Author and mum of four Caroline Flanagan discusses the Imposter Syndrome she’s struggled with throughout her career and how her new book aims to help other women and men of colour succeed in the corporate world.
With ten years’ experience as a speaker on Imposter Syndrome, I’ve shared my Imposter story on stage many times. But one occasion when I was speaking stands out more than the others.
It was a dark wintry evening in January 2019. I was standing off-stage, ready and waiting to start my talk, and watching the room fill up with lawyers and their clients. I remember being impressed by how many people had braved the rain and the wind after a long day in the office (remember those days, when people left their houses each day and went to work in real offices?!) to attend a talk on Imposter Syndrome. It never ceases to amaze me how popular this topic is and how deeply it resonates with those who are operating at the highest level. On the outside they all seem so confident in their success.
Ten minutes into my talk, I started to share the pivotal moment in my story when, looking around me on the first day of primary school, I realised I was the only black pupil – not in the class, but in the whole school. To help the audience get the sense of how isolating this was, I used the expression “one black face in a sea of white faces”. It’s a strong image and I did it deliberately to convey the loneliness of it all, pausing for just long enough to let the image sink in.
My eyes scanned the room taking in the all too familiar sea of white faces in front of me. But suddenly they stopped. There, in the third row from the back, I saw a lone black face. It was exactly what I’d been describing: a black face in a sea of white faces. The reason why this is so remarkable is because it so rarely happens. I am a Coach and a Speaker to the corporate world. My audience is made up of lawyers, bankers and other high earners in the City. Whether I’m on a real stage or a virtual one, I am almost always the only person of colour in the room. And the audience: almost all of them are white.
One of the takeaways from my talks on Imposter Syndrome, is a deeper knowledge and understanding of what Imposter Syndrome is and how it works. You learn that Imposter Syndrome is the feeling that you’re a fraud, the belief your success is down to luck and the fear that any minute now you’ll be exposed. You discover that perfectionism, stress, playing small and avoiding opportunities that could elevate your career are all symptoms of Imposter Syndrome. But for most people in the room, the greatest takeaway of all is the discovery that Imposter Syndrome is everywhere. It’s not just you. You are not alone.
But not if you’re black.
If you’re the black woman in the third row from the back, or a person of colour like her, it’s different. You don’t leave the room feeling more connected and with a renewed sense of belonging. When you go back to work at your global law firm, accounting firm or bank in the City, you are still the only black face in the room. You still feel very much alone.
The day I saw that one black face in a sea of white faces, I made the connection between her battles against Imposter Syndrome and the battles I have fought my whole life. This was not just a battle against feeling like an imposter. It was also a battle against a system that, because of how exclusive it was, made me feel like an imposter. I realised that the usual solutions for coping with Imposter Syndrome that hadn’t worked for me in the past - solutions like “tell yourself you deserve to be there” and “fake it till you make it” - wouldn’t work for her either. I realised that like me, she needed something more and that, thanks to my own experience finding success in a white world, I was realised that I was uniquely positioned to provide it.
Later that year, I spoke on a panel at an event about bringing your authentic self to work, for the Black Solicitors Network. That day I was struck by the frustration and anger felt by people of colour about their experience of striving to succeed in a corporate world which was predominantly, overwhelmingly white. We discussed the micro-aggressions and the shocking examples of racism people of colour are still being subjected to, and it resonated so deeply. Memories of being the only black pupil in the school came flooding back to me: the music teacher who instead of using my real name to call on me in class, would only call me “lady of the jungle”; of being told “you’re actually quite nice, for a black person”; and of being repeatedly asked to reaffirm racial stereotypes such as why all black people are good dancers. These experiences followed me through school, haunted me at Cambridge and pursued me into my career as a lawyer in the City. When people in the audience described feeling excluded because of private school ‘in jokes’ and an after-work drinking culture they were unfamiliar with; of having no role models of colour and never seeing anyone who looked, sounded and acted like them succeed to the top, it all came flooding back. I remembered how isolated I’d felt as a lawyer in the City, due to my lack of exposure to social and cultural experiences like Tennis, Golf, fine wine dining and clay pigeon shooting - which were so essential to building the connections and attracting the sponsorship required for getting ahead in your career. I felt angry and frustrated. It had been fifteen years since I left my law career in the City. Nothing had changed!
But a part of me rebelled against the powerlessness in the room. I thought about the challenges I’d faced, the battles I’d fought and how I had overcome these to get where I am today. Suddenly I felt a burning longing to say more about where power comes from and the extraordinary results we can create when we find the power in ourselves and we use it. Toni Morrison said “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, you must be the one to write it”. Be The First is that book.
Be the First is a book for the lonely person of colour in the room (and for anyone who wants to understand that experience). In it I share a powerful tool I created for winning the battle against Imposter Syndrome and systemic bias. That tool is the Imposter SpeechTM, a powerful identity statement that gives you instant courage and lasting confidence. I still suffer from Imposter Syndrome but, thanks to my Imposter SpeechTM, it is now the strength that fuels my success. Be The First shows you how to create your own Imposter Speech so you can start winning the battles you think you can’t win, and step up to your full potential.
Be The First People of Colour, Imposter Syndrome and the Struggle to Succeed in a White World by Caroline Flanagan (published February 26 by Known £12.99 paperback, £5.99 ebook) is available online from retailers including amazon.co.uk and can be ordered from all good
by Caroline Flanagan (published February 26 by Known £12.99 paperback, £5.99 ebook) is available online from retailers including amazon.co.uk and can be ordered from all good bookstores. You can follow her online at www.carolineflanagan.com and @caroline_flanagan on Instagram.