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Navigating Imposter Syndrome: The Executive Assistant's Silent Struggle

Imposter syndrome, sometimes called the "imposter phenomenon," is a psychological pattern in which individuals doubt their accomplishments and have an ongoing fear of being exposed as frauds, despite evidence of their competence.

In my early career I suffered from this a lot. Despite having graduated university, been selected onto a fast-track graduate program and achieving the highest ever job grade for someone of my age, “Mr Imposter” was always there lurking in the back-ground. Even after a long and reasonably successful career, despite a few wrong turns, I would be lying if I said that “Mr Imposter” has totally disappeared; but he has certainly gotten a lot quieter.

This feeling of inadequacy can affect anyone, from entry-level employees to seasoned executives. However, executive assistants are often in a peculiar position which makes this insidious syndrome even more prevalent.

As we know, executive assistants play a pivotal role in the success of their organizations. They are the right-hand individuals to top executives, responsible for managing calendars, handling communications, making crucial decisions, being involved in strategy, demonstrating leadership and ensuring the seamless functioning of the executive's office. Executive assistants must be highly organized, efficient, and adaptable to ever-changing demands.

Let’s explore why executive assistants are more vulnerable to imposter syndrome.

Executive assistants are often in close proximity to high-powered executives and decision-makers. This constant exposure to influential individuals can lead to feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt:-

Behind-the-Scenes Work: Much of an executive assistant’s work goes unnoticed by the outside world. Their efforts may seem invisible, making it easier for imposter syndrome to creep in.

High Expectations: The demands placed on executive assistants are exceptionally high. They are expected to anticipate their executive's needs and handle complex tasks with ease, which can be overwhelming.

Comparisons and Stereotypes: Executive assistants may compare themselves to their peers or the image of a "perfect" assistant they have in their minds, leading to feelings of falling short.

So, what can be done to combatting imposter syndrome?

Acknowledge Your Achievements: Keep a record of your accomplishments and milestones. Celebrate your successes, no matter how small they may seem. I constantly remind myself about some of my greatest achievements either at work or in a personal capacity.

Seek Mentorship and Support: Connect with other Executive assistants or professionals in similar roles to share experiences and gain insights. Having a mentor can be especially valuable. The best advice I ever got from one of my mentors was “never undersell yourself” which he explained meant that if you think negatively you will come across negatively.

Set Realistic Expectations: Understand that perfection is unattainable. Set achievable goals and communicate openly with your executive about your capabilities and boundaries. Pragmatism is my middle name. Having worked with people who set unrealistic objectives for themselves and their organisations I can see the damage it can cause. I saw one organisation almost crippled by one IT Director who convinced himself that we could build our own system and lost us nearly 3 years and huge expense before we reverted to my original suggestion.

Invest in Professional Development: Continuously improve your skills through training and education. This can boost your confidence and validate your competence. The world is changing rapidly and the role of the executive assistant is an easy target to be removed by those who do not understand what value it brings. You need to demonstrate that you have skills over and above the traditional transactional skillset and aim to be more of a strategic partner to your executive and colleagues.

Embrace Feedback: Constructive criticism is an opportunity for growth, not a validation of your imposter fears. Use feedback as a tool for improvement. Sadly there are those who are unable to provide feedback without it feeling like you are being attacked. They will never change. Learn to take it on the chin and listen for what is actually being said and assess if there is a point that you could look into improving.

Self-Compassion: Treat yourself with kindness and understanding. Remember that everyone makes mistakes and experiences self-doubt at times. Nobody is perfect and mistakes are there so that we learn from them. I always recommend never committing to 100% of anything if it can be avoided. That is when you set yourself up to fail. For example if you are expected to have the minutes of a board meeting out within 48 hours you should agree a target of “90% of board minutes to be issued within 48 hours”. It takes a lot of pressure off you and 100% is, in reality, unachievable.

Imposter syndrome is a formidable adversary that can hinder the professional growth and well-being of executive assistants. However, by recognizing its presence and employing strategies to combat it, you can regain their confidence and excel in their crucial roles.

The key lies in understanding that competence and value are not defined by external perceptions but by one's own commitment, dedication, and continuous growth. Imposter syndrome may always be lurking, but with the right mindset and support, you can thrive and continue to be an indispensable assets to your organisation.

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