I have heard it said that we all start at the bottom and then rise to the same level of incompetence. In other words, when you are good at what you do, you get promoted until you get to a position that you cannot do well and then you are stuck. Somebody else is now doing badly what you once did well enough to earn a promotion.

It’s a little different when you are running your own business. You start small, possibly working alone, doing everything, and having close contact with all your customers. They like the attention and you find the work fulfilling. You are learning new skills, growing in all sorts of ways and creating something for the future. I remember those days. Long hours but rewarding.

All your hard work is paying off and your clients are telling everyone about you. New clients are knocking on your door and life is good. But, you have too much to do and you are in danger of dropping the ball.

The answer is to take on staff and after a few hits and misses you start to build a team around you. You do not work any less but a chunk of your time is now spent on staff matters. You don’t seem to have the same contact with your clients and the “real” work is now done by your staff. Your job is now to plan how the work gets done and by who and making sure that it has been done properly. But as we all know, that is not real work. Real work is at the coal face, dealing directly with clients and customers and providing the goods and services they want.

You now employ people to do the real work but because your throughput is greater, your profits are higher and so you roll up to work in a slightly better car every day and you have slightly better holidays and more of them. You don’t actually get your hand dirty anymore. So what is you actually do now? Does it actually justify what you earn?

I have also heard it said by a number of very successful business executives that they are just waiting to be found out, because they hold positions of influence but don’t do  the valuable “real” client facing work. They perceive their role to be more of a reward for what they achieved earlier in their careers. Because now they do very little of consequence.

This is imposter syndrome and it is very common amongst executives and business owners.

The media do not help. They seem to like deriding “managers” or “management” who earn big salaries and don’t do anything productive.

The term that was first used by psychologists Suzanna Imes and Pauline Rose Clance in the 1970s. When the concept was introduced, it was originally thought to apply mostly to high-achieving women. Since then, it has been recognized as more widely experienced.

While for some people, impostor syndrome can provide the motivation to achieve (or over achieve), this usually comes at a cost in the form of constant anxiety. You might over-prepare or work much harder than necessary to “make sure” that nobody finds out you are a fraud.

While impostor syndrome is not a recognized disorder, it is not uncommon. It is estimated that 70% of people will experience at least one episode of this phenomenon in their lives.

Amongst the people that we meet, particularly those who now plan and supervise, rather than doing “real” work, there is a danger that they fail to understand that their role is as important, if not more so, than doing the customer facing work. One of the reasons for their value is that they have the ability to manage, and if it seems easy to them, it is probably because they do it well. They are prepared to make decisions and to live by them, to admit mistakes and immediately change direction to correct the situation. They do not prevaricate but get on with the task in hand, probably because they have no choice. When something goes wrong at the coal face, who does everyone turn to to get it sorted out?

And all this is now possible because of all of their experiences earlier in their careers at the coal face.

Experience gives us the tools to do better but we sometimes forget just how much we have learned over the years, and that stuff us invaluable. You cannot put an old head on young shoulders, so they just have to take you as you are. You have value and are no fraud.



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