When it comes to creating a personal digital brand, we’re all in.
As executives who also blog about women and leadership, we’ve seen up close the positive impact that savvy use of social media can have on individual careers and entire organizations. The opportunity that digital platforms offer to build and sustain two-way relationships in the marketplace is unprecedented.
But we also have some misgivings.
Because if we’re being candid, here’s the truth: We post things on Twitter and LinkedIn that make us look smart. We post pictures on Facebook and Instagram that show we are having the best experiences. We blog about our successes and the things we do better than other people.
In this era of personal brand building that is wide open for the whole world to see, we are very reluctant to talk about failures or fears. It’s hard to show weaknesses and vulnerability when we are trying to project an image to the world of a competent, polished, successful person.
The effort to create and maintain our professional image can be exhausting – and makes it even more difficult to be honest and authentic in person with the people we work with every day.
If we’re worried about looking stupid or incompetent, how can we say that we feel like throwing up every time we give a speech? Or that it took us 8 hours to write a memo because we’re struggling with how to frame the issue?
The pressure to keep up appearances is accelerating in our curated world. It can affect anyone – and, when a big enough gap exists between our actual abilities and our perceptions of them, it can derail careers, as we explore in our new book, Beating the Impostor Syndrome.
In our work as executive coaches over the past several years, we’ve found that many highly successful women in particular suffer from the Impostor Syndrome – a fear that they haven’t earned their success and that they will one day be proven to be a fraud.
The Impostor Syndrome doesn’t impact only women; in fact, about two-thirds of all executives we’ve coached over the past few years exhibited signs of it. But it is very consistently an issue with the women we coach.
These women don’t call their issues “Impostor Syndrome,” but they talk about its symptoms: lack of confidence, not ‘leaning in,’ perfectionism, overwork.
These behaviors emerge because they feel they aren’t good enough, they’re not the right fit, and they don’t have the right credentials.
A highly self-motivated, over-achieving woman may feel like she has been under the microscope her entire career. So, understandably, she becomes hyper-vigilant about her image and keeping it polished – and that drives her farther and farther from her authentic self.
Anyone who has a deep sense of “I don’t naturally belong here” – including people of color and those who are “different” in terms of economic, educational or cultural background – may also feel like impostors.
The Impostor Syndrome, coupled with the constant digital curation of our careers and lives, makes honesty and authenticity a challenge. Showing doubt or talking about struggles or admitting to mistakes is frightening.
We have to get away from this mentality. We need to be able to share our struggles because those struggles are what help us become more effective, more compassionate and more successful individuals.
We don’t have to start baring our souls on Facebook (too many people do that already!), but we do need to start opening up to people we trust.
We might just find that others – sometimes those, in fact, that we respect and admire the most – have some of the very same fears and challenges that we do. Talks with them can help us realize the flaws in our own self-perceptions. And that’s an important step in ridding ourselves of negative beliefs about our own abilities and enhancing our performance as a leader.
Many of us feel compelled to cultivate a strong digital brand that positions us for success – and that’s ok. These days, there’s really no way of getting around it. Just don’t forget that the real you still needs tending too.
Portia Mount, senior vice president and chief of staff at the Center for Creative Leadership, and Susan Tardanico, founding partner and CEO of the Authentic Leadership Alliance, are co-authors of this article and of Beating the Impostor Syndrome (CCL Press, 2014).