Overcoming imposter syndrome in a time of crisis

The overwhelming feeling that you could be 'found out' and turfed at any moment can be all consuming in business, particularly at a time of uncertainty and crisis. Here, Urban List's founder and CEO Susannah George offers her insights for overcoming the infuriating imposter syndrome.

It is interesting how, in a time of crisis, we can be forced to face and overcome our greatest fears.

Among mine has been an ever-present battle with a parasite many people in media, marketing and advertising will be familiar with — imposter syndrome. That feeling that someone’s just about to blow your cover and expose you for the incompetent fraud you really are.

In a time of crisis and need for decisive leadership, a syndrome that causes you to second guess, to delay decisions and to confuse others with your comms is less than constructive.

Perhaps that’s what’s going on with Scotty from Marketing.

Admittedly, the decisions I make carry far less weight than those of a nation, but they do impact a few million people and businesses across Australia and New Zealand, and in the past two weeks, I have put a lot of pressure on myself to be at my very best.

Given the unchartered territory, I expected imposter syndrome to take over my cortex. In reality, I’ve seen the opposite.

So why, having lived with it every day of my life, is imposter syndrome so willing to admit defeat in the face of a pandemic?

As background, I’m the founder of the largest Australian independent media brand born of the last decade — Urban List. We have, arguably too quietly, built a platform that draws more than 3m visitors a month, along with a social following that eclipses almost every other Australian brand.

Imposter syndrome has been with me every step of the way. The business launched from my bedroom; I had no prior experience in entrepreneurship, in management, or in media. Self-doubt has been a constant shadow.

I’m also a female founder, and in this context, gender does actually matter.

It matters for two reasons:

1) because anyone who has brought children into the world knows the emotional and practical challenges of bringing your best in the days, months and years that follow;

2) because statistically, I identify with a gender that is three times more likely to doubt their abilities and to suffer from imposter syndrome than men.

In the lead up to International Women’s Day (just over three weeks ago — what a ride), we spoke to more than 3,500 women and men about their respective challenges with confidence:

● 75% of women doubt their abilities at least once a month — more than three times that of their male counterparts;
● Women are 300% more likely to doubt their own abilities vs the abilities of others;
● And the pressure women put on themselves to achieve their definition of success outweighed the pressure from family, social and traditional media combined.

In short, we’re all doing daily, sanitised hand-to-hand combat with the same enemies: COVID-19 yes, and the belief that we’re imposter in our own companies.

What has stood out for me recently, though, is through some unusual expression of fight or flight, my own imposter syndrome has taken a back seat. It’s faded in the face of the need to display true leadership for our people, our clients and our industry.

I don’t want to waste the growth that can come of a good crisis. I want to share it with as many as can benefit. So I’ve attempted to document what I’ve observed, and what’s worked so that I can reference it for my future self.

Please know, I am aware that the circumstances our business faces are different to many. We are all running our own, interconnected race. These are but my observations from my journey.

1. Listen to, and back your intuition. This is not a time to second guess. The world is moving rapidly; and people need clear and definitive plans of action to stay focused and
productive. You know the right answer, even if you don’t have all the data yet.

2. Lean in to “feminine” leadership traits. This isn’t about gender per se, but traits business academics and journalists are grouping under that collective: empathy, vulnerability, inclusiveness, generosity, humility.

Yes, I do think that we could come up with a better collective noun than ‘feminine’, but semantics aside, embracing these traits opens the door for team members to feel they can talk to you, connect with you, and ultimately, trust you and your leadership. In my experience, the vast majority of those connections have been filled with gratitude and appreciation for the leadership shown — just the shot in the arm I need to keep going right now.

3. Stand for something. Starting a business might be brave, but standing for something is so much braver. Putting your views out there for others to judge feels like an open door
for them to criticise. The clarity with which we have shared our stance has brought everyone in the U:L ecosystem — our team, our audience and our clients — on to the
same page. We’ve never been more united. As a brand, we’ve never been more sure of the important role we play. And commercially, the benefits of this stance are flowing through. At a time where one would expect a city culture platform to see a downturn, we have maintained our audience and grown social engagement 600%. And, as you’d expect, the briefs are following.

More than ever, brands want to be where positive, productive conversation and connections are happening.

4. Be transparent with what you’re doing. Not just internally, but out. As a customer, I appreciated Alan Joyce openly sharing his note to the Qantas team. And without doubt, Jacinda Arden and Angela Merkel have been transparency stand outs too.

Stay strong, stay safe and stay connected; fellow leaders. And if you ever want to share your own journey, please reach out. Together, we’ve got this.

Susannah George is the founder of Urban List


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