CEOs: Don’t Let the Imposter Syndrome Keep You from Growing into the Role

Jeff was the Founder and CEO of a fast-growing consumer tech company. When the company was still just him, his co-founder, and a few engineers, he got used to doing almost everything. Fourteen hour days were the norm. He loved it: building the product, managing customer relationships, and pitching his idea to investors.

Then Jeff and his team raised some capital. He’d never seen 7 figures in any bank account before, let alone one he could write checks from. And that’s when it really sunk in: He was the CEO of a fast-growing start-up. He was living his dream!

As good as things were, however, all was not well.

Intellectually, Jeff knew his role was supposed to change as the company grew, but inside he resisted. He knew he was supposed to start letting go of certain tasks and delegating, but he was a builder at heart, and he couldn’t see himself giving up what he loved most — what he was BEST at.

Jeff faced a common problem that plagues many start-up CEOs. As the company grows, the demands placed on the CEO change. And often CEOs have to give up what they are good at and learn new skills that force them out of their comfort zone.

Suddenly they are forced to manage themselves, other people and challenges in ways that don’t feel natural, and that’s when the dreaded “Imposter Syndrome” strikes. Challenges like: dealing with disagreements among team members, not knowing which things to let go of, not feeling people are accountable for getting results, knowing when to hire the right people etc.

The ability of the CEO/Founder to adapt, learn and grow is one of the most critical factors in the company scaling to the next level.

Imposter Syndrome is exactly what it sounds like: feeling like you are undeserving or ill-suited for the role you are in. Most first time CEOs experience this to some degree, especially when things start heading in the right direction and they raise money and hire on lots of new staff.

You might begin to sense you are suffering from Imposter Syndrome if you are setting irrational goals and working impossible hours. Although this sounds like standard start-up life, it could be an indication of a deeper issue.

According to executive coach and psychoanalyst Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries, writing in the Harvard Business Review:

“The vicious cycle begins when the impostor sets impossible goals. She fails to reach these goals, of course (because no one could reach them), then tortures herself endlessly about the failure, which incites further self-flagellation, accentuates the feelings of imposture, and inspires her to designate yet another unattainable set of goals — and the entire cycle of workaholism and fraudulence begins again.”

As Executive Coaches, we can often tell when a CEO is experiencing some level of the Imposter Syndrome when he or she is setting unrealistic goals and/or resisting giving up the roles and responsibilities he or she had in the early days of the company.

It might look like simple micro-managing when the CEO is still making decisions that are probably better delegated to others, but often deeper issues are at play. This often happens because of a lack of knowledge of the changing responsibilities of the CEO as the company grows and scales, and a lack of willingness to see oneself as the person deserving of those responsibilities.

As part of our CEO coaching work at Velocity, we do a feedback analysis (360) that often brings the realities of the Imposter Syndrome to the surface in helping the CEO redefine his/her role.

Getting over the Imposter Syndrome isn’t impossible, but it does take some purposeful effort. Here is a simple model you can use to make some progress in that regard:

  1. Admit There’s a Problem — You can’t fix things that you don’t believe are problems. The sooner you admit to yourself that you may have a little Imposter Syndrome going on, the sooner you can fix it for the sake of your career and the company. Solicit anonymous feedback to bring real data to understanding the problem.

  2. Take Stock of Your Accomplishments — You’ve come a long way; it’s ok to give yourself a little credit. Write down all the great decisions you’ve made along the way. Also write down some of the hard lessons you learned by making mistakes. Every mistake is a lesson on what not to do in the future.

  3. Look at Your Role Models — Who are the CEOs you most admire? How do they manage their time? What do they focus on? Do they admit their failures? Can you begin to imitate them? Can you begin to see yourself as their peer?

  4. Get Feedback from Your Investors and Colleagues — If you poll your colleagues and investors you’ll probably be extremely surprised how highly they regard you. You didn’t get to this point because people don’t believe in you. They think you’re amazing and have faith that you will grow into the role as the company grows. They can also provide you with feedback on the areas that they see for your growth and development. Ask the question, “If you could name one thing about my leadership style that might get in the way of successfully scaling the company, what would that be?”

  5. Learn Your New Role and Cut Yourself Some Slack — As you transition from “Product-Building CEO” to “Company-Building CEO” you will have to learn to do a lot of new things — tasks that may not come naturally to you. Is it possible to delegate some of these tasks to people who are “naturals” at these tasks? No one expects you to know everything (except maybe you), but they do expect you to make an effort to learn them.

  6. Reflect on your “pain points” — Ask yourself the question, “What keeps me up at night and what are the things that I worry about and avoid dealing with?” These are probably the very areas that as CEO you need to develop and work on.

  7. Ask for Help — Many first time CEOs rely heavily on trusted mentors, other CEOs, investors, or coaches. Reach out. Be bold. Be vulnerable. Know that it’s ok to not know everything. But remember it’s not ok to simply ignore what you don’t know and keep doing what you’ve always done.

The Imposter Syndrome strikes most of us. Especially those of us who aspire to great things. But don’t let it clip your wings. The sooner you deal with some of the natural fears that come with being a CEO, the better you will feel and perform. Follow this simple model for breaking through and becoming the CEO you’ve always hoped (but maybe never really believed) you could be.

Edward Sullivan