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Teresa Sande of Mirror Mirror Strategies: How To Thrive Despite Experiencing Impostor Syndrome

Ask yourself, What if that’s not true? When negative self-talk creeps in and you find yourself on the rumination wheel of awfulizing the situation, pause and ask yourself, “What if that’s not true?”

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

Teresa Sande is CEO and founder of Mirror Mirror Strategies, a talent consultancy focused on creating effective, inclusive leaders and high performing organizations. She is also author of the new book, Find Your Fierce: Interrupt Imposter Syndrome and Own Your Success. Teresa is passionate about equity in the workplace, healthy corporate cultures and ensuring people are valued and rewarded for their contributions — those seen and unseen.

Teresa holds a Master’s in Organizational Effectiveness and Communication and has more than 20 years of global corporate experience as an executive with companies like Intel, Capital One, Cargill and UnitedHealth Group. She has dedicated her career to creating effective talent strategies that enable business results through strategic planning, leadership development, executive coaching, succession planning, as well as inclusion, diversity and belonging.

Teresa is a consultant, coach, author, speaker, and imposter syndrome expert. She works with entrepreneurs, startups and mid-and large-sized organizations to get to the root of what all leaders have in common — being human.

She has coached exceptional leaders around the world, and along the way has become an expert in imposter syndrome — the feeling you are alone, unsettled, or unsure if you belong. She has discovered imposter syndrome is one of the key derailers for leaders struggling to stand in their greatness. And having battled imposter syndrome herself, Teresa knows firsthand how these feelings — particularly for women and people of color — are rooted in and fed by flaws that exist in organizational systems. If they go unchecked, there is a hefty price to pay for all involved.

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’?

I grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. My dad was a proud police officer for more than 30 years and my mom stayed at home and helped my grandparents run their tavern business. My brother and I were two of the first people to graduate from college in my family. Our humble beginnings set me up to feel unconvinced I ‘belonged’ as I started my corporate career, especially as I worked with more and more people who went to strong pedigree schools. That feeling of not being sure I belonged was prevalent for me throughout my career in corporate America — most acutely as I started to experience success.

As I grew my career in HR, I began coaching up-and-coming leaders. I noticed a trend with many of them, particularly women and people of color. They were being identified as future executives — yet they started to severely doubt they belonged there or that they had earned their success.

The more I researched what was going on, the more I learned about imposter syndrome and shared my findings with my clients. However, we quickly became frustrated that while there was a lot written about what it is, there was not nearly enough concrete support for what to do about it. Just telling someone not to feel that way doesn’t cut it. I decided I could do something.

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

I’ve had the opportunity to work with some of the very best and brightest talent Fortune 100 companies have to offer. I learned early you need to take risks and try different roles. I moved to four different states, performed in seven different roles, across three different companies over the span of 10 years. Taking those risks taught me it’s just as valuable to learn what you don’t want to do and what type of leader you don’t want to be, as much as what you DO want to do and the type of leader you DO want to be. I also learned nothing has to be permanent. If you try something and you don’t like it or it doesn’t work out, you can always create your next opportunity. It’s important to remember if you did it once, you can most certainly do it again. And, you likely won’t because now you’ve grown and the next thing you’ll do will be even bigger and better!

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

An executive in HR often has to tell leaders what’s really going on — and it’s not always what they want to hear. Sometimes those same leaders are actually the root cause of an issue that is happening. One of my talents is helping people see things clearly, by offering an accurate assessment of a situation, providing constructive feedback or seeing what is possible. Many leaders have shared with me they appreciated me being real and telling them like it is. Once people reach senior leadership status, people stop being real with them. They stop telling them what they need to hear. I’ve always felt that was my job. I try to do it with tact and grace, but it’s something I’m good at and it benefits the person.

When I was thinking about what to name my company, I kicked around words I felt described the work I do and the services I offer — like inspiring, leadership, engaging, empowerment, culture. After about 45 minutes of listing words, I had talked myself into a circle and threw up my hands. In frustration, I asked myself out loud: What the heck do I do that’s unique? What is my superpower? I reflected on feedback I’ve received from CEOs and other top leaders I’ve worked with and it came to me! I’ve been told over and over again that I ‘hold up the mirror’ for people so they can see clearly what is in front of them. The name Mirror Mirror comes from that — I help people gain awareness and clearly see their talents, where they want to go, and what it will take to achieve their vision. Once you see something you can’t unsee it and now you can move forward!

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?

The kiss of death in HR is not thinking like a business person. When that happens, you immediately lose credibility and are seen as theoretical. One of my first managers instilled in her team that we exist to serve the business. Everything we did needed to be in support of solving a challenge the business was facing. That said, she also believed just because the business wanted something didn’t mean we should do anything and everything requested of us. It needed to make strategic sense. She expected us to be business leaders who happened to have expertise in HR. That mindset has served me so well throughout my career and helped to set me apart — it helped me grow my career, and it’s a core principle from which I operate my consultancy today. I wouldn’t be where I am without that role modeling and strategic guidance that shaped my approach. I’m truly grateful for that lesson.

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?

Imposter Syndrome was first called Imposter Phenomenon in the 1970s by two female professors, Drs. Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes. They were working with PhD students and noticed a phenomenon in female students they weren’t seeing in male students. The women were doing their projects and research just the same as the men, yet the men were saying “I deserve to be here, I have my research to back up what I’m saying,” while the women thought “I’m lucky to be here; I stumbled into this research.” The men connected their actions intrinsically to what they did and the direct outcome and success they achieved. The women disconnected that success and were not able to internalize how their actions drove the results. So, despite all of the scholastic honors, high test scores, and accolades, the female students were attributing their successes to external factors. Things like:

o Being in the right place at the right time

o Getting selected for the program because the first choice people were not available

o Charming the decision makers

o Believing they “just got lucky”

It wasn’t necessarily anything the women were doing wrong, it was how they saw their successes coming to them. As the concept became more mainstream over the years, it became known as Imposter Syndrome.

I describe imposter syndrome as an outcome. It’s a result of the systems you’re in, and results in having a feeling or belief that you haven’t earned your success. Perhaps you feel you don’t even belong in the role you are in, and it’s simply a matter of time before everyone finds out you’re not as awesome as they thought you were. It’s like a shoe is about to drop and you’ll be discovered as a fraud.

I can generalize the feeling of imposter syndrome, but what I think is even more interesting are its tell-tale signs and symptoms. Often it shows up in the form of perfectionism tendencies, overworking, overanalyzing, micromanaging and down-playing your success. That’s why it can be tricky to identify when it’s happening! At the end of the day, feeling like an imposter isn’t a moral failure on the part of the person. It’s a result of our experiences with the systems we are a part of.

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

Imposter syndrome has a lot of costs, for the individual experiencing it, and for the organization they are a part of. When someone feels like a fraud or an imposter, they start to display certain behaviors to compensate for it — things like micromanaging a team, over-analyzing, not taking risks, not innovating. This is because they’re operating from a scarcity mentality. The fear of failure or fear that you may not ever get another chance doesn’t create psychological safety. As humans we are not at our best when we feel unsafe or insecure in our positioning. The cost for organizations is also great.

While it is not the only reason, I believe imposter syndrome is a strong contributing factor to why there aren’t more women in senior leadership positions. Women may not put themselves out there for the role or push for it for themselves if they are questioning if they belong or are good enough. And, if the environment isn’t healthy and doesn’t have psychological safety and awareness of their own unconscious biases, an organization may judge women and people of color differently and say they aren’t ready for the big roles. It’s a highly complex issue and takes some unpacking to keep it under control for both the person and the organization.

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

The tell-tale signs you’re experiencing imposter syndrome can show up in your day-to-day work. If you feel scarcity or fear you can’t make a mistake or you might not get another shot, you may start micromanaging your team and spending time in the weeds. Perhaps you start to have a lack of tolerance for failure. Perfection tendencies start to show up and as we know, no one is perfect.

Another thing I’ve observed, which may seem counter-intuitive, is how other women support each other, or don’t. Many women who have made it to the senior-most ranks had to sacrifice, and overcome hurdles. If they are still struggling with imposter syndrome, they may continue to feel a sense of scarcity, like there is only room for one of us at the table. As a result, they may say they want to support other women coming up in the pipeline, but they might still harbor some biases. Women leaders can sometimes be toughest on other women — either because no one made it easy for them, or because they think it will help the other woman toughen up and be ready for what they will face. I love when leaders work to actively change the culture of an organization and challenge the norms, so that things will be better for the next generations. But that may not be easy to do. They may have some blind spots in the process, and they still may need to heal from their own experiences.

The outcome of feeling acute imposter syndrome can have a systemic cost for an organization. Imagine your organization identifies you as someone they believe should be promoted. You get the promotion, but start to feel you weren’t worthy (although you were) so you begin to micro-manage or over-analyze. Then, the organization pulls back, saying “maybe we were wrong, maybe she isn’t right for this job.” It’s almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy — and why it is so critical to get imposter syndrome under control.

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

When I graduated from grad school, I applied for my first big corporate job at Intel. That’s where imposter syndrome first hit me like a ton of bricks. The night before my first day, I was sitting on the floor of my tiny apartment filling out paperwork, visualizing how the next day would go. I’d walk in, stretch out my hand to all the people I’d be working with, jump in excitedly and start adding value! Then I started to get warm. “Wait, how will I add value if I’m not even sure what I’ll be doing? What if all the things I’ve learned up to this point aren’t what is needed there?” At this point little beads of sweat are forming on my forehead and my hands are starting to sweat. “What if people ask me to do something I don’t yet know how to do? Now that I’m thinking about it, why did they hire me?” Now I’m full-on hyperventilating and start to tear up. “They are going to size me up quickly and realize they made a mistake! Ugh, I’m a fraud — I don’t belong there! It’s only a matter of time before they realize I’m not that great, they hired the wrong person, and they’re going to fire me.” I was a puddle on the living room floor.

The next day came and I put on my big girl clothes and went to Intel. None of those things I feared happened. But that experience set me on a path where I started to notice when I felt this way — it was almost always at a point of achievement.

As I mentioned, while coaching top talent in Corporate America, I noticed some were experiencing that same feeling I had — a sense that they “just got lucky,” telling me “people are going to realize I’m not the best person for this job.” It was prevalent in leaders as well as people on the cusp of leadership. They were paralyzed by the fear of getting found out. That pattern started to become clear.

When I would share with them what I was learning about imposter syndrome, over and over the reaction was a huge sigh of relief. “Wow, so I’m not the only person who feels this way?” Just to be able to name it was empowering and from there we could discuss: Why do you think you feel this? Where do you think it comes from? The more we uncovered the more it was clear that imposter syndrome wasn’t a failure on their part, it’s not as if a part of them was broken.

But frustratingly there wasn’t much written about what to do about imposter syndrome. Simply saying someone shouldn’t feel that way isn’t enough. So I kept notes, and continued watching people who battled it, and talking through what worked for them.What were the tricks and techniques, what didn’t work? How do you keep from feeling this way? Through this exploration, we would get to the root of some of the limiting beliefs people were holding about themselves. And I realized I felt this way throughout my own life. I had to face the music and realize there had been times I self-sabotaged my own career.

The more work I did around imposter syndrome, the more I realized these people were not broken. They didn’t need fixing. Yes, awareness is key and there was work to be done to be their best selves. But, what stood out to me the most was that many organizational systems are set up to feed imposter syndrome, especially for anyone who isn’t in the majority at the top of the house. And still today, those senior-most seats are predominantly occupied by white men. That fueled my fire to get the book written and try to help as many people as possible.

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

My imposter syndrome is quieter now, and I’m proud to say I continue to achieve and succeed but absolutely it still strikes at points of high achievement. Following the frAIMworkTM for success I outline in my book — AIM stands for Awareness, Interruption, and Momentum — is what keeps my imposter syndrome in check.

First, be Aware of what imposter syndrome is, where it comes from, and how it shows up for you. This is absolutely key. Then, when the voice in your head pops up, telling you that you ‘aren’t that great’ or ‘it’s a matter of time before they realize they made a mistake with you,’ you need techniques to Interrupt and short-circuit those thoughts. These are quick and reactive, to get you through the moment without derailing. Finally, doing the deeper work with yourself to ensure you have a strong foundation and understanding of your worth will build Momentum towards owning your talent and success. This longer-term, proactive work is where you will really start to see the dividends of your effort and investment in yourself.

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.

Some solutions are quick and in the moment, others are longer and deeper work. As the frAIMworkTM calls out, you need both in your strategy to fight imposter syndrome.

Here are a few techniques to help:

1 — Ask yourself, What if that’s not true? When negative self-talk creeps in and you find yourself on the rumination wheel of awfulizing the situation, pause and ask yourself, “What if that’s not true?” Here’s the scenario: You’re in a meeting and you are worried someone is going to ask you a tough question. You start telling yourself you won’t know the answer. Not knowing the answer will signal you are not qualified. In fact, you wonder why they hired you in the first place? It’s just a matter of time before you’re found out, you’re sure of it. They are going to find out you’re a fraud. It’s just a matter of time.

Stop. Ask yourself “What if that’s not true?” No one knows everything. You are qualified. In fact, you are one of the best positioned people to be in this role. You likely do know the answer or how to quickly find it out. It’s a quick short-circuit to the negative thinking — and one that is necessary to make sure you don’t go down the imposter syndrome rabbit hole.

2 — Remember that feedback is like a coat. If you find yourself trying to please or be all things to all people, which can be a sign of imposter syndrome, remember that feedback is like a coat. When someone gives it to you, try it on. But you don’t have to take every piece of feedback that doesn’t serve you. Some coats are perfectly fine but don’t fit the situation. You don’t need a wool coat when it’s 90 degrees outside. A cotton coat won’t help when it’s raining. Evaluate the feedback, but if it doesn’t fit, say thank you and move on.

3 — Things can be easy for you and still be of tremendous value. When something comes easy to you, you may be inclined to dismiss it or assume anyone can do it. When you do that you are not honoring your gifts and talents — you’re discounting them. It is a misconception that things need to be hard and that you need to have blood, sweat and tears to prove you’ve earned something. Your success can be well-deserved and come relatively easy. Enjoy those moments where your greatness makes something easy. When others compliment you and are thrilled with your work, let that in!

4 — Tune into your triggers and thought patterns. Imposter syndrome is complex and doesn’t stem from just one place. Be aware of where it stems from for you — it is different for everyone. And it’s always an obvious or overt situation. Growing up my brother and I were always told we could do anything and be anything. He was told to be strong, to know he may need to fight for things he wants, that people will depend on him as a leader, and not everyone will like him all the time and that’s ok. And while I was told I could do anything and be anything, I was also told to be a Swiss Army Knife, to gain lots of skills so I could help lots of people, add value wherever I could, work hard, and that sometimes I just need to go along to get along. While these are not bad messages, there was a difference in what was delivered to me versus what my brother heard. My messages reinforced the need to fit in and please others as a way to succeed.

I know it was well intended, but it didn’t exactly set me up to be fierce either (sorry mom and dad, LOL). So for me, a trigger is when something doesn’t go as planned, I think that outcome was due to MY action. I assume more than my share of the accountability and if I’m not mindful, I can agonize over what else I could have done. Our thoughts drive our actions and our actions drive our outcomes — so when you experience an outcome, make sure you go all the way back to your thoughts to understand why you might be acting a certain way.

5 — Build your own Personal Board of Directors. Organizations have Boards and they are composed of different people who do different things. One member might be particularly skilled in strategy, another with finances, another with regulations and legal issues, and yet another with the people side of work. While they play different roles, they are all there for one reason — to ensure the success of the company. Similarly, you must assemble your own Personal Board of Directors made up of people who support you in different ways. You must be mindful about who is on your board and for what reasons. The time to build your board is not the moment you need them. Invest in those relationships now! On my PBoD, I have my cheerleader, someone I can call anytime to lift my spirits and tell me I’m amazing. I have another person on my PBoD who is my tough love, the person who will tell me to get over myself, not over-analyze and just get going. They provide the swift kick in the rear that I sometimes need.

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. :-)

There is a saying: “If diversity is being invited to the party, then inclusion is being asked to dance.” I want true belonging for everyone in corporate cultures — I want organizations to take it one step further to really impact the experience people are having in the workplace.

Diversity and inclusion isn’t the full picture and it’s not enough. That saying about the party and the dancing is nice, but it still implies that it’s someone else’s house. That they decide when the party is, who is invited, and who gets the chance to dance. True belonging is when none of us need to wait for the invitation because it’s our house, and we aren’t guests!

We don’t only need an invitation to join someone else’s table — we need them to join ours, too. As leaders it is imperative to look in the mirror to see how you might be contributing to this feeling that some people have where they don’t belong. This is going to take a fundamental mindset shift to rebuild our cultures and organizations from a place of belonging.

In addition, it is not anyone else’s job to label someone as having imposter syndrome. If someone is experiencing it, it’s likely a result of their environment. These people suffering are smart. If it were easy they would have fixed it by now.

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 :-)

This was harder to answer than I thought! The social psychologist Amy Cuddy has influenced my work through all of her research and experience. I respect that she has had her share of detractors, but handles it all in stride, with grace — and stays the course. I have seen her present several times and even ran into her once at a conference while waiting to check in at the hotel spa. I was such a fangirl when I introduced myself she may have been looking over her shoulder for security.

My husband joked I should start a fan club and we could call ourselves Cuddy Buddies. Her work is inspiring and complementary to mine — she is truly a role model. I’d love to do a research project or collaboration with her. I follow her on social media and she also just seems real, so to sit down and have a conversation with her would be amazing and so educational. Her roller skating (pre-leg break) is on point!!

Breaking the rules just a bit, I’m going to say one other person: Ryan Reynolds. I mean, #1 — it’s Ryan Reynolds, #2 — he is creative and fearless with his business endeavors and there would be so much to learn from him, #3 — he is married to a strong, fierce woman so I believe he would be supportive of my work (hmmm, so maybe I should actually say Blake Lively…?), and #4 — I laugh at almost everything he does and would love an autographed something Deadpool-related. Worth a shot: go big or go home!

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Follow me on instagram @fiercenotfears and sign up for my newsletter at www.teresasande.com. I’m also on LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/teresasande/

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

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Candice Georgiadis

Candice Georgiadis

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