I wasn’t an exceptional student. My grade point average was never higher than 3.0 at any given time. My highest degree is a BS from the University of Kansas in Theatre and Film. I never went to business school. I’m a woman. I wasn’t supposed to start a business or be a CEO.
But I did.
There are unique challenges to being a female Founder and CEO and the road to get there. Especially when you don’t have the background or education bonafides to feel entitled to the position. Imposter syndrome hits harder. Peers are harder to come by and male CEOs have proportionally different experiences.
As a female founder/CEO, I felt for a long time that I couldn’t make a mistake or it might expose certain inabilities. I felt compelled to set an example in all things. I had to make sure every client and every employee was happy and fulfilled. I had to continue to drive growth, take on as many responsibilities as I could to keep costs down and not ask for help so I would prove I was worthy to have the role I did.
Spoiler alert–this was not sustainable.
By 2017, I had been running my business for seven years and we had scaled to 40+ staff. I was feeling overwhelmed, which made me feel completely incompetent, even though business was thriving. I had the weight of the world on my shoulders and I felt like if I let my guard down for even a second, the company would collapse and confirm my biggest fear–I’m not supposed to be able to do this.
I developed intense anxiety and fell into a severe depression that ended up in a breakdown. I ended up taking a three-month sabbatical, thanks to my business partner. He would run the business until I was well enough to come back. I took my hands off the wheel for the first time since I founded my business. At the time, it felt like my worst fears had been confirmed; I couldn’t hack it.
But, during that break, my perspective started coming back. My complete obsession with the fear of failing fell into the background. I read, I rested, I talked to friends, I exercised, I ate thoughtfully, I went to therapy and I started meditating. My tunnel vision and self-judgment started to lift. The confidence it had taken me to start the business in the first place came back.
Here’s some of what I learned.
Realize you are not alone. Find a network of relatable peers.
I developed a network of women CEOs that I could go to for support and to compare experiences. Prior to that, I had a good network of male peers, but no women that were in a similar position. I didn’t want to think my femaleness made a difference. But it does. And studies show it. Brian Daniel Norton, a psychotherapist and executive coach was recently quoted in a BBC article regarding women and imposter syndrome:
“Women, women of color, especially black women, as well as the LGBTQ community are most at risk. When you experience systemic oppression or are directly or indirectly told your whole life that you are less-than or undeserving of success and you begin to achieve things in a way that goes against a long-standing narrative in the mind, imposter syndrome will occur.”
Imposter syndrome hits harder for women and we’re isolating ourselves by not connecting with other women.
Be accepting that you can’t do everything
I held onto responsibilities I should have delegated for way too long. This came from a desire to save money and a fear that I couldn’t trust someone else to do it as well as I needed it done. I read a fantastic book called “Essentialism” by Greg McKeown. One of the key lessons I took away from it was this: “You can do anything, but you can’t do everything.” Spend your time and attention where your participation makes the greatest impact. Hire wisely and delegate in areas and roles where you can. Hold people accountable. Pick the places where your participation has the biggest value.
Mentor other women
I didn’t have any women mentors. Now as a result, I’ve made it a point to try and be one to other women. I’m amazed at the incredible self-doubt that is so persistent. This is, in large, partly due to the disproportionate lack of women in leadership positions. It feels even more impossible to attain a level so few others have. If you are a woman in leadership, make it a point to share your experience and guidance to other women. We need to be vocal about both our successes and failures to show that persistence, not perfection, is what matters most.
Own your success as much as you own your failures
Before my break, I had developed a mindset that I was simply lucky. The company success was good fortune and the company setbacks were my lack of ability. Granted, this is obviously nonsense. The business had been going strong and growing for seven years at that point. That wasn’t an accident and I played a part in it. But it took some soul-searching to dig myself out of that mindset. I learned it’s okay to take credit and ownership over what I’d accomplished. In fact, it’s needed. Humility is good, but so is pride in your accomplishments.
It’s not just in your head
Although it’s rarely discussed, depression and anxiety are common among CEOs. Women experience this disproportionately more than men who have similar leadership positions. Most research shows that this is due, in part, to navigating societal perception of what is acceptable behavior for a female leader. While women are often judged on their behavior, men are judged on their accomplishments. At times this experience can feel insurmountable. And there is still a long way to go to get to gender parity in the C-suite. But there’s hope with every woman that makes it to a chief position. It can get better.
“The Book of Joy” was actually the first book I read when I took my break. It’s by Douglas Carlton Abrams and is a series of talks captured between Desmond Tutu and the Dali Lama. This quote from Desmond Tutu was what sent me on my path back to self-confidence.
“Despair can come from deep grief, but it can also be a defense against the risks of bitter disappointment and shattering heartbreak. Resignation and cynicism are easier, more self-soothing postures that do not require raw vulnerability and tragic risk of hope. To choose hope is to step firmly forward into the howling wind, baring one’s chest to the elements, knowing that, in time, the storm will pass.”
This is for the ladies. Starting or leading a business is daunting. You’re not alone. Believe in yourself and your abilities. Ask for help when you need it. Find a peer group you can relate to. Take a break when you feel overwhelmed. Don’t bet against yourself.
Your success isn’t luck. It’s you.