Impostor syndrome in the Boardroom
My story, lessons learned, and recurring questions
It is early 2017, I am 29 years old and two months into a job that I love. I am the Investment Officer for an impact investing fund, and I could not be more thrilled about the idea of effecting change through my work. Just like every job, it comes with perks. In this case, I was given a board seat at one of our portfolio companies. My very first board seat.
As all good overachievers, in my mind, I was ready to give my 110%. However, as I am sure it has happened to more than one of you reading, I did not know how. As I rushed through the thousands of “How to Add Value as a Board Member” articles I found online, I quickly realized that I was on my own. Given my age and gender, I hesitated to ask for help as my fears and insecurities grew. I did not know the company enough, I had not been part of the investment process, and I had virtually no relationship with the founders. Meeting after meeting, I increasingly felt in way over my head. Nevertheless, the obnoxious and loud voice in my head kept repeating, “you should be able to figure this out on your own”.
My second board seat came shortly after. This time, the context was different. Firstly, I had been involved in the deal, so I knew the highs and lows of the investment. Secondly, I was more confident in my skills. Thirdly, I knew I wanted to feel different than I did when I began serving on my first board. I thought the solution was simply that I had to toughen up. Therefore, I kept shoulding myself: you should say this, you should act like this, (and my favorite) you should fake it until you make it. That is how I became a watchdog. I deep dived into the numbers, and I questioned every single account with relentless passion. Needless to say, I was unable to forge a deep connection with the founders this way. This was definitely not what I had in mind and how I wanted to show up for the companies that we were supporting.
Long story short, there is no manual as to how to be an outstanding board member. There is only experience: failing, getting back on your feet, and making sure to take stock of lessons learned so that you do not repeat the same mistakes again. However, there is value in sharing those experiences so that the next person can enter the boardroom with an ace or two up their sleeve.
Speaking from my personal experience, I would say that there are three things that helped me feel I was adding value to the company and shaped my subsequent role in other boardrooms:
- Be prepared. Meaning, understand you are a board member before you actually take a seat at the table. Of course, studying about the company is crucial, but I am also talking about engaging with other board members and asking about their experience and their strategic views on the company before that first meeting.
- Create a connection. I find that when there is a connection among board members, enabled by trust, the discussions are often more honest, open, and fruitful. Taking feedback from one another becomes business as usual and there are no hidden agendas when asking the tough questions.
- Ask for help. An environment like the one described above is an invitation to ask for help when needed. I came to realize that asking questions is not a sign of weakness, but rather a superpower. Asking for help can save you many shoulds, can help you calm that voice that wants to label you an impostor, and can free up space in your mind to operate in a sharper way.
However, I would be lying if I said I have it all figured out.
I am constantly thinking about my role as a board member and the eternal endeavour of how to add value. I still feel unsure on how to successfully execute a job in which I am not an expert within the sector. This is when the “should” voice once again begins to clamor.
Should I become an expert? Should I respectfully decline because I am not an expert? Should I keep my seat but pivot my energy to other agenda items? The shoulds can be bottomless. I also catch myself constantly reflecting on how to navigate the fine line between oversight and partnering with founders. After all, my seat is the product of a covenant in a term sheet, and I have a duty to our LPs. Even though I do not care for the police role, I do not want to allow myself to be enthralled in the allure of entrepreneurial dreams. These two constant quandaries are only a couple of examples of the numerous challenges that recur when serving on a board.
Like most of you, I am still trying to find answers to my questions. Therefore, I invite you to join me at WeInvest’s next webinar featuring Johanna Posada, Founder and Managing Partner at Elevar Equity. She is a seasoned investor with immense experience as a board member. Let’s get rid of this impostor syndrome together, tearing down myths and self doubt one conversation at a time. See you there!
Partner, Adobe Capital