Overcome Imposter Syndrome: A Guide to Building Confidence for Finance Leaders

As a finance leader, you play a vital role in driving the success of your teams, other departments and fellow board members. You are under immense pressure to communicate progress, generate confidence amongst stakeholders and deliver results. Despite being a vital well-respected board member, most finance leaders suffer from Imposter Syndrome, particularly during your early years of delivering the role. In this comprehensive guide, we'll cover the essentials you need to know about how to overcome Imposter Syndrome and build up your confidence as a finance leader.
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Do you ever feel like you’re not good enough at your job or don’t deserve the role? Or that other people are judging your abilities or are better than you? If so, you’re not alone. The vast majority of finance leaders suffer from a lack of confidence at some stage during their careers.

In fact, almost 60% of the GrowCFO community identified this as one of their top three challenges. Research suggests anywhere from 60-80% of adults experience imposter syndrome at work. For some people, this feeling pops up sporadically and for others, it’s a constant battle. Imposter syndrome is real and it can hold you back from your full potential.

But don’t worry, there are ways to overcome it. In this guide, we’ll explore what imposter syndrome is, how to recognize if you’re struggling with it and finally, how to push through and achieve your goals with a range of accessible methods.

Table of Contents

Signs you may be experiencing Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome manifests itself in a variety of ways. Having “imposter syndrome” is like feeling you don’t deserve the success you have achieved. It’s likely that you’re self-critical and hard on yourself. You may be overly concerned with what others may be thinking of you.

Do you relate to any of these thoughts?

  • “I got here by luck”
  • “I am not really good enough to be here in this role”
  • “I am not the person others think I am”
  • “I don’t deserve this”
  • “I will inevitably be found out as a phony”
  • “Other people are more qualified than me to do the job”
  • “That project only succeeded because my boss gave me lots of support!

You may also:

  • Downplay your accomplishments and expertise
  • Fail to start (or finish) projects or refuse new opportunities
  • Feel reluctant to ask for help
  • Overwork yourself to the point of burnout
  • Agonize over even the smallest mistakes or flaws in your work
  • Attribute your success to luck or outside factors
  • Be very sensitive to even constructive criticism or avoid feedback
  • Feel like you don’t “belong” at events outside of the office

When you feel like an imposter, there is a gap between how others see you and how you feel inside. You attribute your success to external factors outside of yourself, rather than learning to feel like you have worked hard to deserve your role or the praise and recognition by others.

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The root cause: why do so many finance leaders suffer from imposter Syndrome?

There are many different reasons why so many finance leaders suffer from Imposter Syndrome during their careers. This is particularly the case when people first step up into the number one role.

A seat at the table

Taking on the finance leader role typically creates a huge amount of boardroom exposure and first-time finance leaders are often one of the youngest people in the boardroom. You are likely to have the least amount of industry experience and you may come from a very different career background to everybody else. This can leave you feeling like a sore thumb or, as one of our members put it, “a square peg in a round hole”.

The way that the board views you is an important factor when it comes to overcoming imposter syndrome. When you feel like other people don’t believe in you, it’s more difficult to believe in yourself. So if you’re not feeling like your board member is behind you 100%, this can contribute to that lack of confidence. This lack of assurance or support could come from other members on the team as well, including the CEO and CFO.

External-facing representation

There are also many other big changes when stepping up into the CFO role from say, a Head of Finance position or a number two role. You will suddenly spend a lot more time focusing on external matters and representing your company across many external stakeholders.

This can create a heightened sense of responsibility and a lot more pressure. You might feel like you need to be on your A-game 100% of the time and sometimes, this might play out as “imposter syndrome” because it’s overwhelming or challenging to deal with. It can also affect how you communicate at work. For example, you may feel like you need to be so perfect that you won’t speak up in the boardroom.

You may also begin to doubt your own abilities because you’re not used to representing the business publicly, or for having an emotional reaction about something that’s happening externally. You might find yourself overthinking conversations and interactions with stakeholders, looking for ways that you could have been better.

Complex decision-making and getting buy-in

Finance leaders spend a lot of time working on complex tasks, many of which you may have never done before. You are now advising the board and there are many alternatives to decisions you make which makes the role a lot less black and white. 

Your junior career probably involved completing activities that have a clear right or wrong answer, such as bookkeeping, compliance and reporting. However, you will now get more involved in strategy and change initiatives and will be constantly faced with different dilemmas. The outcome of these is often unknown and you will need to apply your gut feeling towards making decisions. This is particularly tricky when you then need to influence others that this is the correct path to follow.

Social conditioning

Imposter syndrome can arise from social conditioning, self-critical thinking, and family patterning. You may have been brought up to doubt your own self-worth in some way or be in a work environment that promotes self-doubt.

Methods to overcome Imposter Syndrome

We use up a lot of emotional energy when we think we are not up to the task. This significantly limits your potential as it reduces your confidence, productivity, motivation and influence.

As we’ve seen from the research and from our own conversations with finance leaders, working through your imposter syndrome is difficult but not impossible. There are many small actions you can take to develop your inner self and perform to the best of your ability as the finance leader for your business. Whilst these are individually small, taking such incremental actions will make a huge difference overall.

Consider this as embarking on a journey that will lead you to where you want to be, rather than suddenly making an immediate change.

Here are some of the many ways in which finance leaders can overcome Imposter Syndrome:

 

Self-awareness is the first step to combat Imposter Syndrome

We’re going to get straight to the answer; you can change how you think. Despite having around 60,000 thoughts a day – most of them negative ones – we are not our thoughts. Often our own perception of reality is very different to the actual reality. 

If we want to be self-aware, it requires intentionality on our part. We need to develop a regular practice of monitoring how we’re thinking and feeling. The way that we think about things will change how we interact in places like the boardroom. We can always change how we think by adopting the most appropriate techniques.

The first question you need to ask yourself is: what are the main thoughts I’m having in relation to my abilities in the role? Write these down.

Be honest with yourself about what triggers feelings of self-doubt, whether it’s work related or not. Try to note down if there are particular times you feel like this and how there might be an external factor involved (such as a tough interaction with a colleague, or a presentation that went badly).

For each thought you’ve written down, ask yourself: “Is there evidence to support this?” “Is there evidence against it?” Please pause and breathe and take the time to reflect before you react – what evidence is there to really support these thoughts? How much do you really believe them? If you don’t believe it 100% then there must be some doubt!

Having a clear understanding of where these thoughts arise from will allow you to take steps towards countering them and getting yourself back on track. When you know where your feelings are coming from, you can choose how you respond rather than being at the mercy of your impulses.

When you understand your own decision-making process, it’s easier to realize when you’re being influenced by irrational concerns. You’ll develop the ability to know whether the way you’re feeling is influenced by irrational thinking, or if it’s a rational response to something that’s happened.

Reframe negative thoughts

When you think negatively about yourself or worry about how others perceive you during certain situations, stop and ask yourself why this is happening. Many finance leaders have the qualifications, skills and potential to deliver their role but subconsciously assume that other people are doubting them, without ever asking them what they actually think. This is called mind reading.

One way to change these negative thoughts is by asking ourselves why we are having them in the first place. What underlying beliefs do we have that are causing us to doubt our abilities? Once we identify these beliefs, it becomes easier to change them. After all, we generally live by our beliefs as if they are facts. So, if we can change our thoughts, we can change our beliefs.

One way to change a belief is to challenge the evidence of its existence. For example, if we believe that we are not good enough to be successful, we can look at all the times we have been successful in the past and realize that this belief is not based on fact. We can also look at other successful people who have similar backgrounds to us and realize that we are just as capable of being successful as they are.

Another way to change our beliefs is to come up with an alternative way of viewing them. For example, if we believe that we are not good enough to be successful, we can view it as a challenge instead of a negative statement. This way, we are more likely to take action and prove to ourselves that we are indeed good enough to be successful.

Ultimately, the best way to overcome Imposter Syndrome is to change our reaction to situations and our behaviour. If we can react more positively to situations and believe in ourselves, we will be more likely to achieve our goals. So, the next time you find yourself doubting your abilities, remember that you have the power to change your thoughts and beliefs. You are in control of your own success.

Helpful techniques

Imposter Syndrome is experienced by high achievers who are unable to internalize and accept their accomplishments. Many people with imposter syndrome feel like they’re frauds, and that sooner or later, they’ll be exposed.

Here are five techniques to help you reframe your negative thoughts and positively thrive:

  1. Don’t be consumed with what other people may think. Their opinions are not nearly as important as your own.
  2. Build daily routines and habits that enhance your personal energy. This could include things like exercise, meditation, journaling, or spending time in nature.
  3. Don’t be afraid to try new things. Stepping outside of your comfort zone is a great way to learn and grow.
  4. Celebrate success, no matter how small. Acknowledge your accomplishments and give yourself credit where it’s due.
  5. Apply positive thoughts multiple times per day to make these your default. This will change your subconscious and help you to grow in confidence.

By implementing these tips, you’ll start to perform better during situations you previously found challenging. Remember that it’s okay to not be perfect, and that everyone has moments of self-doubt. What matters is how you choose to deal with them.

The Thought Ladder Exercise

Here’s a short exercise called ‘The Thought Ladder’ to get you thinking differently:

  • For the base of the ladder, identify your most prominent Imposter Syndrome thought, such as: “I am not as good as my colleagues.”
  • Consider an alternative thought – what you wish you could believe about yourself, for example: “I am intelligent enough to succeed in whatever I choose.”
  • Focus on the middle rungs of the ladder – two or three empowering thoughts that are more positive than your existing one, such as: “I still have lots to learn but I am enthusiastic, willing and bring a fresh perspective”; or: “I have accomplished many things and have equivalent skills to my colleagues.”
  • Reflect on how these new thoughts make you feel and ensure you believe them.
  • Practice them daily – set an alarm with the thoughts on your phone or pin them to a visible wall.
  • The more you think about them the better! Take this a step further by acting as if you believe your new perspective (even if you do not fully yet) and observing the outcome. The ‘fake it till you make it’ analogy can go a long way to building and projecting more confidence.
  • For example, your old belief may be: “If I am lucky then I will land my desired role.” Your new belief could be: “If I work hard with the best intentions, then I am worthy of my success.”

Some people may also use meditation or getting outdoors to do this. Meditation helps to calm down your mind and let new information in. You need to be in a calm state of mind to think logically and apply the above methodology. Stay focused on integrating your desired thoughts into your subconscious mind so that you overcome Imposter Syndrome by thinking differently.

What influences the way that you think about yourself?

How does this affect how you behave?

Don’t dwell on your mistakes  

It’s totally normal to make mistakes, don’t beat yourself up over them. Everyone makes mistakes sometimes; it’s not the end of the world. Don’t assume that it will affect your reputation or assume that others will judge you for that mistake. All you can do is learn from your mistake and move on with what you’ve learned!

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Make use of feedback 

If someone gives you feedback on something, don’t dismiss it by saying “oh, I didn’t really know how to do this anyway” or “I had no idea what they were expecting.” This is especially important if it’s more than one person who expresses similar thoughts – take some time to think about what they’ve said and how you could do better in the future.

Find your support network and get an outside perspective

Every time you make a decision or take action, there will always be alternatives available – but at times this may cause doubt which might stem from imposter syndrome if taken too far. The trick here is not letting these feelings creep in!

If you’re not sure, speak to your support network who will be able to provide you with some insight. By using the feedback from those around you and by reflecting on tough decisions, you can gain an outside perspective which can help remove feelings of doubt.

This could be someone in your company, such as another member of the finance team, or someone outside work like a mentor. They will provide great insight into what’s going well for you and what isn’t. This should help build your confidence again so that you can move forward.

To overcome Imposter Syndrome, you need to reframe your negative thoughts. We each have around 60,000 thoughts per day and the majority of these thoughts are negative ones. You need to catch these negative thoughts and react to them in a different way. You can only do this by changing your old beliefs to something new.

Catherine Clark, Professional Mentor and Experienced CFO

Give yourself credit

If you completed a task or achieved something, don’t undermine your efforts by saying “it was easy” or “anyone could have done it.” By doing so, you’re basically dismissing all of your hard work, time and energy that went into achieving what you’ve achieved. And no one wants to be dismissed like that! So take some time to reflect on your performance and give yourself credit for what you’ve achieved.

Own your success

To end on a positive note, we encourage you to recognize your accomplishments regularly to keep Imposter Syndrome at bay.

Making a list of your accomplishments is an easy way to change your mindset and build confidence in yourself. There are always going to be times when you feel like you’re not good enough, but what you need to do is look for the positive experiences in your career.

For example, when was the time that you made a difficult decision and it paid off? What about when you had to work with someone different to your team and they ended up being an asset? Why not write these things down on a piece of paper, then you can refer to them the next time that imposter syndrome starts creeping in.

Take 10 minutes out of your day to reflect on what is going well for you in work right now. Spend time each day championing yourself. Celebrate small wins, like when someone says thank you for your help with something. Be proud of your work!

Finance Leader Challenge

Overcome Imposter Syndrome

The vast majority of finance leaders suffer from a lack of confidence at some stage during their career and would significantly benefit from trying to overcome Imposter Syndrome. Imposter syndrome is where you do not feel worthy or believe that you have been promoted too quickly into a role. It is also the belief that everything could come crashing down when someone realises that you are not good enough for your role.

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Closing Thoughts

Throughout this guide we talked about imposter syndrome – what it is, how to recognize if you’re feeling like an imposter and finally, tools to overcome those feelings.

As humans, it can be hard to imagine ourselves doing something amazing, extraordinary or world-changing. There are so many other people out there that have achieved greatness in comparison to us – it can feel like you will NEVER achieve anything significant.

It’s okay to have days where you feel like nothing is going right for you but try not to let it affect your confidence too much or too often. It can be easy to forget the great things that we have achieved. It is natural to experience Imposter Syndrome when starting something new, but finding confidence in yourself and finding the right support will lead you to make more impact and help deliver your role with conviction.

Online Training Course

GrowCFO has developed a specific course on soft skills, which contains various lessons focused on helping to increase your confidence and gravitas. These feature professional mentor videos, proven methodologies and case studies. 

Professional Mentoring and Coaching​

Mentoring and coaching can help finance leaders plan ahead confidently with the expert guidance of someone who’s been there before and is committed to seeing you succeed. We offer complimentary chemistry calls so that you can get to know us better and see if our mentoring style is a good fit for your needs. During this call, we will discuss your challenges and goals, and help you determine the best course of action moving forward.​

The CFO Programme​

Our CFO Programme is designed for passionate finance leaders who are keen to develop a well-respected finance function that provides vital support, influence and value creation across your business. This six-month virtual programme is led by professional mentors who have strong CFO experience and is delivered within cohorts comprising 6-8 finance leaders, alongside individual mentoring.

The GrowCFO Competency Framework​

Use The GrowCFO Competency Framework to assess your and your team’s hard and soft skills. This first of its kind assessment tool will help individuals benchmark themselves against your finance leader peer group across nine CFO competencies and 45 skill sets.​

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