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Imposter syndrome: How I overcame it and grabbed the opportunity of a lifetime

On the eve of International Women’s Day, we are proud to share an exclusive piece from our Auckland General Manger, Kara Smith. Kara shares her personal experience of leadership and overcoming imposter syndrome.

Since the beginning of my career, I always felt like a bit of an imposter, like I didn’t quite fit in. On the outside, I presented myself as a very confident, outgoing individual. I am those things, but I always felt like I was living a double life.  My personal life and my professional life. Home Kara and work Kara. As I progressed through my career and my peer group changed, I had to constantly reassure myself to push through and just ‘fake it till you make it’. This is something I experienced for many years.

How did it begin?

Starting off as a consultant, my client demographic was typically middle aged pakeha (white) men. Then there was me, a young Māori female in my early twenties. At times I felt like an outsider with no mutual ground to share with these men.

I felt the need to constantly prove myself so I could blend in. To overcome that, I would religiously read the newspaper on a daily basis, just so I could feel confident to strike up a credible conversation with anyone.  Humour was also a very good tool that hid this fear and insecurity. The amount of times I’ve laughed at anecdotes with my clients about “millennials” (cue the irony here as I’m an ‘84 baby).

“I would religiously read the newspaper on a daily basis, just so I could feel confident to strike up a credible conversation with anyone.”

I had incredible motivation as a young consultant – my son Kalani who I had at 22, matured me very quickly. Kalani’s dad was (and still is by the way – we’re now married) in the picture, but I knew how young I was. I was driven to achieve financial independence so I didn’t have to depend on anyone and become a role model for my son.  It was the key influence that helped me to keep ‘faking it til I made it’.

Who was my worst enemy?

I should interject here just in case you’re starting to hear “poor me” in my story. This isn’t a story about not being given opportunities because of my age, my brown face, because I was a young mother or the unconditionally diverse culmination of them all… not at all.

“It took me several years to take advantage of those opportunities and not see them as disadvantages – and stop standing aside for others.”

Ultimately I thought I wasn’t good enough. Therefore, what you are reading is a story about how it took me several years to take advantage of those opportunities and not see them as disadvantages – and stop standing aside for others because I thought they fit the mold better.

There is no man, no woman, trying to keep me down in this story.  Oh no… I managed to do all that myself.

What changed?

When I was about 25, I started to stand out a bit.  I think the word for this would be “potential”. Perhaps people started to see this in me, so I began to see it myself. Or could it be because I was just really loud and opinionated? Who knows?

I worked in a team where managers changed more frequently than Australian Prime Ministers. As a consequence, I was starting to step up and take on more responsibilities.  The manager position was vacant on several occasions, and I watched my male colleagues apply for the role with great confidence.  I was asked the question by my teammates, “why aren’t you applying Kara?” Each time, I would answer “oh no…not me…I’m not ready”.  But what I meant was, I’m not good enough.

“I knew for me to truly leave my comfort zone I had to take the first step and start somewhere new.”

I knew for me to truly leave my comfort zone I had to take the first step and start somewhere new, where I could build a long-term career and most importantly progress into a leadership role.

What did it take?

The new company I joined, Talent, did something different.  Early on they identified that I could be a future leader.  They were honest and said they didn’t think I was quite ready at that stage and wanted to ensure that I received appropriate training to gear me up for the role. Talent hired a coach, Jo, to meet with me once a month. She questioned my negative thoughts.  She pushed and prodded.  She would get me to journal events and then write down my feelings.

Through this she helped me see that I could be a leader, that one day the opportunity would come, and I would have to grab it when it came my way without hesitation.

How did I get my chance?

I’m sure you’re on the edge of your seat waiting to find out if I choked or if I jumped at the opportunity.

Here is how it went down, my GM, after about eighteen months in the role took me for a beer and told me he was resigning.  He then said “I’m going to recommend you for the role.  Do not turn it down.  You might not get this chance again.”

I was 31, just married and contemplating having a 2nd child. Those whispers in my mind came back and reared their ugly head.  “You – Kara?!  Kara you don’t look like those other managers do…you don’t talk like those other managers do… you don’t dress like those other managers do…you don’t have the same education those other managers do…why you?”

“Something in me knew that it was now or never.”

In amongst the voices, something in me knew that it was now or never.

I remember asking the GM “do you think I can do it?” and without taking a moment to think about it he said “yes”.  He is another person who I credit and I certainly hope he knows it.

I accepted the role, but it was no easy task. There was lot to be done, there were operational and cultural issues in the office, but something about how Talent had embraced me for me, gave me a feeling of reassurance.  I had never pretended to be anything that I wasn’t, there was no ‘fake it til you make it’ to any of the senior leaders – I was always honest and they were too.

The occasional thoughts did arise, I am the youngest GM in Talent after all. Although with time and experience in the role, this washed away. I am now incredibly proud to be one of three Māori female leaders at Talent and my awesome bunch of Auckland team members give me the confidence to strive for better every day as a leader.

These days my worst enemy isn’t me. It’s time. I want to achieve so much and the only thing stopping me is the number of hours in the day!

 

Before I sign off I want to leave you my top three tips for overcoming imposter syndrome:

1. When those voices in your head put you down, stick it to them.

Take a moment to write a list of everything you have achieved already. We are often so focused on what we haven’t achieved that we forget to reflect on the goals we’ve already accomplished.

2. Find a mentor and challenge yourself.

Work with someone you look up to who can help you overcome doubts and provide advice on how to build your confidence.

3. When an opportunity comes your way, grasp it and don’t let go

You only live once and in life we always regret the things we don’t do more than those we do. Remember the wise words of Richard Branson: “If somebody offers you an amazing opportunity but you are not sure you can do it, say yes – then learn how to do it later!”

 

Since taking over Talent Auckland, Kara has transformed the team culture – significantly reducing turnover, breaking business records and reaching engagement levels in the 90th percentile for Gallup globally.

 

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