Apr 1, 2022

Read Time 8 min

Got self-doubt? How to silence imposter syndrome in Customer Success

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Have you ever achieved the career growth you’ve always longed for, only to be attacked by an inner critic who says you’re not capable and it’s only a matter of time until you’re found out?

You’re not alone, says Sharon Winterton, vice president of Customer Success at Catalina Marketing, who encountered “imposter syndrome” after achieving the vice president title she’d long aspired to.

Sharon learned that her company, which she’d been with for nearly 20 years, had plans to establish a Customer Success function within its commercial organization. The opportunity Sharon had been working toward for her entire tenure was suddenly right in front of her. When she was offered the position, she accepted.

Having realized her long-term goal, Sharon was on cloud nine. But, before going to bed that night, something changed, she recalled in her “Battling imposter syndrome in Customer Success” session at ChurnZero’s BIG RYG conference.

Despite the overwhelming number of congratulations and affirmations Sharon had received earlier that day, the euphoria of her success started to melt away.

“I freaked out,” recalls Sharon. One by one, the doubts crept in.

You’ve never done Customer Success before. How do you plan to lead through this change?

There’s so much to do. Where are you going to start?

Until they snowballed out of control.

Wait…what??? You don’t even know where to start?

What about those people who said they were proud of you? What are they going to think when you fail?

You’re going to make it harder for others to get promoted from within.

As she lay awake, Sharon’s inner critics filled the silence, talking over one another, growing louder and louder with each intrusive thought.

By the end of her first week, Sharon was exhausted from trying to appear confident and competent in meetings and conversations about her new role. “I was so buried in self-doubt that I had no creative energy left to build anything,” she says. “Which, of course, only escalated the voices in my head telling me I was going to fail and let all these people down.”

Determined to figure out why she was putting herself through this, she Googled it—and discovered the phenomenon known as imposter syndrome.

Relief washed over Sharon as she scrolled through articles: “I wasn’t crazy! This happens to other people too! So, why was this the first time I heard about it?”

Sharon explains that part of the lie of imposter syndrome is that you can’t admit to it, because what if that negative voice is right? If you say your worst fears out loud, you risk their validation.

“Realizing that I wasn’t alone made me feel so much better,” says Sharon. “However, this isn’t a ‘diagnose and fix’ kind of thing. I’ve struggled with this for years, and I will continue to, even now that I’ve achieved my ‘dream level’ professionally.”

However, since finding the source of her fear, Sharon has learned how to keep imposter-fueled insecurities at bay. If you’re encountering imposter syndrome in your Customer Success role—or you suspect that a teammate is struggling with it—these tactics will help.

Prefer video? You can watch Sharon’s presentation here alongside all other BIG RYG sessions.

What is imposter syndrome?

Harvard Business Review defines imposter syndrome as “a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success.”

  • Imposter syndrome is common. Seven in 10 adults have felt like an imposter, according to studies by Gail Matthews and Pauline Rose Clance.
  • Imposter syndrome doesn’t discriminate. According to “The imposter syndrome handbook” by Raghav Parkash, imposter syndrome crosses gender, racial, and professional boundaries. Many accomplished and admired people have publicly confessed to feeling like a phony at times. Howard Schultz of Starbucks said in an interview with The New York Times: “Very few people, whether you’ve been in that job before or not, get into the seat and believe today that they are now qualified to be the CEO. They’re not going to tell you that, but it’s true.” Celebrated poet, novelist, and activist Maya Angelou said, “I have written 11 books but each time I think, ‘Uh-oh they’re going to find out now.’ I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.” America’s favorite actor, Tom Hanks, once said, “No matter what we’ve done, there comes a point where you think, ‘How did I get here? When are they going to discover that I am, in fact, a fraud and take everything away from me?’”
  • Imposter syndrome is prevalent among hard workers and high achievers. It’s associated with behaviors like perfectionism and overworking.
  • Imposter syndrome reaches beyond our professional lives. People feel it at work, home, school, and in relationships.
  • The pandemic amplified it. Based on LinkedIn surveys, during COVID, 52% of leaders struggled with imposter syndrome due to changes that upended work normalcy.

Why imposter syndrome is prevalent in Customer Success

Customer Success professionals can be particularly susceptible to impostor syndrome, Sharon says. Here’s why.

  • Customer Success is a relatively new discipline. Many people have limited or no direct experience in the field, and have to rely on transferrable skills when starting out.
  • Customer Success is growing rapidly. Industry maturity and expansion lead to specialization, new opportunities, and career growth.
  • Customer success is an evolving, changing landscape. There is no growth without change. When accelerated change leaves us feeling off-balance, it’s easy to assume that the disorientation stems from you versus the landscape in which you’re operating. Give yourself credit for doing the best that you can under the circumstances.

What are the causes and effects of imposter syndrome?

Some say that imposter syndrome is nothing more than a side effect of toxic work culture. Microaggressions compound. An absence of diverse leadership often creates a sense of alienation.

“I fully agree that a toxic culture can foster or trigger imposter syndrome,” says Sharon. “However, I also know firsthand of people who have struggled with imposter syndrome that would describe their work experiences as supportive and nurturing.”

Sharon says it’s important to start with what’s within our control: “Regardless of the cause – whether it’s internal hardwiring or external environmental factors – once you are buried in self-doubt, you need strategies to recognize that you’re telling yourself lies.”

Look for ways to stop the cycle that are realistic. If toxic culture is the source, consider advocating to change the culture from within. Alternatively, you might recognize the culture for what it is and escalate the issue to human resources, or even seek new opportunities. “Battling that inner narrative helps you see your circumstances, both positive and negative, for what they really are,” says Sharon.

The three-step strategy to silence your imposter syndrome

Now that you know what imposter syndrome is and why it happens, here’s what to do when you catch yourself worrying that it’s only a matter of time before everyone catches on that you don’t belong – whether in a professional, social, or academic setting.

  1. Name it. Call out negative thoughts and interrupt yourself to stop anxiety from building. Sharon gave her negative voice a name to make it easier to talk back. “I decided to name my nag Angie,” she says. “Angie might say, ‘Wow. You didn’t think of that yet? Why don’t you have a plan for this? You have so many blind spots.’ Then I stop, wait, and tell Angie to cut the crap.”
  2. Reframe it. Your negative inner voice can make a compelling case. Be ready with a counterargument, says Sharon. “You might say, ‘You’re right Angie. I didn’t have a plan for this, and I do have blind spots. That’s why I’m building this new function out in the open, bringing in people who are closest to the work to help. I’ve led major changes to improve things for our customers before, and I will work to earn the trust of this team.’”
  3. Own it. Discuss these feelings with your inner circle. “I’ve found that often, just airing out these sentiments helps me be more self-aware,” says Sharon. Actively remind yourself why you were chosen for the role. “Maybe I wasn’t chosen for my Customer Success credentials (I’m building them as I go), but I have a proven track record of leading change with my company and I have also been passionate about being a culture carrier with various teams I’ve led, and those capabilities will be critical to our success with this transformation,” Sharon says.

How to help teams with imposter syndrome as a leader

If you’re a people leader who has dealt with imposter syndrome, you have the privilege of paying it forward. Be generous and share your experience to create an environment that builds safety and confidence.

You don’t need a leadership title to get involved: “We all have responsibility for building the culture where we work,” Sharon says. Here’s what you can do.

  • Foster psychological safety. Ending the silence around impostor syndromes starts with you. Have open discussions about how self-doubt accompanies success. Admitting you don’t have all answers doesn’t make you a fraud. It helps you solve problems more creatively, collaborate to fill gaps, and broaden your perspective. A selfish bonus: the more open you are about your limitations, the better you manage your own imposter syndrome.
  • Create a culture of inclusion. Encourage candid conversations where people can speak up without fear of being judged as incompetent. To foster a climate of inclusion, set communication ground rules:
    • Make no interruptions.
    • Give everyone equal time to speak.
    • Acknowledge not only mistakes, but also wins and opportunities to develop.
    • Find ways to introduce diversity into your culture. Mentoring and diversity training reduce the negative effects of unconscious bias and feeling like an outsider.
  • Be a good (not perfect) example. Show your team what it means to work like a human. It’s great if you have high standards and are detail-oriented, but no one wins when team members burn out. Model how you care for your mental health and work-life balance. Share your own challenges and development focus areas to show everyone has imperfections. Additionally, delegate responsibility and explain the reasons for your decision, including your own limitations. It’s completely acceptable to share that you can’t do everything and that a team member is stronger than you in certain areas.
  • Commit to real-time feedback. Instead of praising a team member’s intelligence or talent, reinforce the processes they used or the progress they’ve made (versus rewarding perfection). Celebrating incremental progress keeps morale high and helps people internalize success. In Sharon’s to-do list, she has a “Yay Me” column. It partly helps her keep a running log of work in anticipation of performance reviews. But it also serves as a reminder that she’s had success in varied disciplines. In addition to praising wins, commit to giving your team prompt feedback when you see opportunities to improve. This is particularly important for high-performing individuals who are taking on stretch assignments. Knowing that you have their back and won’t let them falter too badly will ease their fears.

Finally, if you’re questioning your qualifications for speaking up and lending help, Sharon offers this reassurance: “While I may not be a professional therapist or coach, I am an expert in my own experience. I’ve learned that for many people, hearing amateur advice from someone who’s faced similar challenges can be helpful, partly for the ‘field tested strategies,’ but just as much to know you’re not alone.”

About the presenter

Sharon Winterton is a passionate leader of people and builder of teams, balancing a focus on delivering exceptional business results and compassionate engagement with people. In her current role as vice president of Customer Success, Sharon is leveraging her 20 years of experience with operational leadership, trusted cross-functional partnerships, and obsession with meaningful professional development to introduce Customer Success as a new discipline within Catalina Marketing.

Also an avid writer, Sharon has been featured on Women of Martech’s “In Her Shoes” spotlight and Catalina Marketing’s Perspectives blogs with her posts about her experience with imposter syndrome. On a more personal note, she also launched a faith-based blog about her blended family called BlessedAndBlended.com.

Sharon holds both a bachelor’s degree in music and a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from the University of Delaware, as well as an master’s degree from the University of Phoenix.

 


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