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Imposter Syndrome and the advantages of being your authentic self

Rita Clifton CBE, Non-Executive Director, Writer and Keynote Speaker


Whether you’re new to the world of work or an experienced leader, everyone is susceptible to thoughts that they are undeserving of the position and plaudits that they have worked hard to earn. Over time, these thoughts can impact heavily on not just your mindset, but your career and life as a whole.

Today I’m delighted to be joined by Rita Clifton CBE, an expert on branding and business leadership whose career highlights include positions on the board of numerous businesses and non-profits, a spell as Vice Chair and Strategy Director at Saatchi & Saatchi and the authorship of three books, including ‘Love Your Imposter’.


1. Perhaps we could start with you offering an introduction in your own words.


(1:23) Thank you very much, thanks for inviting me. Delighted to be having this conversation and also I think about some topics that hopefully of utter importance to all of us in our personal as well as our professional lives too. So I mean, as far as my career is concerned, right now I wear a few different hats in my career. I wear my non-executive director hats. I sit on the board of various businesses like John Lewis Partnership and Essential. I was on the board of Nationwide for nine years or so.

Also, I’m on the board of some nonprofit organisations. I’m chair of Forum for the Future, which is a global sustainability nonprofit, green alliance. I’ve obviously been a trustee and fellow of WWF (World Wide Fund) for nature. I guess my background, my main day job, if you like, in my executive career has always been in brand strategy, customer insight and, as you say, I’ve worked at some quite high-profile organisations in that area.

But I will be honest with you and say my career has come as a complete surprise to me. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was interested in the media, I enjoyed television, I was very nosy about customers about trends and so on and, therefore, going into the advertising and communications business was something I did from university and I moved from client management to do strategy, which is quite a pivotal thing for me. I discovered something I was really good at with strategy and then all sorts of things then became possible where I was able to be my best self and really, I guess hit a sweet spot of some of the things that I was most interested in and also was best at. And having become a strategy director at Saatchi & Saatchi, I was then approached about being a chief executive at Interbrand, as you say.

But I think what was interesting there and maybe something that’s also interesting for Hays and more broadly, is that actually it took a search firm to approach me and recognise I could be a chief executive because I had not thought about myself in that role at all. So a search consultant called me, she’d known me from other roles  and from networking and so on (back to that maybe later) and she felt that it would really suit me to do this job. And I can’t believe that I really hesitated for sometime because when I became CEO, even though it’s a very, very relentless role, I don’t need to tell you that.

I mean, just when you think you’ve got five minutes, I was going to call you and feed you a problem, etc., you have to worry about the vision thing and the toilets and everything in between. But the great thing about being chief executive is that you control the culture. You can make the choices. I had 50/50 men and women on my executive team. We did personal bursary programs. You can create a culture that you feel proud of with the kind of purpose that also you feel proud of. So having become a chief executive, I did that for four or five years, then I became chair. And then I started to do non-executive directorships and sit on boards, expand my portfolio.

And alongside all of that, I’ve always done something in the green and environmental sector because honestly, I’ve had a crush on David Attenborough since the age of seven. And you know, I think I wanted to try and help save the world in some way, shape or form from that age. And so in all seriousness, I’ve managed to combine my interest in green, the environment and sustainability with some of my corporate roles too. And over the last few years, I don’t need to tell you, there’s been an absolute upswing in the interest in environmental, social and governance issues and they become more front and centre of any organisation strategy and indeed purpose and we’ve got to accelerate that and it’s scale, but at least it is now happening. And that’s what where we find ourselves now.

So, you know, I’m very lucky to have done all the things that I’ve done and I’m very, very keen that we get many, many more very different sorts of people running organisations because we need more human beings with all the human flaws that we’ve all got, running organisations and really making a big difference to our common humanity.

2. We’re here today to discuss imposter syndrome, which is something you explore in your book, Love Your Imposter. Would you mind giving me a brief description of the term to those who are less familiar and perhaps the different ways in which people can experience this?


(6:47) Well, there are many different definitions of imposter syndrome. I tend to use the one from Harvard Business Review, which talks about feelings of inadequacy despite evident success. Now, we’ve all got different takes on our imposter, you know, my mind tends to be the voice that sits on my shoulder saying things like. You can’t really do this or you don’t really deserve to be here or you should stand aside for someone who really knows what they’re doing. I mean, this voice is something that crops up for about 70% of people.

So what I would say to people on this call is, if you have experienced imposter syndrome, you are in very good company. Because there’s a say about 70% of people experience imposter syndrome at some stage in their working lives. And you can hardly move now for celebrities talking about their own imposter syndrome. I mean, whether it’s Tom Hanks or it’s Michelle Obama or Emma Watson. Olivia Colman, award-winning actress, talks about how she thought she was going to get fired when she goes on the set of new productions, etc.

Just recently, Adele, the singer was talking about her imposter syndrome and Dame Kate Bingham, who really was the engine behind the vaccination programs, she talked about her imposter syndrome too so it is very, very common. And I think what’s really important here is for us all to recognise it, number one. And secondly, look at it with a slightly different mindset. And the reason I think that’s very important is because I read a lot about struggling with your imposter syndrome or trying to overcome your imposter.

I think sometimes that is a bit of a waste of energy. Clearly for some people, these feelings are so extreme, about 10 to 15 percent of people, these feelings are so extreme they can become a bit debilitating and you do need professional help on that front. But the vast majority of people, they are just normal human feelings that are so common you start going, these are not really a syndrome. This is more about being a human being and actually we’ve all got drives. We’ve all got reasons for developing imposter syndrome. That can be from your background, your family or schooling, your university, or whatever, but they are drives, they provide a drive. And sometimes to recognise that drive and go, “Do you know? I know why you’re there.” And rather than struggling with it gave thank you, because actually, you can harness that drive and energy to improve, to stretch yourself and do more that maybe you think may have been possible. So I think sometimes imposter feelings can be a useful drive to helping us move on and to succeed and developing that slightly different mindset, I think, is something that is very good to discuss.

3. How has imposter syndrome manifested itself in your career?


Well, I think that there have been moments, real moments, that I recognised where I was thinking, you know, it’s really looming large for me. So going to university – I mean, I was the first person in my family to go to university. I hadn’t even thought I was going to go. I very sadly lost my father when I was only 12, but fortunately the teacher at school took me under her wing and saw or felt that I had some academic potential and helped me to be ambitious, I went to Cambridge in the end. And but of course, I arrived in Cambridge University and looked around thinking, “oh my goodness”. I really felt like a fish out of water and thought, “this is an out-of-body experience, not really for the likes of me”, if I can put it that way.

But then, of course, in later life, I met Hillary Clinton, and she very kindly did an endorsement for my book. But, Hillary Clinton felt the same feelings of imposter when she went to Columbia University. She looked around the room and thought, all these women are much smarter than me. How I go to it but she used it as a driver as well. Just like Olivia Colman used her feelings of, oh my God, I can’t do it. That’s her spurred to try harder and push herself, and to succeed. So, I think university was where I really first vividly recognised it but actually, you know, when I’ve started new jobs. When I start a new job or a new role when I first was made strategy director and I had a whole team of people. I was thinking, oh my goodness. Do I know much more than they do? When I became CEO, you know, then you really feel, oh my goodness. So this is, am I qualified to do this? However, I really have recognised that these feelings are normal human feelings. About, you know, can I do it when you step into new roles. And actually you could if you recognise them, harness them, you can use them for more positive ends than you might think so.

4. It’s important to note that imposter syndrome can happen in any aspect or stage of a person’s life. Are there any common triggers that listeners can look out for? Is it possible to prepare for it?


(12:05) The triggers are often about either going for a new role or otherwise, stepping in to that new role. It can also be things like making a public speech. Public speaking, as we know, is one of the key fears that people have got. So, it can often be either situations where you are having to move into that big, big stretch zone out of your comfort zone, or it can be, of course, moving and making broader life decisions about new roles. These can often be the triggers for it.

But again in my view, you can look at that in a more positive way, which is recognising it and go, “actually, nerves are good”. A lot of actors, celebrities, and business leaders have said you need to use that feeling of “can I do this?” and use your nerves and sense of insecurity to do more, to practice more and to work harder and stretch yourselves harder. By the way, I’m saying all this with a view to, “how can we all succeed in making the very most of ourselves and do the very most we can do in our working lives?” What I’m not saying is it’s for everybody. If any wants a quieter life, all power to people to make those sort of choices. What I’m doing is saying: we need more good human beings with normal human feelings to end up running organisations, and there are ways of harnessing your energies to enable that to happen, and a way that you might not think that you can do or might not have the confidence to do.

5. In your experience, are there any groups or demographics that are more likely to have these thoughts?


(13:53) Well, I think what’s interesting here is it can be very high achieving people, and one of the reasons they are high-achieving, ironically, is that they had these feelings of being imposter and not being good enough and so on. However, it’s a very, very common thing and it used to be recognised or it used to be thought of as a female syndrome, and certainly in the 1970s when the syndrome was first identified, it was because a psychologist had been working with a high-achieving group of women and of course, they found these common feelings of inadequacy or feeling like an imposter, etc.

Actually what happened after that was that more and more studies demonstrated that both men and women can experience imposter syndrome. They tend to expose it in slightly different ways, for different reasons. Women experience it because actually, in some ways, society indicates success in professional careers and so on. For guys, it tends to work in the opposite way, which is, there’s so much expectation to succeed and to be seen to succeed and want to succeed that actually if they don’t, it can have a real impact on self-confidence and also sense of self-worth, worries about imposter syndrome and so on.

But women tend to be better at sharing these things. I mean, clearly there are many common characteristics and so on across this phenomenon syndrome, but women tend to be better at sharing their views and feelings which tends to be more therapeutic and men tend to be less good at it. But the final thing I would say is what is in common across men and women is that, those people who tend to underestimate themselves and underestimate what they can do, tend to be the ones who achieve more. And those who have an over-inflated view about who they are and what they can do, tend to achieve less. And I think that supports this idea of imposter feelings can be harnessed in a positive way.

6. Something that I’m keen to explore with you is something you mentioned in your book, around the old adage that “nice guys always finish last”. Would you mind just talking about why and how businesses need to tackle this?


(16:16) I look around the world at the moment and it’s easy to get a bit depressed by the whole “strong man – autocratic leader”. Even though people often talk a good game about, you know, “we want to create a positive culture and a cooperative culture, and collaborative and want good people and a nice culture” etc, sometimes, you do worry that secretly, they think they’re glad to have a school bully on their side, and that actually, somehow this is necessary. Well, I’d say a couple of things to that.

Firstly, is that nastiness is becoming a very expensive trait and characteristic in company cultures. Bullying is a very expensive word. And not only is it expensive word from a legal point of view and from an employment law point of view, but also, you can’t bully people senseless and get the very best out of them. If people are operating in a culture of fear, then they tend to do, spend too much time protecting their backsides and also trying to avoid blame as opposed to learning and developing and moving on in a positive way.

Secondly, of course, if you don’t have a positive culture, if you do have a culture of, you know, nastiness or not being nice, you leak talent or frankly, sometimes you can gush talent. Who’s going to choose to work for an organisation that doesn’t have a positive culture that is generally trying to help people be the most they can be and to be brilliant, as opposed to create a climate of fear?

You know, the nice guys finish last thing was said by someone in 1946. It was an American baseball coach and I don’t think it was even accurate then. It’s definitely well past its sell-by date.

The other thing I’d say is that the world is a difficult enough place as it is, I think we’ve all got an imperative and a sense of commitment that we should have that we want to make working with other people as pleasant, and as kind, and as nice as it can be not only because it’s the right business outcome to help people be the best they can be and to retain talent, but also because it just makes the world a slightly nicer place. And frankly, we need the world to be better and nicer and kinder because we need to make sure this planet and our society does manage to make it through another few generations, to say the least.

7. You advocate strongly for authenticity and honest communication. Can you explain why it is helpful for those experiencing imposter syndrome?


(19:05) The reason I say this is that another piece of advice – apart from “nice guys finish last” which, as you say, I think is rubbish – that I don’t like is when people say, “you’ve got to fake it to make it”. The reason I don’t like that advice is because it almost encourages people to think about the thousands of third-party construct. Some sort of inhuman avatar. And a couple of things about that.

Number one: you might be able to fake it for a presentation or even for a TV series (there used to be one called Faking It, where sometimes people faking it would convince judges that they were the real thing). You can do it for a TV series or a presentation or short-term, but you can’t fake it day in, day out in your professional or personal life without making yourself either miserable or ill.

Also, thinking about yourself as a third-party construct is the opposite of what I think is needed in business right now to enhance and improve the image of business. The brand business has never been more mistrusted and, in some ways if we all assume that everyone thought the market economy was the best idea for running successful happy societies, I don’t think we’d take that for granted anymore. But if we don’t have successful businesses, we’re not going to have the money to pay for schools and hospitals and civil societies.

So we need to do good business, and good business needs to be business that is run by people who are not afraid of their human selves. Be honest about the things that they think are important, being honest when it’s appropriate about some of their own flaws and in, you know, and vulnerabilities because that can help other people recognise that these feelings are normal. And actually, if you’ve got these normal human feelings, you can make the best of yourself using those human feelings as opposed to creating some sort of strange construct.

I tried to do this when I was first chief executive. There were certain things I thought, “I need to be a bit like that” to be a chief executive – “That’s how they are”. You’d have your arms folded for the photos and use kick-ass type of language, and it wasn’t me. It took me a while to really be honest with myself about the sort of leader I wanted to be and was naturally suited for which is a much more nurturing type of leadership.

I want to see people be brilliant. I mean, where I get a lot of my energy from is helping people develop and move on and be more than they thought they could possibly be. If you don’t want to see other people be brilliant, you don’t have the right to call yourself a leader. And nurturing, by the way, is one of the most powerful forces in nature. If you just look at any of those wildlife programs, let alone human beings, nurturing is incredibly powerful and that to me is the way of helping people make the most of each other, not by shouting and being a bully and making people feel afraid.

8. Your comments about the qualities of leadership bring me to my final question, which is one we ask of all our guests: what do you think the three qualities that make a good leader and, crucially, have these qualities changed as a result of the pandemic?


(22:44) I’m going to answer that in a slightly different way, because I believe that some of the advice that one can give people about making the very most of themselves is about building their personal brand. Now, what I don’t mean by that and building their own leadership brand. What I don’t mean by that, of course, is the “Kardashianisation” or personal branding. What I mean is, using some of the thinking behind some of the most successful and influential commercial brands and thinking about how to apply that to yourself. There are three characteristics that apply to building a strong brand, whether its corporate or personal for yourself.

First and foremost is clarity. Clarity of what you stand for, what you’re good at, your key strengths, your purpose and your goals short and longer-term. Get clear about that, because if you’re not clear about that, anything else is less effective or less sufficient. So that, to my mind, is an incredibly important facet of leadership. Be clear about who you are, what you’re good at, what you’re aiming for.

Second is coherence. How does that clarity of your thinking show up through everything you do about your skills, your behaviour, your learnings, how you’re presenting yourself and communicating in the round? For example, if you want to end up on the board, you’ve got to learn the language of the boardroom, which is the language of finance. And if you don’t feel comfortable with that language, or you’re not prepared to learn it, you might not get there or you might not be as influential as you can be when you do get there. So coherence is incredibly important.

Also, you’ve got to be a good communicator. You’ve got to present yourself in a way that is coherent with your goals. If you want to run a company, think about what it’s going to give people, how people are going to get confidence in the way that you are going to be able to help them and how you project yourself and so on.

The third characteristic of a strong brand is actually leadership. Because you are the leader of your own personal brand. You make decisions about what you’re going to learn. Your curiosity, your restlessness, your desire to improve yourself. Now, that is a fundamentally important aspect of building your own personal brand and your leadership brand. You need to take the initiative. Look ahead and really think about how it is that you need to move on, develop, stretch yourself, etc. So that I think, as the best set of, or at least a framework that I’ve found to help people make the very most of themselves.


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Rita Clifton CBE has been described as the ‘Doyenne of branding’ by Campaign magazine, ‘Brand guru’ by the Financial Times and as a ‘fabulous ambassador for business’ by Retail Week.  She has worked with many of the leading businesses and organisations around the world, as well as start-up and growth stage businesses across sectors, and speaks on all aspects of brand strategy, boards and business leadership. Her pro bono board roles include Chair at the global sustainability non-profit Forum for the Future, as Trustee and now Fellow at WWF (Worldwide Fund for Nature), and as Trustee at Green Alliance, the leading environmental think tank.

Rita was awarded a CBE in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours List of 2014 and was recently made a Visiting Fellow at Saïd Business School, Oxford University.

Her latest book on new types of business leadership, ‘Love Your Imposter’, was published by Kogan Page in the summer of 2020.



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