executive coaches in the world. He has done so much for me personally and professionally.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the experience of Impostor Syndrome. How would you define Impostor Syndrome? What do people with Imposter Syndrome feel?
I discuss Imposter Syndrome a lot in my book From Start-up to Grown-up. It’s the experience that people are going to find out that you’re a fraud; that you’ve been lucky so far in your career but finally your luck has run out. People with Imposter Syndrome feel a lot of shame, anxiety, and an overarching sense of dread and doom.
What are the downsides of Impostor Syndrome? How can it limit people?
Imposter Syndrome is simply draining — holding all that shame and dread inside of you is tough. It also gets in the way of you executing what you need.
There’s a story I tell in my book From Start-up to Grown-up which illustrates this point. A start-up CEO I worked with had no issues raising money, but he did run into a lot of trouble choosing top executives to come and work for the company. When we unpacked it together, I realized that his Imposter Syndrome about the company was getting in his way. He kept thinking that he and his company would be found out and fail, and he didn’t want to pull people away from their safe jobs. Once we resolved that, he was able to recruit top talent and the company thrived.
How can the experience of Impostor Syndrome impact how one treats others?
It takes a lot of energy to try to not get found out if you feel like an imposter. It is a strain to deal with all your own self-doubt. Surprisingly, many people often treat others harshly when they struggle with their own imposter syndrome. The criticism in their heads becomes criticism of others.
We would love to hear your story about your experience with Impostor Syndrome. Would you be able to share that with us?
All successful people have had imposter syndrome as they’ve leveled up, and I am no exception. A few years ago, I worked with the first female minister in Afghanistan. Initially, I was very intimidated — what did I have to teach her? I recognized my own imposter syndrome coming up. I reassured myself of my own capabilities while getting curious about her. By being open and present, I saw how I could help. We had a successful coaching relationship.
Did you ever shake the feeling off? If yes, what have you done to mitigate it or eliminate it?
Yes, I reassured myself of my own capabilities as well as getting curious about her. In doing so I saw how I could help, but it took overcoming my own imposter syndrome.
In your opinion, what are 5 steps that someone who is experiencing Impostor Syndrome can take to move forward despite feeling like an “Impostor”? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Be aware that you’re experiencing Imposter Syndrome. One of my clients is a partner in a VC firm. He didn’t realize that he was not speaking up in meetings because he was busy second guessing himself. We surfaced his imposter syndrome, and it helped him see what kept him from contributing.
- Create what I call a “highlight reel.” Write down 5 to 6 specific accomplishments that made you proud. Then, read that list every morning to remind yourself of your own capabilities.
- Break things down. When you approach new things break them down in small steps. For example, if you’re supposed to create a strategy for your business and you’ve never done it before, start with just outlining what you want to say.
- Find your “A-Team.” When you’re feeling your imposter syndrome comes up, it helps to talk to a friend or colleague who can see you more clearly and remind you of all your capabilities.
- Take action. When you procrastinate you perpetuate the idea that you’re not good enough. When you put one foot in front of the other, you make progress, and it helps you shrink your inner imposter.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
The movement would be called “Generosity.” If people were more generous with each other that would create an upward spiral of good feelings. It would set off a chain reaction of the world being a better place.
We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them :-)
The person I would like to meet and have breakfast or lunch with is Tom Brady. He’s a very imaginative business leader and is on top of all the trends. His incredible discipline about how he eats and keeps in shape to perform at his best is inspiring. I really admire … plus, I grew up in Boston!
How can our readers follow you on social media?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!