In July this year I became Leo Burnett’s chief executive officer after 20 years in our industry. Without conquering imposter syndrome earlier in my career, this might never have been possible for me.
Twenty-two-year-old me definitely didn’t have a 20-year career plan. Even if I had, it certainly wouldn’t have been as audacious enough to think that I could be a CEO one day.
I think I was mainly worrying about how not to get fired… but here I am, two decades later and I haven’t been fired yet.
Let’s rewind a few years. In 1999, I was the first person in my family to go to university. I got my first proper job a few years later on the grad scheme at McCann, which was the only agency out of the 20 or so I applied to that I even got an interview for.
I worked my way up to account manager, then moved to Bartle Bogle Hegarty, where I would stay for nearly 14 years, holding roles within account management and new business.
Despite the pitch wins, promotions and positive feedback, there were still many times when I felt like a total imposter.
I used to sit in meetings with senior leaders and think that I’d never be smart enough to present my ideas with such clarity and confidence, that clients would never be interested in my advice or expertise, that nothing I said would be worth listening to.
I became so paralysed with the fear that I wasn’t good enough and didn’t know what I was doing that I could barely think straight. It was at that point I knew I had to reach out for help.
I was mentored by a coach that helped me address these feelings, find my voice and, in turn, my confidence.
While I had mentored young women and people from underrepresented backgrounds for several years before this, it never crossed my mind just how useful mentoring could be for me.
That was the turning point for my career and I have never looked back.
Here are three key things I’ve learnt along the way, which I hope will help anyone currently in the same position I was back then.
Give yourself a reality check
There were times I didn’t think I was good enough. When I discussed this with my coach, she challenged me: was there any evidence to back this up? She was right to do this. When you feel like this, it’s essential to take a look at the feedback you’ve received to help you get your head back to reality.
To help with this, consider keeping a folder of positive feedback you’ve received from clients and colleagues, to read through when you need to give yourself a pep talk.
Communicate confidently to show conviction
This really is the most important thing. If you say something confidently, nine times out of 10 you will come across as speaking with conviction and gravitas. Once you start doing this, I promise the confidence you may feel like you’re lacking will come.
I once discovered that the physical expression of nerves is exactly the same as excitement. Reframe your nerves more positively as excitement to get out there and show people what you can do.
Obviously we all know how to do this already, but giving yourself time to sit quietly and focus on your breathing can help calm those nerves before a big meeting or a difficult conversation.
Making the time and space to take a minute and practice mindfulness has definitely helped me along the way. If you’re interested in finding out more on this, have a read of Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor.
There weren’t a lot of female CEOs around when I joined the industry, which is perhaps why I never even imagined it was something to aim for.
Although it delights me to see that so many of my peers now are women, I’m well aware we are mostly all white, university-educated women and there is still a long way to go before there is full representation across ethnicity, class, sexuality and disability.
In our industry, we simply don’t talk about imposter syndrome enough. So I’m calling on adland: Please, find the strength to talk. It’s so important for those struggling to hear that other people have been in their position.
For anyone dealing with imposter syndrome at the moment–let this be your nudge to find a mentor. You never know where it might lead you.
For anyone looking for mentoring opportunities within the advertising industry, please try the following organisations:
Carly Avener is the chief executive of Leo Burnett UK.