You are not alone. Recognizing, acknowledging and sharing feelings of inadequacy can help you manage negative thoughts and disrupt the feelings of isolation. Breaking the silence about your feelings can be incredibly freeing. A problem shared is a problem half solved.
As a part of our series about how very accomplished leaders were able to succeed despite experiencing Imposter Syndrome, I had the pleasure of interviewing Gail Gumminger, Executive Director at Innovative Connections, Inc
Gail Gumminger is the executive director at Innovative Connections, a consulting firm focused on enhancing organizational effectiveness by supporting leaders and teams with change management, culture and leadership development. Gail is an accomplished leader with broad experience in both the public and private sectors. She has spent most of her career working with healthcare organizations to develop strategy, build high performance work teams, implement change initiatives and accomplish organizational goals.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’?
From a young age I developed a love of sports, all sports. I enjoyed playing and participating, watching, and reading about sports figures and sports heroes. I was able to play in high school as well as college and I believe sports provided me the opportunity to find my “tribe” and develop a strong work ethic. While in college, I gravitated toward the sciences and graduated with a liberal arts degree in nutrition. My first job out of college was at a hospital as a registered dietitian. In that role, I enjoyed supporting and educating others as they pursued their personal goals and/or life changes. I thrived working with a great team of healthcare professionals providing service from a preventive, proactive angle. I also loved learning and in time was able to complete my master’s degree in public administration with an emphasis in healthcare administration. It was at that point in my career that I began to take on leadership opportunities that evolved over time. I blended my sports background and love of learning to form my leadership style. Now fast forward twenty-some years and I find myself coaching and supporting executives on their leadership journeys.
Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
As I mentioned earlier, I was part of an incredible and high perfomring team early in my career. We worked hard, had a lot of fun and made a difference in people’s lives. I was promoted from team member to leader of the team in my first formal leadership role. There were challenges to that transition that I did not anticipate. I found myself reaching out for help for the first time in my career which was not easy to do. At the same time, I enrolled in my graduate program and began learning new and exciting management theories and process improvement tools. I found myself believing I was the brightest bulb in the box after earning this new degree. I built up unnecessary resistance and I found myself in unchartered waters. I lacked critical self-awareness and self-management skills to navigate the challenges of leading a team. I soon found myself out of a job and I let everyone down including myself. Through this wake-up call of an experience, I learned to trust your team and yourself, ask for help when you need it, listen and develop an ownership spirit. An ownership spirit is the mindset to make a choice to respond as an “owner” versus react as a victim when faced with a decision.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Personally, I believe Innovative Connections is unique by bringing an authentic loving style to our work. We truly love what we do and the people we work with. Love is one of our values and we live by it. I believe that fundamentally, we see all people as resourceful, credible and whole. That is how we approach our work with others. When we start there, we start our conversations from deeper and more meaningful places.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I have been blessed with several individuals who have helped me along my journey. When I say they helped me, what I really mean is that they cared about me deeply, challenged me directly, and provided love along the way (even when I made mistakes).
My college athletics coach had a significant impact on my life. She was tough, direct and made things fun. She cared about me as a person first and as an athlete second. She coached me back in the early 80’s and we still stay in touch 37 years later!
The second person I want to recognize for helping me early on in my career was the Director of the Wellness and Health Promotion service line at my first job. This individual was my boss who gave me the opportunity to step up and lead the team, encouraged me along with way, gave me honest feedback and ultimately made the tough decision that I was no longer meeting expectations. That was extremely hard on our relationship even though it was the right thing to do. I learned so much from her and learned to appreciate her decision in time. Today, some 25 years later we have remained close friends.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the experience of Impostor Syndrome. How would you define Impostor Syndrome? What do people with Imposter Syndrome feel?
Imposter Syndrome is defined as a state of intense self-doubt that is generated by emotions of inadequacy and insecurity. Typically, one or a combination of all three elements including perceived competency, significance and inclusion are compromised, creating self-doubt. An estimated 70% of the U.S. population suffers from imposter syndrome at some point in their lives. People who suffer from this have feelings that they don’t belong, that they are not as good as everyone else and that they should not have been chosen for their role. In addition, people with imposter syndrome often put themselves under a lot of pressure to avoid failure and exposure to their perceived inadequacies. It is quite common for people with this to feel like a fraud, worrying that at any time they will be discovered.
What are the downsides of Impostor Syndrome? How can it limit people?
I think we are realizing that anyone can experience imposter syndrome. Unfortunately, over time, the effects can be harmful. True to form, those individuals experiencing imposter syndrome typically have a strong inner critic that is constantly confirming that any accomplishments are the result of sheer luck. With that constant messaging, it is hard to break the cycle. In time, the inner critic wins out and eats at our self-confidence and identity if not properly addressed.
How can the experience of Impostor Syndrome impact how one treats others?
When feelings of inadequacy and insecurity sink in, we characteristically see various trends in behaviors which can negatively impact others and an organization as a whole. For those experiencing imposter syndrome, there is a tendency to dial up more perfectionistic and controlling behaviors to “cover up” their perceived inadequacies. An individual might also hide and/or retreat from other people and opportunities. They can become less vocal, shy away from providing input, pass on promotions and it is possible that their overall contributions become strained.
At times, we may see these individuals working longer hours while also taking on busy work that strains their capacity and bandwidth. This creates the spiral of a work addiction that is all about constantly seeking validation that comes from working but never feeling fulfilled by the work itself. In this situation, it becomes increasingly difficult for those experiencing imposter syndrome to ask for help as this may disclose an unwanted vulnerability.
We would love to hear your story about your experience with Impostor Syndrome. Would you be able to share that with us?
I believe that my experience as a first-time leader from the example earlier in the interview was certainly filled with doubt and insecurities. Looking back, my inner critic was dominating my experience. I did a good job at feeling sorry for myself, feeling overwhelmed with being busy and never asking for help. I certainly underestimated my abilities even while others believed in me. I didn’t know what I didn’t know.
Did you ever shake the feeling off? If yes, what have you done to mitigate it or eliminate it?
Since that situation was so significant for me, I knew I needed to learn from it to avoid it from happening again. I would say that throughout my leadership career, the imposter syndrome has crept in at times when I perceived the stakes to be high or the problem insurmountable.
I realized quickly that it was up to me to implement personal strategies to manage my inner critic. I began finding ways to increase my self-awareness, realize my triggers and re-route my perceived inadequacies. I learned to listen deeply, develop critical thinking skills to separate fact from fiction and commit to regular self-care. I also re-created my “tribe” with friends and family who have my best interest at heart. I call them my Board of Governors and enlist their advice and input frequently. It is always a work in progress.
In your opinion, what are 5 steps that someone who is experiencing Impostor Syndrome can take to move forward despite feeling like an “Impostor”? Please share a story or an example for each.
Here are a few powerful tips that I would recommend to anyone experiencing imposter syndrome or who may have imposter syndrome tendencies:
- You are not alone. Recognizing, acknowledging and sharing feelings of inadequacy can help you manage negative thoughts and disrupt the feelings of isolation. Breaking the silence about your feelings can be incredibly freeing. A problem shared is a problem half solved.
- Learn to separate fact from fiction. The only difference between a person who feels like an imposter and one who does not, is the way they manage their thoughts. You, and only you, have control over how you feel. By learning to redirect your thoughts, you can redirect your response to situations. I highly recommend adopting an internal process whereby you identify things that are in and out of your control, things that are in and out of your scope and those things that are true and those things that have no validity.
- Accept that you are human. Perfectionism is unrealistic and exhausting. All of us make mistakes, it’s the way we learn and grow. Give yourself permission to not know all the answers, and to ask questions that will help you grow stronger. Also, look at your goal posts: are they too high, too low or just right? Consider re-working the goal or your appraisal of your performance towards meeting the goal.
- Practice self-compassion. Start tuning in to your inner critic’s voice. When you hear it, replace self-criticism with self-appreciation and worthiness. Surround yourself with people who love you unconditionally. Self-compassion is a building block to self-confidence. Take feedback seriously but not personally.
- List your skills and accomplishments. Make a list of your career successes and the challenges you overcame to get where you are. Give yourself credit for your achievements and reference this list often. Celebrate you!
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Brian Daniel Norton, a psychotherapist, and executive coach was quoted in the July 7, 2020 article, “These groups are most at risk for Imposter Syndrome but there are ways to manage it,” said:
“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.”
His thoughts reinforce the sad reality of the inequalities that still exist and the harmful negative consequences both intended and unintended. I would suggest that our greatest work is to recognize our societal inequalities and repair the systemic issues so that all people are free of the perceived narratives that hold them back both personally and professionally.
We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them 🙂
I think it would be great to spend time with Wynne Odell, co-founder of The Odell Brewing Company. She is an amazing person with a wonderful story. I have an immense amount of respect for her and what she has accomplished. A conversation with Wynne would be very enlightening and inspirational.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!