How Finance Leaders Tackle Impostor Syndrome, with Catherine Clark
“The first step to move past impostor syndrome is similar to self-awareness. It’s about observing what thoughts you’re having, and how they impact how you operate. Then, you need to start reframing those negative thoughts. In a nutshell, what you're doing is trying to change your belief system.”
Our first CFO Connect event of 2022 focused on a topic far too neglected in the finance industry: impostor syndrome, and the toll it takes on finance professionals. Both under-examined and ill-acknowledged, low self confidence affects far too many CFOs and finance executives.
To address this topic, we spoke with Catherine Clark, executive mentor and former CFO. After spending more than 20 years in organizations of all sizes, she shifted her attention and skills to professional mentoring.
Catherine now helps finance leaders unlock their potential and excel in their roles. She also operates as lead mentor for GrowCFO, a community run by finance leaders, for finance leaders.
With Catherine, we dug deep into the roots of impostor syndrome, its consequences for finance professionals, and the ways to overcome it to express your full potential as a leader.
Listen to the podcast, watch the recording (below), and read some of the highlights in Catherine’s own words.
Table of contents
The leadership challenges encountered by finance professionals
When I look at finance professionals of all ages and backgrounds, the biggest challenges I see are:
A lack of confidence or feeling like being an impostor
People feeling overwhelmed with the associated stress and anxiety that brings
And of course, this is a problem. Feeling that way does affect your self-belief. It can narrow your focus, perspective, and your ability to think more broadly or creatively.
At GrowCFO, we try to check in with members each week on a group mentoring basis. And the top personal challenges that come through are impostor syndrome and a lack of confidence - either internally or externally.
The second one tends to be a lack of thinking time, or feeling overwhelmed with tasks on a daily basis. People report feeling a lack of personal energy, anxiety and stress. Sadly, this shows us that the symptoms of burnout are on the rise! And unfortunately, there is a cost attached, sometimes even hidden in the short term. Both to the individual who's suffering it, but also to an organization of not taking it seriously.
The problem is that there is still some shame surrounding a lot of these issues. That makes it really difficult to talk about this in the open.
Where does impostor syndrome come from?
By the time you get to be a leader, you’re externally successful, at least by people's perception of success. But you may not have caught up with that, you may not be quite aligned to that position. Suddenly, as a leader, you've got a huge range of responsibilities, you're not just the finance function lead anymore. You are a leader of a business, dealing with multiple stakeholders. It’s exciting, but it is huge.
And when you're suddenly propelled into this sort of position, these beliefs that we might have about ourselves suddenly emerge. So, the challenge is to align your feeling of success with your presentation of it, to the outside world.
Besides, with seniority, soft skills become the more dominant success in the role. So, whereas one may have actually been highly successful operating within finance, suddenly as a leader, their soft skills can be 80% of the success in a role. And it all requires an awful lot of energy, which is why energy management becomes so important.
The toll of impostor syndrome on performance
Feeling impostor syndrome is connected to thoughts revolving around ideas like “I'm not good enough”, or “I'm not worthy of this success” or even “maybe I'm not as good as my executive or my board colleagues.” It’s quite negative thinking!
But we're definitely not alone with those thoughts - they affect everyone. Our research does show that the majority of finance professionals feel like an impostor at some point in their lives. The feelings can be there all the time, or they can come and go with different experiences or different roles. Of course, if you’re new to a role, or a less experienced CFO, you may feel it more than if you've had more experience down the line.
But impostor syndrome must be addressed quickly: it can affect your confidence, your productivity, motivation and influence. And arguably, it limits your potential overall. Because what it makes you think in relation to your intelligence, your skills, your competence, or even in comparison to your peers, those thoughts affect your emotions and your behaviors.
How to tackle impostor syndrome and free yourself from negative thoughts and stress
Despite all this, there’s some good news: you can change how you think, you are not your thoughts!
The first step to move past impostor syndrome is similar to self-awareness. It’s about observing what thoughts you’re having, and how they impact how you operate. Then, you need to start reframing those negative thoughts. In a nutshell, what you're doing is trying to change your belief system.
There's also a stress performance curve. Because the problem is, the moment you go into that sort of slightly more stressful state, it narrows your focus and perspective. So, everything just seems more difficult. And as a CFO or a finance leader, the last thing you want is for life to feel even more difficult!
So, with these feelings of overwhelm, you've gotta get time to work on your behalf and not against you. If you can stay calm, the answers are often a lot clearer and you can move forward very purposefully, not reactionary to the external environment.
How to manage your energy and avoid stress overwhelm
My top trick to manage my own energy and resist overwhelm is meditation, a special time to connect to myself. I actually think meditation is the biggest thing that helps with your success, but also with inner calmness. It allows you to tune in to your intuition, which is incredibly important as a leader.
Another technique I use a lot is breath work - stomach breathing specifically, because it's incredibly calming for the nervous system. Overall, you want to make sure you’re getting good sleep, good nutrition, fresh air and proper hydration. All those will help. I like to remind people of these because they can easily be forgotten in the overwhelm. But there's productivity gains from investing in yourself.
The way you look after your mind, your body, your emotional wellbeing… All of this keeps you sustainable - you invest in yourself as an asset. High performance generally comes from continual learning and seeking different perspectives. It’s also about being open to feedback and guidance!
Finding the right mentor to grow
I believe seeking support from a mentor is incredibly important. There are different programs of group mentors which are very beneficial, but I think the biggest impact comes when you combine that with one to one mentoring.
Personally, I've always had a mentor throughout my career. It's very helpful, because how often does anyone truly listen to you? That's the benefit of mentoring. It just allows you to say whatever you want to say, get the support you need.
You're very alone as a leader, it's quite lonely at the top. So, if you can have someone there for you and particularly someone who's experienced that journey before, it's incredibly valuable. A mentor is different from a coach, in the sense that mentors have effectively walked the path you’re on now. Of course, mentoring can use some coaching techniques. But it's elevated above that by providing the lived experience.
Getting a mentor can also help accelerate your progression in places where you don't even know possibilities exist. It's extremely helpful to get other perspectives, to be challenged on how you approach a particular scenario.
I remember back in my early finance days, the mentor I worked with at the time gave me extra confidence. That was the role he played. He helped me operate as best as I could then. And then over the years, I learned to be myself.
However, you should never forget the resources around you. You want uplifting people around you, people who support you, but also people who are honest.
The best route to CFO: following your passion and focusing on your strengths
It’s hard to define an ideal route to becoming a finance leader. I believe every CFO role is different, and every organization needs something possibly different from their CFO. I think it's about focusing on what you love doing, and choosing organizations for which you’ve a real passion. Those two factors are quite important. That is how you will achieve success in a way that you truly love, and it feels exciting.
It’s all about working out who you are as a finance leader, and making sure you find the right alignment with an organization. If people don't align what they bring to what an organization needs, suddenly there's a big gap. And when they can't do what's most important in that organization, their confidence starts falling. So, you're just looking to bring your most confident self.
The best advice I’ve ever been given is to follow your joy and your passion. And of course, you should also strive to find your balance. I think those three things are incredibly important. I'm very lucky to have a good balance in my life now, which gives me the energy to deliver my absolute best in what I've chosen to do. And I really don't want it any differently.
CFO Connect is a global community of finance leaders. We host regular meetups & virtual events, have a private Slack group for CFOs, and produce helpful content on our blog and podcast. Join Us!
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