I can still remember how ridiculously dry my mouth felt as I sat at the head of the table preparing to lead my first budget meeting as an editor at the daily newspaper in a charming Midwestern town. It was like I'd pounded an entire sleeve of saltine crackers and then followed it up with a heaping spoonful of peanut butter.
Sure, I had more than a decade of journalism experience at that point. And yes, I had sat through (and even led) budget meetings in past positions. I had been hired because I was supremely qualified for the job, but I still found myself petrified I might make a fool of myself or completely mishandle things.
I felt like an imposter.
The notion of imposter syndrome has been around since the late 1970s. While researchers mistakenly believed "the imposter phenomenon" affected only women, modern research has shown that these feelings of self-doubt and anxiety can impact just about everyone. According to one study, 70% of people will experience at least one instance of imposter syndrome in their lives.
It might be comforting to know that you're not alone — hey, it helps me — but what happens when you're thrust into a leadership position? Or when others turn to you because they want to glean insights based on your knowledge?
How can you be a thought leader in your space when you feel like a fraud?
"Fake it 'til you make it."
What a bunch of nonsense. People might claim that you can stumble your way through life (or business) and eventually figure things out along the way, but that sounds like absolute misery for someone struggling with imposter syndrome.
And make no mistake: Plenty of seemingly incredible people struggle with imposter syndrome. Each of our account teams at Influence & Co. works with dozens of clients on a rolling basis, and I've encountered my fair share of "imposters."
For example, I will never forget the struggles we had with a client who was the CMO of a B2B software-as-a-service company. Let's call him Mike.
To my team, Mike was a savvy marketer who had decades of experience. He seemed to be knowledgeable about the things you would expect him to be knowledgeable about, and he was always incredibly engaging and insightful when we'd ask him questions designed to get him talking on industry news or trends.
But there was one small problem: He had zero self-confidence. We'd start to work toward what felt like a foundational question for a piece of content, and Mike would suddenly backtrack and say he wasn't sure he was actually an expert on the topic. When we could convince him of that expertise, it seemed like he spent hours researching what everyone else in the industry thought about a subject and then regurgitating a synopsis. It definitely wasn't thought leadership, and it wasn't fun for anyone involved.
To help Mike stop feeling like an imposter, my team pivoted our strategy a bit to focus more on his comfort zones. We coached him along with every blog post, guest-contributed article, and whitepaper, and he slowly but surely began to expand that comfort zone and become the industry thought leader we knew he could be.
If you're struggling with imposter syndrome, here are three ways to overcome self-doubt and become the thought leader you were always meant to be:
Sit down with a notepad, a pen, and a mirror. Maybe scratch that last one. Jot down areas where you truly excel and areas where you need additional development. You might be adept at hiring people who do well in remote environments, for instance, but perhaps you aren't as knowledgeable about the employment regulations that affect those new hires. By highlighting what you truly know — and maybe spotting a few things you don't — you can begin to dispel some of your internal doubts and recognize your true expertise.
If you think this sounds impossible, you could try inviting a somewhat neutral third party to help you accomplish this. Perhaps a kind co-worker or friend would be willing to walk through this process with you. Or maybe you could lean on your outsourced content marketing agency to help you with this. Whatever you do, just be sure that anyone working with you on this exercise is completely honest — and forces you to be honest with yourself.
The natural inclination for most perfectionists is to dump a ton of energy into overcoming any deficiencies you found in the previous exercise. After all, you might think, you're only as good as your weakest link. Rather than waste your time trying to become a jack-of-all-trades, you should focus on the areas where you're already strongest. And if your company is venturing into uncharted territory or blazing new trails, feel free to own your expertise without the need to qualify everything.
This is particularly important in content marketing. Your content should present you as a thought leader, but that doesn't mean you have to be an expert in every single subject tangentially related to your industry. Your content strategy should take into consideration your expertise, highlighting what you know best while avoiding any topics that might cause you to feel like a fraud. If your company needs to comment on an issue outside of your expertise, don't feel the need to make something up on the fly; instead, consider giving someone else on your team the opportunity to elevate their thought leadership in that area.
While this approach doesn't necessarily work best for everyone — see my story about Mike above — hard work and research can do wonders for your confidence. If you feel like you're ignorant about an increasingly important facet of your industry, then put in the effort to educate yourself. I'm comfortable admitting when I don't know something, but you'd better believe I'll do my homework on that subject for the next time it comes up.
Our teams at Influence & Co. routinely read news from our clients' industries to not only track current events, but also make sure we understand what those clients are trying to convey in their content. Acknowledge that it's perfectly acceptable to not know everything — a terrifying concept for a perfectionist struggling with imposter syndrome — and instead focus your energy on learning the few things you actually do need to know.
Circling back to that stressful budget meeting I led many years ago, I'm pleased to say that it was anything but memorable. Although I have vivid flashes of the fears I faced before leading my team, I can't remember much of anything else from that meeting. In short, I wasted a bunch of energy worrying about things that never came to pass.
Whether you're leading an important meeting or trying to educate potential customers — and ideally convert them into paying customers — feeling like a fraud won't get you very far. By assessing yourself, focusing on your strengths, and then outworking the competition, you can crush self-doubt. In time, you'll begin to see yourself as the thought leader you always were.
I'm a technology nerd and recovering newspaperman who values punctuality, creativity, and brevity. When I'm not polishing prose, I'm likely losing a battle of wills with my toddler. I also make a wicked Key lime pie.