Flip your thinking: How to conquer your inner imposter and join the c-suite within five years
Pamela Bishop named her inner imposter Marella. By naming her enemy, she conquered fear and within five years had become a CMO, then a Board member and now a COO at Blooms The Chemist. All while having kids – and winning the Gamechanger Award at the 2022 Corporate Kindness Awards to boot. An instructive tale for anyone that has ever doubted themselves.
I have struggled with ‘imposter syndrome’ my entire career, but over the last five years I’ve learned how to manage negative thought-patterns and turn them into something positive.
In the past when I was offered a promotion, the negative voice in my head (I’ve named her “Marella”) told me it was because I was lucky, I was in the right place at the right time, or I was the only option available. Now I know better. I take ownership of my success by acknowledging that I work hard, being confident in what I bring to the table, and above all else knowing my value. Getting to this point hasn’t been easy, but it’s been a worthwhile journey.
The MBA, the Marketing Academy and proving Marella wrong
In 2017 I signed up for an MBA. I hadn’t studied since finishing high school and was riddled with self-doubt. On my first day I was so nervous, my legs were trembling under the table. “Marella” told me I wasn’t smart enough and that I would be found out. I avoided asking questions in class for fear of being judged. But over time I learned to manage my inner critic, to ignore her, and developed an attitude of “I’ll show her.” When “Marella” told me my paper was rubbish, I spent time making it better. When she told me I couldn’t deliver a presentation, I rehearsed to build my confidence. And I continuously proved her wrong.
In 2019 I decided to do the AICD’s company directors’ program. “Marella” showed up again, telling me there was no way I would pass the exam. But despite her admonitions and with a lot of determination, I passed. Soon after, I went through the confronting but rewarding application process for a coveted spot on The Marketing Academy’s 2020 scholarship programme. Again, I was successful. But that didn’t stop “Marella” from popping up again and telling me I didn’t deserve a spot. What she was saying certainly affected me and added to my nerves, but to a lesser degree this time – no shaking legs! By now, my imposter syndrome had shifted from something that shrouded me in self-doubt into something that made me push through negativity and try harder to succeed. I had managed to rise above my inner saboteur and make her presence part of my success.
Gaining self-confidence to drive social good
The Marketing Academy was a life-changing experience where I had no choice but to hold the mirror up to myself and reflect on who I was in that moment and what type of person I want to be. I felt transformed during those nine months and it made me want to give back and make a difference. The stars aligned in 2021 and I received a scholarship for an international accelerator program that connects commercial leaders with social initiatives across the globe to deliver lasting change. “Marella” popped up from time to time, but the difference now was that I trusted my abilities more and I had become more confident. So, whilst she sang her same old tune I now had the tools to lower her volume.
In the middle of all this, I had three kids between 2019 – 2021. And much like my professional sphere, imposter syndrome also shows up in my personal and family life. I have found myself questioning if I’m a good mother and whether I’ve struck the right work/family balance. Having kids changed me, and I often think about the kind of world I want them to grow up in.
I reached a place where I wanted to do more. I was reading about responsible businesses creating positive impact and saw the need for the corporate world to step up and do better. It was an epiphany for me - how we can contribute as individuals is one thing, but businesses have resources, funds, and reach. I saw an opportunity in my role with Blooms The Chemist to bridge the gap between purpose and profit and become a more socially responsible business. “Marella” showed up again and told me I would stuff up the business case and wouldn’t be able to lead a movement for change within the team. But I showed her.
Walking the talk on sustainability
Together with my team, we have achieved a huge amount over the last 18 months. We have developed and launched our brand purpose which puts people and their wellbeing at the forefront of our objectives. We have formed charity partnerships that support the communities we serve. We’ve aligned our overarching business goals to the UN’s sustainable development goals. We rolled out nationwide mental health first aid training and conducted a wellbeing study of our people for the first time. Looking ahead, we have a sustainability plan kicking off in the new financial year and we are about to start working on our reconciliation action plan. As a business we now look at our triple bottom line: financial, social, and environmental impacts. This is the kind of work that brings me to life – it’s enjoyable and I’m consistently learning. What more can you ask for?
More to do? Get comfortable with discomfort
But I’m still not done. I want to continue to invest in myself and my education. I’m stretching myself in other ways too, I’m on the committee developing The Marketing Academy’s reconciliation action plan, I sit on three advisory boards, I hold a non-executive director role, and I’m passionate about sharing my experience and learnings through speaking gigs.
My imposter syndrome used to make me shy away from these types of activities. If something seemed intimidating or frightening, I would turn it down. Now I lean into the intimidation and say yes to (the right) opportunities. Even if it scares me, I know there will be a benefit.
I still get nervous before public speaking – but I manage to find comfort in the discomfort. It’s a reminder to push myself to improve. It’s important to me to constantly hold the mirror up and take a good look at myself. I don’t ever want to be too comfortable or complacent.
So, if I leave you with anything, let it be this. Five years ago, my legs were trembling because I was riddled with self-doubt. But by directing my imposter syndrome into something positive and being clear on the impact I want to create, I have achieved some extraordinary things: I graduated with an MBA degree; I gained GAICD status; I won scholarships for two highly selective leadership programs; I landed my first C-level role (CMO) at 34; I landed my first board director role and was promoted to COO at 36 (both while I was on maternity leave); And most recently I received the highest honour of Gamechanger Award at the 2022 Corporate Kindness Awards. I’m really proud of this because it is an award that recognises a leader who operates with integrity, authenticity and exhibits kindness in actions, intention, and influence.
“Marella” pops up less frequently these days and I’m pretty sure imposter syndrome will never truly leave me. The difference now is that I’m ok with that. I’m very comfortable in my own skin, I’m excited about the future, and I know I can achieve anything I put my mind to, regardless of what “Marella” has to say.
How to see off Marella – and grow
Here’s my tips for turning imposter syndrome into something productive:
- Be yourself. Stop worrying about what others think of you and just do you. When you experience self-doubt, try to harness your negative thoughts into a motivator – prove your inner critic wrong!
- Embrace your nerves. Feeling nervous is a reminder that you care about how well you’ll do. You don’t need to know all the answers, ask questions to learn from others. You’ll appear more confident when you speak up.
- Stop avoiding things. If you avoid doing something because it triggers your insecurities, think about the learnings you could gain. When offered opportunities that scare you … say yes and embrace the experience knowing it could be an avenue for growth.
- Embrace feedback. Don’t assume ill-intent when someone offers you feedback, maybe they actually want to help you. Good or bad, feedback will help you grow and improve.
- Flip your thinking. Think about imposter syndrome not as something that will cripple you with self-doubt and hold you back, but rather something that will help propel you forward. Maybe it’s not a weakness, but something that can give you strength.
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