“How to Battle Imposter Syndrome as a New CEO” With Sam Reese, CEO of Vistage

Candice Georgiadis
Mar 20 · 8 min read

Listen to diverse perspectives. CEOs sometimes develop confirmation bias and seek the easy places to get answers that validate their points of view. Avoid situations where you listen to people who just tell you what you want to hear. It may make you feel smart and like you have all the right ideas, but it keeps you from seeing important pitfalls or better solutions. Good CEOs listen to contrary beliefs — both inside and outside their companies — so they understand the full picture.


As a part of our series about “How to Battle Imposter Syndrome as a New CEO”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sam Reese.

Sam is the CEO of Vistage, the world’s largest CEO coaching and peer advisory organization for small and midsize businesses. Over his 35 year career as a business leader, Reese has led large and midsize organizations and has advised CEOs and key executive of companies all over the world.


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’?

Before becoming CEO of Vistage, I was CEO of Miller Heiman for 15 years. I joined Vistage during that time and found the support to supercharge the growth of Miller Heiman while finding more balance in my personal life. Miller Heiman was sold three times while I was there, and I remained the CEO each time and was able to utilize the new partners to help take the business to new levels. While CEO, Miller Heiman grew to more than ten times the size it was from when I started, and it became one of the largest sales performance and consulting organizations. After a brief shot at retirement, I was recruited to run Vistage, and it was a real dream come true for me.

Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

When I was 28, I had my first real leadership role as a district manager in a telecommunications company. I decided to interview all of my sales people and made some initial conclusions about them that unfortunately weren’t correct and lacked perspective. One of the salespersons realized our meeting didn’t go well and that I thought his success was purely based on luck or a great sales territory. He was quick to tell me that while he was not an amazing presenter, he was an extremely persistent salesman and that he would become my top salesperson. He quickly proved my initial judgment wrong and did end up being my top salesperson. I learned that managing from my gut wasn’t enough and that I had to be more discerning, use better judgement and gain more perspectives before I formed hard wired opinions. I also learned that a smart person with integrity and persistence is almost always a sure bet to being successful.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Our members and Chairs are what makes our company stand out. Their ability to come together and help other members in their groups problem solve to grow their businesses is truly remarkable.

One Vistage member, Curt Vander Meer, had just become the majority owner of a business, Endangered Species Chocolate, for the first time. While the business was already successful before he took over, he was aware of the responsibility to employees and customers that now rested on his shoulders. He joined Vistage, and those meetings not only helped him focus on his people, strategy and execution, but also how to have his business and personal life work together holistically. With the support of his Chair and Vistage group, he was able to prioritize family time while focusing on long term goals for his company. Since joining Vistage, Vander Meer’s company has continued to have double digit growth. Endangered Species Chocolate has also increased donations to conservation nonprofits, donating $1.4 million in 3 years.

Stories like these show the impact of the decisions that are made in Vistage groups each month. Our members really are heroes because these leaders are masters at growing their businesses while actively supporting their families and communities.

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?

During every cross country race in college, no matter how far ahead I got, my running coach would scream: “Don’t be content!” I would get frustrated with him. After a race, I once asked him if there was ever a time in life that he’d want me to be content?

“No, never be content,” he said. “Always try to improve.”

That line has stuck with me my whole life. The goal of effective CEOs is to continue to improve day after day and never be comfortable with the status quo for your company or yourself.

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?

Leading a company is a very lonely job, and everyone expects you to have all the answers. People who have Imposter Syndrome feel like they’re a fraud, especially in the early days of their first CEO role. It’s the feeling that you have fooled everyone, and that you might get found out. You may not have it all figured out, but you feel like you can’t share that with your coworkers or colleagues because as CEO you are supposed to be the one with all the answers.

What are the downsides of Impostor Syndrome? How can it limit people?

The downsides include lacking confidence in your decisions. You may move forward too brashly or not at all, becoming paralyzed. This worry that people will discover that you don’t have it all figured out yet can prevent you from collaborating with others, building integrated teams, and asking important questions to get to the heart of challenges in your business.

How can the experience of Impostor Syndrome impact how one treats others?

It can affect how you relate to and connect with other people. You live in a constant fear that someone is going to find out that you are a “fraud.” As a leader this can affect how you work with your employees and other leaders in your company. We’ve discovered that many first time CEOs struggle with this feeling.

We would love to hear your story about your experience with Impostor Syndrome. Would you be able to share that with us?

Many years ago, after running divisions of large Fortune 500 companies, I figured I was more than ready to be the CEO of a mid-sized consulting organization. But my first two years were not well timed, as I started in 2000 and then tried to manage the company through the dot com crash with very little success. In fact, at the end of 2002, I let the board know I was resigning because I didn’t think I was experienced enough to successfully steer the company through this turbulent time. To my surprise, the board convinced me to stay. They believed in my plan, and were patient while I worked to bring it to life. We successfully sold the company three years later, and I learned a lot about patience and building a strong foundation in the process.

Did you ever shake the feeling off? If yes, what have you done to mitigate it or eliminate it?

Soon after that board meeting, I learned of Vistage, and the opportunity to surround myself with a trusted peer advisory group was the catalyst I needed to gain confidence in my decisions. That’s one reason why leading Vistage today is so special to me.

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.

  1. Listen to diverse perspectives. CEOs sometimes develop confirmation bias and seek the easy places to get answers that validate their points of view. Avoid situations where you listen to people who just tell you what you want to hear. It may make you feel smart and like you have all the right ideas, but it keeps you from seeing important pitfalls or better solutions. Good CEOs listen to contrary beliefs — both inside and outside their companies — so they understand the full picture.
  2. Embrace vulnerability. Vulnerability now is a strength that leaders want to be open about. They want to be clear about their shortcomings and their mistakes. This is important because it shows your team that you are trying to improve. A leader who thinks they must have all the answers — or else appear weak to their team — is not setting themselves up for success.
  3. Champion transparency and candor. Create an open environment where your team can celebrate the successes and learn together from the failures. You need to have one story for your team, staff and stakeholders, and the one story has to be the truth.
  4. Be clear on your company purpose. When you are clear about purpose, it invites every single employee, every customer and every supplier to make sure you’re doing what you said you’d do. And it creates a true north star that’s the foundation of integrity and trust in your business.
  5. Get comfortable delegating. Delegation can accelerate company success by creating new leaders who have the flexibility to solve complex problems themselves. It also frees the CEO up to focus on big picture items such as strategy, culture, organization and results.

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. :-)

Author Og Mandino, had a famous saying that applied to me as an athlete and still applies to me as a leader: “Strong is he who forces his actions to control his thoughts, and weak is he who lets his thoughts control his actions.” In the spirit of Nike, just do it! While this can seem counter-intuitive, it is amazing how much can be accomplished by making the decision to get something done rather than continuing to contemplate a million “what if” scenarios. I often tell people to stop looking at the lake and wondering how many times you can skip the rock, and just throw the rock and see! So many people think of decisions in terms of a right one and a wrong one, when in fact there may be several right answers. The value and happiness of taking action cannot be overstated. When we take action we commit and we see things with much more clarity and consequence, and even if we make a bad decision we are in the moment and we can redirect things.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film…

Candice Georgiadis

Written by

Candice Georgiadis is an active mother of three as well as a designer, founder, social media expert, and philanthropist.

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film, Sports and Tech. Authority Mag is devoted primarily to sharing interesting feature interviews of people who are authorities in their industry. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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