Wellness Wednesday: Advocating for Yourself // Overcoming Impostor Syndrome

By Jessica Odeyemi, Senior Product Manager, IBM Cloud (and Code2College Mentor)

I still have very clear memories of my first job after college. A week before Christmas, I arrived in Germany, where I would live and work as an engineer for an oil company. The excitement of being in a foreign country quickly faded to self-doubt as reality set in: I was in an unfamiliar environment, away from friends and family, struggling to communicate in a language I didn’t understand, and I had no clue how to actually do my job yet. I spent a good portion of my first work weeks out on a drilling rig, hiding behind a water tank, crying my eyes out and wondering if I should just go back home to Texas.

I’m glad I didn’t. I stayed, learned, made (a lot of) mistakes, and had some great successes. I went on to work for another prestigious oil company, worked on projects all over the world, went back to grad school, made a career switch, and learned so much along the way.

I now know the name for what I initially felt – Imposter Syndrome. There are so many people who have experienced this feeling. Thoughts like: “How did I get here? Do I really deserve to be here? What if I mess up? Did I just slip through the cracks?” This is a particularly common thought pattern for so many women and minorities. You might even be recalling a time or two that you’ve felt this way as you’re reading now.

In full transparency, I still struggle with Imposter Syndrome – I don’t know if it ever goes away completely. The difference today is that instead of hiding behind water tanks, I know how to advocate for myself in the workplace. I realize that is easier said than done, but here are a few tips that mentors and others I look up to have given me throughout my career:

Make your thinking visible. It can be really uncomfortable to speak up in a meeting, especially as the new person. We don’t want to mess up, so we are inclined to keep our heads down. But companies don’t pay us to fly under the radar – they expect us to have opinions and to actively contribute. The best idea from the smartest person in the group doesn’t matter if no one knows about it. That doesn’t mean that you should dominate every conversation, but when you have an idea (even if it’s not 100% fully baked), express it, and be open to feedback. Other ways to make your thinking visible are by asking questions, or by agreeing with a colleague and explaining why. As you practice this skill, you will see two things start to happen 1) It will become second nature and 2) others will start to expect and ask for your opinion. 

Take credit for your work. I know this one can be hard for many of us. We don’t want to look self-centered, and we want to be team players. But here’s the thing – you can do both. You can take credit for the things you’ve done and still be a team player. You can highlight your own achievements while acknowledging the group. Your manager and the others who evaluate you in the workplace have so many things going on each day, and they don’t always have the details of every contribution you’ve made for every project. So how will they make decisions about your impact? They rely mainly on what you tell them. Instead of leaving it up to imagination, be clear. A couple of ideas for how to do this:

·       Have weekly, biweekly, or monthly meetings with your manager where you update her on all of the great things you’re doing. Mention the other people that are helping to get the work done, but make sure to communicate your specific contributions.

·       Brag on yourself during performance reviews. The more specific, the better. If you can use data points (eg. sold $5000, shipped 3 features, saved 10 hours, etc.) then do so.

Think of it as fuel or ammunition. The more data and specific examples you can provide, the better equipped your managers and colleagues will be to advocate on your behalf.

Ask for what you want. Have you ever heard the saying “closed mouths don’t get fed”? This is especially true in the workplace. Working for a company is a two-way street. You are expected to contribute, but the company should also be a place where you are compensated fairly and can develop your skills. You are the one who should decide what that looks like, and your career is ultimately your responsibility. Here are some examples of things you should get in the habit of asking for:

·       Time: If someone’s area of work or their background inspires you, don’t be afraid to act on your curiosity and ask to get a few minutes of time on the calendar to answer any burning questions you have about their experiences. Not only does this help you start to shape your own goals, but it also helps to build relationships with a wide variety of people.

·       Projects: A career is something that you play an active role in – that means that you have to think about your actual interests. If there is a project or an area that you are interested in, even if it isn’t in your immediate job description, have the courage talk to your manager about it. Tell her why you are interested, how it can develop you as a better employee, and how you can balance it with your current responsibilities. Think of the projects we work on as tools in our toolkits that we can use in other roles in the future.

·       More money: I know, I know – the thought of this can be nerve-wracking. The key is to be confident and direct but also to frame the request as part of a larger conversation. One of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen (and made personally) is waiting until the end of the year to get feedback and talk about promotions. When you first step into a role, get on the same page as your manager about what is expected of you at the current level, and at the next level. From there, you should be having on-going conversations and check-ins about how you’re meeting those expectations. This approach makes asking for a promotion/raise less scary because it will be the natural next step to the conversation you’ve been having for the whole year, and it will also be something you are already in the habit of talking about.

Life is full of change and uncertainty. If you are constantly pushing yourselves toward new challenges, you too may have your water tank moments. I hope that these tools help to serve as a reminder that you deserve a seat at the table, and as a way to demonstrate that confidence to others.