On courage, self-belief and taking the plunge
PART 4: If you want to change the world through your own business, at some point you'll need the courage to jump into the unknown – even when there are “bloody good reasons not to do so”, says long-time mentor Liam Black. But imposter syndrome should not be one of those reasons. The fourth instalment from his new book, How to lead with purpose: Lessons in life and work from the gloves-off mentor.
I met Chen at a social innovation awards ceremony I was MCing in London, in July 2019. I sat in on her pitch sessions and I was fascinated by her story. She had arrived in the UK from China in 2002 speaking little English and with no network at all. She managed to pay her way through university and got her PhD in Computer Graphics. She built a successful career in software design, research and development and for nearly a decade she worked in a world-class studio creating breathtaking visual effects for blockbuster movies. Her team won an Oscar for its work on Gravity and Blade Runner 2049. Yes, an Oscar.
When she had kids she had a really tough time breastfeeding, especially with latching. Latching refers to how the baby fastens on to the breast. A good latch promotes high milk flow and minimises nipple discomfort for the mother, whereas a poor latch results in poor milk transfer to the baby and can quickly lead to sore, cracked nipples and even infection. Many women experience intense anxiety and depression as a result of not being able to breastfeed, and babies are deprived of the health and developmental benefits of mothers’ milk.
- Catch up on parts one, two and three of Liam Black's book, How to lead with purpose
Chen’s experience motivated her to create LatchAid, an app to support breastfeeding mothers in those crucial early days after delivery. The app – renamed Anya in 2022 – uses 3D animation technology as well as providing AI-powered, one-to-one support and connecting women to a global community of other new mothers. Her personal experience of the problem she is trying to solve gives her not only profound user insight, but a deep and courageous commitment to women and their wellbeing.
Chen didn’t win the money that night in the City but I was really impressed with her intelligence, passion, commitment and the clear need for Anya in the fast growing ‘femtech’ market. I gave her my card and said we should have a follow-up coffee, which we did, and I stayed in touch with her on and off for the next year or so, trying to be useful practically and making introductions when and where I could.
In October 2020 one of Chen’s colleagues got in touch with me to express her concern that Chen was buckling under the extreme pressure of a demanding full-time job managing a team of software engineers scattered around the world, looking after her family and trying to build momentum for her start-up. All of this in the middle of an unprecedented pandemic. I offered my services as a mentor to Chen and we are now working together.
When we reconnected, it was obvious that a punishing toll was being taken on her peace of mind. She wasn’t sleeping, she told me, lying awake worrying, feeling she was doing nothing in her life as well as it should be done. The only way through was to be able to commit herself to her startup or drop it. So, she informed me, she’d handed in her notice and would be leaving her job within weeks. She had money until the end of March – four months away – after which she didn’t know what she would do if Anya didn’t start to get some real traction – and cash. But she was determined to give it everything she had to make it happen.
‘I will not be regretful on my deathbed that I didn’t really try.’
- Read more stories of leading women in social enterprise in our WISE100 collection
Flying or falling?
Chen’s courage and commitment stunned me. London is full of ‘wantrepreneurs’, people who say they want to be entrepreneurs, who attend workshop after workshop on innovation and how to set up your own business but who never do it, never take that leap into the unknown which marks out the true innovator from the wannabes and poseurs. Chen’s drive to achieve her purpose of reaching as many mothers as possible with state-of-the-art 3D technology outweighed all her financial fears. She had jumped.
She had jumped. If you want to change the world through your own business, the time will come when you need the courage to jump into the unknown, letting go of the certainties we understandably seek to surround ourselves with.
Chen had come to the edge of the cliff, looked down and stepped off. ‘How will I know if I’m flying or just falling?’ she asked me. Truth is, it is hard to tell when you take the leap in pursuit of your purpose. Courage resides not in jumping when you have all the answers and a Plan B in your back pocket. Courage resides in jumping when there are bloody good reasons not to do so. Family security, predictable income, knowing what you’re doing. These are great reasons to turn back and keep the salaried job. No shame in that whatsoever.
London is full of ‘wantrepreneurs’, people who say they want to be entrepreneurs but never take that leap into the unknown... Chen had jumped
Chen had given herself permission, in the most radical way, to really focus on a future shaped by her purpose of helping women. It has been exhilarating and incredibly freeing for her. Not that the worrying and sleepless nights magically went away; bills must still be paid and kids looked after. But when you take that step over the edge, your line of sight on the world changes, possibilities open up, new potential allies can see you, and you certainly find within yourself energy and resilience you didn’t know you had.
In the rest of this chapter I’ll cover our old friend ‘imposter syndrome’ and the various sneaky ways it shows up, how it can be turned to your advantage and offer some advice on how to spot when the noise in your own head is stopping you being at your best.
Telling the story
Since that awards gig when we first met, Chen had received some small amounts of short-term project funding from Innovate UK, a public body distributing government cash to encourage innovation. Her contact there had encouraged her to apply for one of the prestigious Women in Innovation Awards.
She had submitted a written application and been shortlisted for interview. With £50,000 at stake as well as the chance for national publicity as a tech role model for other women, the award would be a big deal at any time for an aspiring entrepreneur. Having handed in her notice, winning one of those coveted places now seemed crushingly important, the final interview a very high-stakes roll of the dice.
Chen had been asked to prepare a 10-minute pitch and then submit to a 40-minute grilling from tech and medical professionals convened by Innovate UK. I offered to help her craft her presentation and to put her through her paces by asking her the hardest, most sceptical questions I could think of about the Anya proposition.
Chen sent me her first draft PowerPoint deck. When I read it, what struck me was that she had made herself invisible. She had included lots about software, 3D animation and the negative impacts of poor latching for mother and child, but nothing much at all about Chen. There was no mention of the Oscar! As we spoke about the upcoming pitch it became very clear to me that we needed to focus the mentoring on her self-confidence and bolstering her belief in herself and her phenomenal gifts and bravery.
Chen was gripped by a powerful belief that she was not a ‘proper’ entrepreneur or businesswoman and everyone would see through her. She would be found out once people interrogated her.
The King’s Fund describes ‘imposter syndrome’ thus: ‘The term describes a high-achieving individual who struggles to internalise success; who feels fraudulent; and who attributes success to factors such as hard work, charm or luck. Those with ‘imposter syndrome’ experience a chronic sense of inadequacy.’
Everyone has some variant of this imposter drama except for psychopaths and some FTSE 100 CEOs I have had the misfortune to meet. I have seen it in pretty much everyone I have mentored. There are some systemic causes such as endemic sexism and racism, which obstruct and demotivate women and people of colour. If, like me, you are from a working-class background it can take years to rid yourself of that nagging sense you don’t really belong in certain environments, such as boardrooms, with posh people. In the UK class remains a huge barrier to advancement.
Like Chen, I too have doubted that my skills and accomplishments were enough. I often felt going into important meetings that I didn’t really deserve to be there and that one of these days someone would tap me on the shoulder and whisper in my ear, ‘I’m so sorry Liam, you’ve been found out. Please leave and take your pathetic skill set and woefully inadequate experience with you.’
Prison governors, C-suite executives, unicorn tech founders, bestselling authors, globally successful social entrepreneurs, media CEOs, non-profit superstars, public sector leaders with huge statutory responsibilities – I’ve met and worked with them all. And all, at times, have allowed their minds to convince them that they are not up to the job, and everyone can see it.
Much of the battle to achieve our purpose happens inside our own head
Much of the battle to achieve our purpose happens inside our own head. It consists of dealing with the inner narratives we convince ourselves are telling us something real about our abilities, failings, insecurities. There can of course be very real obstacles in the way but too often the person causing the most obstruction is ourselves. The pressures of leadership and entrepreneurship can make those stories we tell ourselves about our lack of worth or right to be in the room as an equal seem all the more real and damaging.
Much of my mentoring work is spent pulling out these inner narratives and helping people fact-check them against actual, you know, reality. This was certainly the case with Chen who, like a lot of software geeks, is an introvert and deeply averse to talking about her undoubted talent and ambition. As a Chinese woman, Chen had been brought up not to push herself forward and not to talk about her own individual contribution.
What Chen saw as her weaknesses – English as a second language, an antipathy towards self-promotion, a disarmingly direct honesty about what she doesn’t know – are in fact the very reasons why she is a brilliant role model and why, combined with her awesome software and coding abilities and achievements, she could be a real contender for the Innovate UK award.
What panels of judges and audiences of people can smell a mile away is inauthenticity. The work for Chen was to believe that being herself was absolutely enough. You have to be yourself, as Oscar Wilde might have said, because everyone else is taken.
I am a believer in ‘if you can’t see it, you can’t be it’ so I had Chen picture herself on the stage getting the Innovate UK award and imagining the women in the audience out in the darkness, beyond the stage lights, being inspired by her and believing that they too could do what she had done. ‘Imagine how inspired immigrant women would be,’ I told her during one of our conversations. ‘All those women who have a great idea for a business, as well as family commitments and a job, seeing you – Chen – up there not because you want to make lots of money but because you want to help women at their most vulnerable.’ Those were the women Chen should focus on, not the other contenders whom she feared were smarter, more articulate and ‘worthy’ than her.
Talking about her Oscar was not laying her open to accusations of showing off but a simple statement of truth about talent and hard work. That part of her story could be communicated in ways that were completely true to Chen’s quiet and humble persona.
I have come to see – and encourage my mentees like Chen to see – that this so-called imposter syndrome can be turned to good use. It can mean that we prepare really well. One way of not being found out is to make sure you are bloody well on your game when you need to be. Check and double check. If you're frightened of being found out, make sure you aren't. Presenting skills can be learned and practised, and this is what Chen and I did, working on getting the right blend of tech and market data alongside her personal narrative.
Right up until and throughout the interview Chen felt nervous and, at times, very anxious. ‘Sometimes I come awake in the middle of the night and ask myself “what have I done to myself?”’ she told me.
Nerves are fine and can be a really good reality check.
On average I have given a speech or lecture to a group of more than 50 people once a month since my mid-twenties. That’s more than 500 times I have walked into a room of strangers – often paying good money – to hear me say something interesting and useful. Before each and every one of these events I have felt nerves and often an acute sense of imposter syndrome, especially if I am following someone with a bigger reputation or profile than mine. I still get anxiety dreams the night before a gig about the microphone malfunctioning or people walking out, even though I know my stuff inside out and have learned my stage-craft over the 40 years I have been performing.
When I hear the little voice pipe up about what a pig’s ear I am going to make of things, I am grateful. It means I am in the right zone and haven’t become complacent. It gives me energy and sharpens my edge.
- Listen to our Good Leaders podcast with Liam Black
What’s the worst that could happen?
For some of my clients who really do hate ‘being on stage’, in all senses of that phrase, my advice is to play to their strengths. I suggested to one entrepreneur, who hated giving speeches but had so much to say that was worth hearing about technology and climate change, that when he was invited to participate in a conference he should always insist that his piece was done as a conversation with an interviewer. This has worked really well for him, especially when he sits with a thoughtful and well-informed interlocutor.
- Watch: WISE100 winner Laura North from WeSpeak on overcoming her fears to help others with public speaking
One technique I use when I have someone in front of me with a bad case of uncertainty about themselves and their talent, fearful about the upcoming board meeting or business presentation, is to work through with them the possible worst-case scenarios. I make them confront their deepest fears about how useless they are and what is going to go disastrously wrong. In the very act of doing this, the poison is drained from the fangs.
There is a place for positive thinking and imagining the best outcomes; it was really important for Chen to see herself winning the award and being the role model. But there can be a thin line between positive thinking and wishful thinking.
For some people a deeper calm is available by dragging up their most negative visualisations about the future. Exposed to the light of our conscious minds and addressed directly – sometimes to be laughed at – our fears can shrivel and we are better prepared to step into our authority and be at our best.
The imposter syndrome monkey in the brain can have a field day with the new CEO
June* asked me to be her mentor when she was appointed to her first CEO role in a very male-dominated business. First-time CEO jobs are particularly challenging as you learn the hard way the leader you really are. All those promises you made to yourself about how you would lead are really put to the fire. The imposter syndrome monkey in the brain can have a field day with the new CEO. This was the case with June. The run-ups to her first few board meetings were fraught times as she would let her mind really get to her. Okay, I said, let the monkey rip. What are your worst fears, list them, don’t edit, just let them out. Off she went (as I scribbled them down).
‘The board will laugh at my ideas’
‘They know I am not right for this job’
‘I’m not up to this’
‘I’m crap at numbers’
‘They know so much more than me’
‘They’ll think I’m not serious’
On it went, until I had quite the list.
We went through line by line, fact-checking. True or false? ‘You’re not right for this job and they know it?’ False. ‘You won a fiercely competitive recruitment process in which all the board were involved.’
‘They know so much more than me.’ No. ‘You were recruited especially because you know more than all of them combined about how digital technology and new business models are disrupting their market.’ And so on.
We didn’t get the whole list done. June was laughing by the time we’d done the first three points, as she understood that although her fears felt real, they evaporated when exposed to the fresh air of the truth. Don’t get complacent, I reminded her, and prepare well, but don’t let the things your mind makes up derail you.
In the first six months of her new role we would schedule our sessions for the day before board meetings to make sure she would be in her full personal authority when she walked into the boardroom. This didn’t mean that the meetings were easy or that the board of directors didn’t hold her to account, but at least she wasn’t self-sabotaging by behaving as if the crap her mind made up about her was true. Running a business is hard enough without allowing the imposter syndrome monkey a place at the board table.
It gets better
Dealing with imposter syndrome definitely gets easier with age. You become more confident that you actually do have more experience than everyone else in the room, at least on certain subjects! And, frankly, for me at least, I no longer need or seek the approval of others in the way I did in my twenties and thirties. But there are still traces of it. For me, imposter syndrome is like a toothache that never completely goes away and which flares up unexpectedly from time to time.
Even today – in my sixties – if I am sitting in an unfamiliar boardroom with men I don’t know (always men) who display that loud confidence that comes with the expensively acquired private education and upper-middle-class upbringing, I feel a bit edgy before the meeting starts. That little voice pipes up in my brain. ‘Liam, they’re going to know you don’t really belong here, they’ll see your working-class roots and second-rate education.’ These days I know not to believe most of what my mind tells me (though the second-rate education piece is correct). Make sure you don’t either.
You are certainly not alone. ‘Remember,’ counsels Oliver Burkeman, ‘the reason you can’t hear other people’s inner monologues of self-doubt isn’t that they don’t have them. It’s that you only have access to your own mind.’ Acknowledging that you feel like an imposter at times is an important first step to finding your confidence. If you are in a leadership position, being honest about it to yourself at least might help with your empathy with those for whom you are responsible. Knowing that they will be dealing with their own mental monkeys could make you a better boss.
‘I’m a fraud’ is not the only way that imposter syndrome can show up, though. Here are some other things to be on the lookout for.
Comparing yourself unfavourably with others
A big cog in my anxiety generator over the years has been the habit of comparing myself with others whom I perceive to be more successful, creative, happier, productive, famous. Try not to do this. Everyone’s success is unique. You never know the full story of their struggles, mistakes and huge strokes of luck. The lives and successes of others are always a lot messier and more contingent than you imagine.
There are of course many people who really are better looking, richer, more creative, who are having a bigger, more positive impact in the world than I am, and they may be happier than me, too. Fair play to them. Their existence and success say nothing about me or my abilities. ‘Insist on yourself,’ said Ralph Waldo Emerson. ‘Never imitate.’
Overly focusing on the negative
One of my mentees is a congenital underminer of good news or positive feedback about his performance. If he scored the winning goal at the World Cup he’d beat himself up for not scoring a hat trick. We have worked on it a lot as we deal with this internal ‘I’m not really good enough am I?’ melodrama.
When you’ve messed up, of course, you must try and learn from it. But get out of the habit of always going to the negative first and obsessing over it
Colin worked for a global manufacturer, reporting to a very demanding CEO who prided himself on not suffering fools gladly. We worked for weeks to prepare him for a make-or-break presentation to the boss on an important part of the company’s future sustainability strategy. It was a key moment in Colin’s ambition to really make a positive difference to the world through the business.
On the day of the pitch, I waited for as long as I could before getting in touch to find out how it went. At 8pm I texted him:
‘Marks out of 10?’
‘3 or 4.’
‘Shit. What happened?’
‘Took me apart on some of the numbers.’
‘Yeah, it was a nightmare.’
‘So you didn’t get the plan agreed?’
‘Yes you didn’t get plan agreed??’
‘Yes – plan agreed.’
‘FFS Colin. So it’s really 9/10??!!’
I’m not saying don’t pay adequate attention to the negatives and I don’t recommend a Pollyanna approach to leadership. If you want to change the world then regular ruthless honesty about where you might be missing the mark or underachieving is essential. When you’ve messed up, of course, you must try and learn from it and not do it again. But get out of the habit of always going to the negative first and obsessing over it. It is a healthy habit to start meetings with some good news and I encourage my clients to bring to our sessions something great that has happened since we last met, before we get into the psychodramas!
So, what about Chen?
Well, reader, she won the award and was announced as one of Innovate UK’s Women in Innovation in March 2021!
She was informed about the win on a Friday – the very day she was leaving her salaried job! You couldn’t make it up, could you? Perhaps the story of her life will be made into an Oscar-winning movie one day.
Much hard work lies ahead as Chen builds out the business and seeks investors. She is making good progress but there is no guarantee of success. But she has confronted her fears about herself and her abilities and found the words to tell her story authentically. She has stepped into the role of purpose-driven leader and businesswoman with confidence and integrity – and she believes it.
Let’s now move on to how best to synch what you want to do with how and where you’ll do it. Are you in the right place to make the difference you want?
- If you are not doing what you really want to – start that business, get that new job – what is really holding you back?
- June refuses to give the mind monkeys a seat at her board table. How much of what you think is holding you back is in your head, fears your mind has made up?
* Some names have been changed
Extracted from chapter two of How to lead with purpose: Lessons in life and work from the gloves-off mentor, by Liam Black. Check back soon for the next part in this serialisation.
The book is available with a special 25% discount for Pioneers Post readers on both the print and e-book versions – use code GLOVESOFF25 at the checkout.