Does it feel like you’re never doing a “good enough” job as you run your agency? You might be fighting Imposter Syndrome.
When you’re confident and focused on the future, you can find solutions to most things. When you’re not confident, or focused on the past—or both—it’s harder to move forward.
Does it feel like you aren’t capable of running your own agency? Most of my clients have good judgment—but they don’t always give themselves credit for that.
No one is born to be an agency owner or a business owner. We use what we’ve got and get help along the way. I’m not a therapist—but as a coach, I’ve seen Imposter Syndrome as a common challenge for the agency owners I work with. And I’ve experienced it myself.
Agency problems connected to Imposter Syndrome
Imposter Syndrome can lead to all sorts of problems at your agency. For example:
- Under-charging during the sales process
- Over-servicing clients
- Hiring the wrong people
- Sticking with poor-fit clients too long
- Feeling too much stress from being too hard on yourself
So, how can you tell if you’re dealing with Impostor Syndrome? Let’s start by defining it.
Definition: What is Imposter Syndrome?
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), Imposter Syndrome defined this way: “a pervasive feeling of self-doubt, insecurity and incompetence despite evidence that you are skilled and successful.”
First coined by researchers in the 1970’s, approximately 25-30% of high achievers (hello, agency owners!) may suffer from it. According to the International Journal of Behavioral Science, around 70% of all adults experience it in their lifetimes.
This begs the questions: How do you know if you really have Imposter Syndrome? And what can you do about it if you do?
7 signs of Imposter Syndrome
First, let’s look at the following 7 signs of Imposter Syndrome or “imposterism” from scientific research to see if you’re experiencing it:
- Desire to be the best: The inward or outward desire to be the best. People who desire to be the best are often recognized as the highest achievers or the brightest in a group when it comes to their skills or accomplishments. In a larger setting, those struggling with imposterism realize there are many exceptional people and that they aren’t unique in that sense—which leads to dismissing their own talents and achievements despite being very talented and capable.
- Perfectionistic tendency: They struggle with being a Superhuman and have an inward expectation to be perfect and perform flawlessly. They set high personal goals and expectations for themselves—and if they fall short, they frequently feel overwhelmed and disappointed.
- Fear of failure: We all can identify with this but those who struggle with imposterism experience high levels of anxiety when exposed to an achievement-related task, because they fear possible failure. Making mistakes and not performing at their highest personal standard causes feelings of shame and humiliation—so they tend to overwork to make sure they won’t fail.
- Discounting praise as invalid: Those with imposterism have difficulty internalizing their success and accepting praise as valid. They tend to attribute their success to external factors and argue that they don’t deserve praise (which shouldn’t be confused with false modesty).
- Guilt and fear about success: This often happens when they’re the first to be successful in their family or among their peers. They don’t want to feel different and often feel guilty about their success. They also fear that their success sets a higher expectation from others, even if that isn’t the case.
- Concern about maintaining performance: Those with imposterism have gained success but feel pressure to maintain the same level of success—which causes stress, burnout, emotional exhaustion, and loss of motivation. They become their own worst enemy.
- A lack of happiness when successful: Successes should bring joy. Imposter Syndrome does the opposite—robbing happiness and replacing it with fear, anxiety, self-doubt, and feeling uncomfortable about achievements. It’s hard for those with imposterism to accept and enjoy their abilities and accomplishments. They’re unable to internalize their success—which in turn means they can’t enjoy the happiness that comes with it.
You might recognize yourself from that list. If so, you’re not alone.
Yet by definition—if you’re running an agency, you are competent and capable… because you’re doing it! But my words alone won’t break the cycle. So how do you get unstuck?
I suggest that you seek support… whether with a therapist, a coach, or both. Beyond that, here are five tips.
5 tips to navigate Imposter Syndrome
Via the APA, here are five tips to help you handle imposterism—plus some examples from my work:
- Know you are not alone: Know that many people have these feelings. Although not discussed widely, imposterism is normal. A couple years ago, a client mentioned feeling “less than” before a networking call, because they felt the other agency owner was further-along in their business. When I checked in after, it turns out they’d had a great conversation—and discovered they were each facing similar challenges. That is, they weren’t alone. Connecting with peers can help mitigate that sense of loneliness that imposterism creates.
- Reframe tasks: If an achievement-related task creates anxiety (or self-doubt and worry), try to reframe the task as an opportunity to learn something instead of proving yourself. This can reduce the pressure you put on yourself.
- Turn outward and work smarter: You’re likely stuck in your head, which can be the fast-track to procrastination or over-preparation. Neither helps your productivity—and can even lead to losing sleep. Instead, seek out a colleague who can help shoulder the load. Or talk to a coach or other advisor to get perspective on what’s normal. You can also delegate to your team.
- Do what you’re good at: If there’s something you’re dreading, choose what you’re good at and do that first. You still need to do the harder tasks, but it helps to build momentum by starting with something where you know you’ll succeed.
- Study the data…YOUR data: A big part of Imposter Syndrome is not acknowledging that you do deserve to be where you are. If you attribute your accomplishments to luck, sit down and list the actions that got you to where you are. Embrace your progress. Let it sink in that you really did it and that you deserve it. Accept praise—from others but also from yourself! A few years ago, a coaching client was struggling to get results from their team. I recommended they read The Effective Manager (from Manager Tools) and my Made to Lead book. In our next call, this client said, “I think I’m a better manager than I realized before.” YES!
My own experience with Imposter Syndrome
As an agency coach who’s running my third business since high school, am I immune to Imposter Syndrome? Nope!
Earlier in my career, I assumed my progress would cap out as a #2—that is, I wouldn’t advance beyond COO at the agency. In fact, I wrote my first Advance Retrospective—about how in five years, I’d be the #2. I decided to be vulnerable, and I shared my doc with my boss—who thanked me… and never mentioned it again. I eventually realized it was time to move on.
A year later, I was the head of operations at a different agency. As I prepared for a week-long leadership retreat, I took a series of assessments. The facilitator noted that my results positioned me to be a CEO, if I wanted it. It was an eye-opening message.
Soon after that, I launched what’s now Sakas & Company—where I help agency leaders all over the world. In a sense, this is my ideal role—I lead my own team, while advising clients as their strategic #2. Although not my last, I overcame that bout of Imposter Syndrome.
Question: If you think you have Imposter Syndrome, which of the 5 tips can you implement today?