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“How I Was Able To Thrive Despite First Experiencing Impostor Syndrome” With Mike Hondorp of Whalar

An Interview With Candice Georgiadis


Lean into what makes you uncomfortable. If I hadn’t said yes to meeting up with a colleague after a chance encounter on an elevator, I may not have had the career I’ve had.


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 Mike Hondorp. Mike is Chief Marketing Officer at Whalar, the global creative content and influencer marketing solution. An industry veteran with over 15 years of experience, Mike has managed brand strategy, business development, and marketing for global brands including Instagram, Bonobos, and Ralph Lauren. Prior to joining Whalar, he spent seven years at Facebook, Inc. There, Mike was a key member of the Instagram Brand Development team, which launched Instagram’s business solutions globally. At Instagram, he also led the CPG and retail category product strategy, and provided platform guidance and insights to CPG and retail marketers.


Thank you so much for joining us Mike! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’?

I’ve been in the technology and marketing industry for more than 15 years, and have managed brand strategy, business development, and marketing for global brands including Instagram, Bonobos, and Ralph Lauren, before I joined my current company, Whalar. Before Whalar, I spent seven years at Facebook, where I was a member of the Instagram Brand Development team, which launched Instagram’s business solutions globally.

I grew up in Michigan, and now live in Austin, Texas by way of New York and London. I have always loved storytelling and performing. As a young child, I loved being on stage, presenting, and sharing, and was a singer and actor. I would never have predicted I’d draw on these same skills in my career, but it does seem to make sense in hindsight. The passion was there!

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?

I like to say that my career at Instagram started because I was in the right elevator at the right time. Years ago, I worked at Facebook in London and was just getting ready to move back to the US. While in San Francisco for a conference, I walked into the elevator of the hotel where I was staying and ran into Dan Habashi, who at the time was just putting together a nascent Instagram team. We had known each other from various projects over the years and got along great, so it was a fun surprise to see him there in the elevator. On the way up, he asked how I was doing and what I was doing there, and I told him I was moving back to the US. He immediately said, “You have to apply for this job on my team.” My first reaction was, “there’s a team?” Instagram was still new then, having just been acquired by Facebook. I wasn’t sure what the role even was or what it meant, but as Dan walked out of the elevator on his floor he suggested we grab a drink and talk more. I was exhausted from meetings and my first inclination was to make some excuse so I could just return to my room and catch up on work. But something about this chance encounter pushed me to email him and make a plan, and an hour later we were meeting in the hotel bar to discuss the role and how I could help. I ultimately got the job, after passing muster with a very tenured Facebook legend, Matt Jacobson.

The lesson for me was that great things and great growth can come from taking a chance, pushing outside of your comfort zone and not just doing what you always do. In this instance, it certainly would have been more comfortable for me to say “no” to a meeting that I hadn’t planned on having with an old colleague, simply because I was focused on other things and drained from a busy week. But grabbing that drink opened the door to an incredible next chapter of my career.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

What I love about Whalar is that we’re all about democratizing creativity. We stand out because we disrupt traditional creative and production models, but even more importantly, we’re empowering more creative voices who haven’t always been a part of the creative conversation, connecting them with brands they love and creating truly smart, beautiful campaigns. Bringing new and different voices into the creative conversations for brands opens up new kinds of thinking and new kinds of outputs, which is really exciting.

One recent campaign I’m really proud of is the award-winning work we did earlier this year to support the United Nations and galvanize global support for UN member nations to address climate change. With Sir David Attenborough as the leading figure, we activated our global creative community to collect social data from around the world. This campaign went on to reach a total of 1.3 billion people worldwide, ensuring the UN’s climate conference COP24 was the top of the global media agenda. The summit ended with global leaders signing up to aims to deliver the Paris agreements goal of limiting global temperature rises to below 2C. It’s so rewarding to work with an organization that is driving change both in our industry and also on global issues that affect us all.

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’m incredibly grateful to have a strong, core group of former Instagram colleagues that are still friends, mentors and supporters today. In the beginning, there were six of us on the Instagram team who were building and growing something brand-new, and as young people ourselves, we went through this incredible time of learning and growth together. Through those trials, we have an indelible bond, and today we’re “the squad”, and remain close as we’ve each gone on to our next chapters. We are constantly messaging and calling each other as a group for advice, support, celebrations — everything from “how would you present this to a client?” to “hey I’m separating from my partner” — we’re constantly coaching each other personally and professionally.

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?

For me, Imposter Syndrome is that feeling of being surrounded by people far more experienced than you, but somehow you have a more senior or at least sought after opinion. You don’t trust that you’re the right person to answer, or even that your opinion should count, because everyone around you is so smart and qualified. For me, it’s that feeling of insecurity and like you don’t belong.

What are the downsides of Impostor Syndrome? How can it limit people?

Imposter Syndrome has many downsides, including crippling anxiety and constant fear of being found out. Feeling this way can mean you focus on the wrong things — for example, pain and fear avoidance instead of creativity and trying new things.

And when you feel insecure, you don’t want to make hard decisions or be unpopular. Unfortunately, a lot of leadership is all about having those hard conversations and sticking to your guns even if it’s not what people want to hear. It’s hard to lead without addressing the affects of Imposter Syndrome, even if you never overcome it entirely.

How can the experience of Impostor Syndrome impact how one treats others?

I think Imposter Syndrome can make you more empathetic.Because you’re so attuned to your own feelings and the work environment around you, you strive even harder to create psychological safety for those around you. For me, I try to lead with vulnerability and transparency, and openly share tough moments so that they’re learning moments not just for me, but for my team.

We would love to hear your story about your experience with Impostor Syndrome. Would you be able to share that with us?

I really started to feel like an imposter as my job grew at Facebook. Facebook was a place for crazy smart, high-achieving, really young people. To go from more traditional corporate jobs to a fast-growing and boundary-breaking tech company turned the traditional corporate hierarchy on its head, and suddenly I wasn’t sure if I could measure up. It was humbling to feel like I wasn’t qualified enough to even be in the room with some of these people.

In my role, I was meeting with the heads of marketing for big, global companies, and even though I had far fewer years of experience than they did, they would listen so attentively to your counsel about Instagram because the platform was so new, and they trusted you to guide them through it. But I didn’t know what I had done to earn that trust, I just felt like I was there.

Did you ever shake the feeling off? If yes, what have you done to mitigate it or eliminate it?

For me, it never goes away, and it never feels like I’m achieving enough. I minimize this by continuing to prove my value and focusing on the work itself. I also try to redefine what a C-level executive does and how they behave, to make it more authentic and approachable than people can sometimes think of senior leadership being. For example, I really like relating to people on a human level — it’s fun to understand what motivates people, what their home life is like, what music they’re into, and just be fun and silly sometimes. That’s how we build connections with each other.

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.

  1. Know your material/subject, and over-prepare. For example, last month we launched our 2020 influencer marketing trends report with a big event for clients in New York, which I hosted. I had been living in the research for three months, so I was also confident that I knew my stuff. The event was a huge success.
  2. Lean into what makes you uncomfortable. If I hadn’t said yes to meeting up with a colleague after a chance encounter on an elevator, I may not have had the career I’ve had.
  3. Be vulnerable and transparent. It builds trust immediately and builds psychological safety. For example, I was speaking at a conference last year and mistakenly misgendered a creator I featured in a presentation to hundreds. I was mortified, and while I apologized profusely, I felt terrible for my error and any discomfort it caused them. Rather than ignore it or try to forget it, after the event I shared what had happened with my team, so that it was a learning moment not just for me, but for all of us.
  4. Understand that you’ll never truly get over it, and that’s OK. It’s part of who you are. I think about my Imposter Syndrome constantly, but I also know I can’t let it hold me back.
  5. Try channeling the anxiety for good — put it to use in your own way and let it motivate you. For me, I use these feelings to both fuel my ambition for great work that makes a difference, as well as remind me that everyone needs to feel comfortable to do their best work.

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. 🙂

For me, two of my biggest concerns are the climate crisis and ensuring equal human rights on a local level. Every human is worthy of respect, safety, and equity. These are quite personal to me; I live in a state where it’s legal to fire employees because of their sexuality, so I strive to support human rights and equality every day.

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 🙂

There are so many! Whitney Houston — I love her talent, one of her songs was my husband’s and my first dance at our wedding. Michelle Obama — a human rights campaigner, she is inspiring and real. I relate to her transparency and vulnerability, and that she owns who she is.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Instagram @hondorp

LinkedIn

Thank you for all of these great insights!

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