Check the evidence — consider what evidence you have that really proves you’re not capable of doing the role. For the COO, there wasn’t a single shred of evidence that proved it. He was highly regarded. Yes, there were a few projects that hadn’t gone to plan, but that’s not uncommon. His boss and the board loved him. The evidence he was relying on to reinforce his insecurity was just what he was creating for himself
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 Rob Cross.
Rob is the founder and CEO of Muru — a next generation leadership coaching and development consultancy that aims to debunk redundant models of what it means to be a leader, and help individuals, teams and groups unlock their true potential.
20% psychologist, 10% agony aunt, 30% motivational speaker, 40% bullshit detector and 100% Dad and Husband, Rob’s no-nonsense approach to life and business makes him a refreshingly human leadership expert and mentor in today’s ever evolving and changing business landscape.
Bringing together his 20 years of hands on leadership, and practical experience of developing others, Rob researched, designed and launched Muru Leadership and ‘The 3 Questions’ ™. In today’s age of acceleration, where the classic definitions of being a leader are no longer working, ‘The 3 Questions’ ™ methodology helps individuals and teams build greater courage and conviction in their own leadership, empowering them to lead and achieve higher levels of success and fulfillment both at work, and in life.
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’?
Born in the UK, but raised in a small country town in Victoria, Australia, my passion for understanding people and leadership started at an early age.
A big believer that variety and diversity maketh a ‘more rounded individual’, I began my career in the Australian Air Force as a civil engineer. I quickly seemed to rankle many of my senior officers as I worked my way up through the ranks at pace. Dealing with resistance and the conflict this caused was my first foray into the true hurdles and politics of leadership, and the psychological issues at play that can create great teams or send them toppling into chaos.
An injury literally left me grounded, so with my RAF days behind me I moved to the UK and into the big blue-chip corporate world working with the likes of BT, LexisNexis, SIG and the Prudential. Quite a different kind of politics, but no less cut throat.
At this time, I experienced the tragic loss of my best friend. This profound event opened my eyes to the fact that ‘life happens’ to everyone — even leaders — so why do we put pressure on ourselves to lead as though nothing else impacts our lives and our ability to manage?
The next profound event in my life was the moment I became a father. This was my light bulb moment. I started seeing the patterns and failures of traditional leadership models that don’t allow for the fact that leaders are humans too — and shouldn’t have to be unrealistically devoid of emotion or super-human performance.
Cue a refocus of priorities and a career change. Bringing together my 20 years of hands on leadership, and practical experience of developing others, I took the plunge and launched Muru Leadership in 2018.
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?
In May 2019 I was in the middle of a major culture change programme that I was delivering for a client organisation. As part of my regular catch up with the sponsors I went for a coffee with the global COO. As we walked out of the office, I asked him how he was doing. He took a deep breath and said that things were ok, but that he was struggling.
“How so?” I asked.
“I feel like I’m waiting to be found out,” he replied. “I feel like an imposter.”
I was a little taken aback by this response. Even though this guy had been in his role with the company for five years and was really highly regarded, he still felt as though at any minute someone would burst through the door to ‘out’ him as not being incompetent.
More on that story later, but it was at this moment I recognised I had the ability to help more people appreciate their worth and true potential, and the seed was planted for my future business. Increasingly, I have found the experience of this particular COO, is actually quite common across senior leaders. They function day to day focusing on delivering their job, all the time feeling insecure that they are going to be revealed as frauds.
The key takeout for me is that ultimately though we may try to keep it well hidden, regardless of how senior and experienced we are, we are all humans with the same weaknesses and insecurities.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
The focus of Muru Leadership is twofold. Firstly, we help people understand the true drivers of our human behaviour, our human dilemmas. These are the inescapable aspects that sit below our beliefs and values, which make us human.
We then use these drivers to help leaders find greater courage and conviction in their identity, their purpose and ultimately how they practice and show leadership. The goal of our coaching is to help individuals identify the personal story they have to tell that defines them, and from which they can draw strength, and reset their mindset to recognise that we are all human beings leading other human beings.
How does this work in practise? Continuing the story of the COO I mentioned earlier, after a deeper conversation than we both planned over that coffee, and with some pretty direct challenge and support from me, the COO learned to transform the energy that was driving his insecurity and Imposter Syndrome. Instead, he re-focused his strengths on the contribution he was making to others. He developed a bunch of new habits including mindfulness, going to the gym and learning to say no, all of which gave him greater energy to do his job and be the great leader he was capable of being. The ultimate outcome of this is that he no longer feels like an imposter, and instead feels comfortable in his own skin as the leader he wants to be, rather than trying to be the leader he felt he should be.
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’ve had some incredible mentors throughout my career, all of whom have helped me develop and define my identity, purpose and practice as a leader.
When I first joined the Australian Air Force in 2000, there was a senior leader called Steve Richards who took me under his wing and helped me make the shift from being a purely logical and rational technical engineer into someone that deeply understood people and how to get the best out of them. He helped me pause to consider what was really going on with my team, helping me to understand there is a human behind every professional. This was a profound moment for me and has gone on to shape my profession, my career and my business.
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?
Fundamentally, Imposter Syndrome is that dreaded feeling that you will be caught out as a fraud. It’s that anxiety inducing niggling self-doubt that seeps in that you are incapable of delivering the role you are appointed to do, and that at any moment you’re going to be exposed.
What are the downsides of Impostor Syndrome? How can it limit people?
People who experience Imposter Syndrome feel a high degree of insecurity, which makes them work incredibly hard, but limits their full potential.
What I mean by this is they focus on volume rather than value, putting in long hours, saying yes to every task they are set, and putting themselves and their teams under pressure to often deliver against unrealistically tough targets and deadlines.
The rationale for this, is they feel like they need to over achieve to prove their worth. This can limit individuals from being great leaders as they are so busy delivering the day to day that they fail to recognize that challenging the status quo is sometimes the greatest value they are capable of offering.
How can the experience of Imposter Syndrome impact how one treats others?
Individuals with Imposter Syndrome find it hard to say no as they feel it shows signs of weakness, and evidence they are not capable of delivering. This can have a detrimental impact on their ability to communicate well with peers and colleagues.
This manifests with the teams they work with in two ways. They are either too accommodating or can come across as short, and sometimes abrasive. The two are intertwined. The inability to say no, often directed at senior team members they want to please, results in peers and the teams they manage suffering the consequences. Individuals with IP are often over worked, stressed and too exhausted to recognise the cause and effect of their actions.
We would love to hear your story about your experience with Impostor Syndrome. Would you be able to share that with us?
In my previous corporate roles I’ve often felt like an imposter. I would find myself committing to things that I just didn’t have time to do as I was fearful of being judged as incapable. But I learnt pretty quickly I was on the road to burnout.
It was tough at first, but I dropped the act and soon began to appreciate the strength of being able to say no. This not only helped me get more focused at work and deliver better results, but I also lived with less worry and anxiety. Ultimately I then achieved more and got noticed more, which also helped to accelerate my career.
It’s these same skills that I help people learn through my training and to appreciate that putting yourself first isn’t a sign of weakness, its actually incredibly powerful and the quickfire surest way to get the best results out of you and your team.
Did you ever shake the feeling off? If yes, what have you done to mitigate it or eliminate it?
I don’t think you ever fully shake off the feeling, and to be honest I think that’s a good thing, we just need to learn how to channel the energy that comes with feeling like an imposter to our advantage. As humans we need to feel a little insecure and experience some pressure so that we don’t become complacent. Imposter syndrome can actually be helpful to us if used in the right way. When we are overcome with those feelings of self doubt, instead of dwelling on it try channeling that associated energy into considering how you can be more valuable to your team and the business around you to make a bigger and better difference. It certainly worked for me and that COO.
In your opinion, what are 5 steps that someone who is experiencing Imposter Syndrome can take to move forward despite feeling like an “Imposter”? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Realise you’re not alone — over the last 20 years I’ve not met a single leader across the globe who hasn’t or doesn’t feel like an imposter at some stage in their career. We all experience this fear, so give yourself a break, and quit thinking it’s just you.
- Check the evidence — consider what evidence you have that really proves you’re not capable of doing the role. For the COO, there wasn’t a single shred of evidence that proved it. He was highly regarded. Yes, there were a few projects that hadn’t gone to plan, but that’s not uncommon. His boss and the board loved him. The evidence he was relying on to reinforce his insecurity was just what he was creating for himself.
- Change your story — when we feel like an imposter the story we tell ourselves is all about feeling like a fraud. Once we’ve checked our evidence and found there’s no facts that back up our story, we need to create a new one. This story shouldn’t be one that tries to over compensate. It should instead help us focus on our strengths and the true impact we’re making. It should also focus on who we want to be as our true authentic self. The COO didn’t suddenly go “I’m now the world’s best COO”. Instead he started to build a story that was based on the evidence; “I’m a well regarded, focused professional who delivers the results for the company and for the people. I make a difference through what I do.”
- Use your energy positively — as our new story unfolds we should start to shift our energy from maintaining our old story to serving our new one. It frees us up to redirect our efforts away from trying to avoid being found out, to focus on the even greater contribution we can make through our actions. The COO recognised that whilst feeling like an imposter he was constantly tired as he invested all his energy in his old story and trying to avoid being ‘found out’.
Once he created a new story, how he directed that energy shifted dramatically. He invested his energy in things both in work and in his personal life that gave him even more energy to focus on not only delivering his job, but hobbies and activities outside of work that gave him pleasure and improved his physical and mental wellbeing.
- Focus beyond self — when we feel like an imposter our focus is on ourselves and is driven by the negative fight mode of fear. As we let go of this belief, we stop focusing on ourselves and instead focus on the contribution we can make to others. With this new focus it’s no longer solely about the person in the mirror. Instead, it’s about how the person in the mirror can make a more positive contribution to the world around them.
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. 🙂
Too much of what we are doing in society today is about celebrating difference. Though in many respects this has driven positive change and acceptance in society of groups of individuals that have experienced discrimination or marginalisation, it can also be the trigger for polarisation and a return to protective ‘tribalism’ driven by self preservation, fear and sometimes hate. We just need to witness the global rise of right wing populist parties in politics, and call out how social media has been weaponised or used in a mailcious way by individuals and organisations to spread misinformation.
It’s stopping us accept that in spite of all our differences, at our very core one thing unites us all; we are human beings. Regardless of your age, gender, race, sexual orientation, or religious beliefs, as human beings we are magnificent and vulnerable creatures that all have a story which defines us. If we could each spend a little more time focusing on the unifying thread that we are all human beings, perhaps we could stop allowing our differences to define us. This would mean that we’d also stop feeling insecure that others are better than us, and instead recognise that as humans we each have skills and capabilities that we can use to make a greater difference to all those around us. So whilst I don’t think we should stop celebrating difference, we should at the same time celebrate the humanity that binds us all together.
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 🙂
Barack Obama would be my №1 choice. In spite of whether you agree or disagree with his policies, I believe he was a very human leader which we have much to learn from.
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