What you need to know about climbing the ladder and overcoming impostor syndrome

It's been 10 years since Harold Hillman moved to New Zealand after being headhunted by Fonterra. Hillman has been leading and coaching teams within organisations for decades, from Kraft to Sealord, Shell to BNZ, and now as the MD of Sigmoid Curve Consulting Group, he's penned a book called The Impos

'Impostor syndrome' is real – but what are you gonna do about it?

It's been 10 years since Harold Hillman moved to New Zealand after being headhunted by Fonterra. Hillman has been leading and coaching teams within organisations for decades, from Kraft to Sealord, Shell to BNZ, and now as the MD of Sigmoid Curve Consulting Group, he's penned a book called The Impostor Syndrome: Becoming An Authentic Leader.

Most of us suffer from 'impostor syndrome' at one time or another, so we asked Hillman about what it takes to rise up the ranks and why the idea of 'fake it till you make it' is flawed.

harold hillman q&a idealog on impostor syndrome and career successWhat was the first job you ever held? What did you learn from it?
 
The first job I ever held was at a diaper cleaning plant when I was 16.  It was a very smelly environment, always ripe with the aromatic stench of urine mixed with ammonia!  Needless to say, I learned that I wanted to do something bigger, and perhaps less toxic, with my life, starting with university in 1973. 

I can say that early in my life and young career, I worked a variety of jobs that gave me a clear view on the quality of life that tracks with both white- and blue-collar professions.  I learned very early that white collars hire you for your thinking, whereas blue collars are hiring you for a specific skill.  After the diaper cleaning plant, I was pretty much on the path where I would do everything to enhance my capability as a thinker.
 
What's been the most pivotal moment in your life in terms of being successful in business?
 
The most pivotal moment related to my business success was having the opportunity to teach at the U.S. Air Force Academy, where I first got my head around the concept of developing people to be leaders.  As a clinical psychologist, my work was about helping people overcome adversity and build resilience.  While at the academy, I was able to apply many of those frameworks to emerging leaders and found that there is both a science and an art to building leadership capability.  That was the turning point for me in my career that positioned me for some powerful roles in corporate America and with Fonterra, prior to establishing Sigmoid in 2007.

Who do you admire the most – in terms of business leaders – and why?

I admire Jack Welch.  He’s focused, direct, and decisive.  At G.E., Welch built the world’s best talent machine that remains the benchmark to this day, nearly a decade after his retirement.  Welch understood the significance of building a strong bench of successors as a way to position the business for sustained success.  So he invested a significant amount of his time and energy toward stretching younger managers in G.E.’s talent pipeline, helping them build confidence and a broader perspective on the business and their own capability.

I also admire Sir John Kirwan.  Through his example, he demonstrated that authenticity is a powerful element of leadership.  This strong and powerful icon rendered himself ‘human’ by talking openly about how he has suffered chronic depression for most of his life and, by so doing, has enabled scores of others [particularly men and boys in NZ] to talk about openly about depression, stripping it of its potency as a ‘dirty little secret.’  Sir John’s leadership has only been enhanced by his authenticity, which is a resounding endorsement that ‘being yourself’ is what people like the most about their leaders.

What are some key (but simple) habits of successful leaders that anyone can start to implement in their own lives?

(1) Be open to new ideas and resist the temptation to surround yourself with people who think like you.

(2) Learn how to learn.  This is a skill that is equally about ‘unlearning’ as it is about ‘learning.’

(3) Hire people who are smarter than you.  If it isn’t imperative that you have to be the smartest person in the room to be the leader, then make life easy for yourself.  Surround yourself with smart and capable people, a few who may even succeed you, and then learn how to sift through their brains to synthesise the intelligence around you.  That’s an imperative role of a leader.

(4) Trust your gut, also known as intuition.  On those calls involving hiring or firing, your gut will be a faithful barometer.  Your gut has largely served you well in life.  It’s that thing that runs parallel, and sometimes counter to, objective data.  Listen to your gut, particularly when you can’t reconcile the person with the data.  In my direct experience and in coaching a number of chief executives, you don’t want to have regrets that you didn’t act soon enough on a call that would have saved you and the organisation months, if not years, of aggravation.

harold hillman the impostor syndromeLeadership – is it innate or taught? Does 'fake it til you make it' work?

Leadership is both innate and learned.  Some people have a natural charisma that is compelling and naturally positions them for success at influencing others.  And other people have to work at it, explicitly building skills that enable them to influence successful outcomes. 

‘Fake it ‘til you make it’ only reinforces the impostor syndrome.  When people are being stretched into new or broader roles, their willingness to ask for and accept help from others, can be liberating and energising to a team, as opposed to a boss who is closed, guarded and defensive – the symptoms of someone who is faking it.

What advice do you have for people eager to rise up the corporate ranks?

Be yourself.  Don’t try to be some person who you believe others will like or find acceptable.  That type of person is usually more focused on ‘fitting in’ rather than ‘standing out.’  If you’re yourself, you won’t be afraid to stand out, particularly if you have a different view, or a different way of expressing that view.  If you focus on being yourself, it frees you up to give more of yourself to others.  It’s draining living life behind a mask!

What appeals to you most about living in NZ?

I love pretty much everything about New Zealand.  There’s a whole lot of terrain to cover in just one time zone!  I like the civility of New Zealand’s culture.  While it may seem slow from afar to some of my former Manhattanites, the psyche of New Zealand is about hard work, hard play, beautiful relationships, awesome friendship and family kinship, and living.

And what's one thing you'd like to change about it?

The one thing I’d change is the stigma associated with feeling good about achievement.  In my opinion, Kiwis are overly modest in some arenas outside the sports sector.  While I’ve come to appreciate that some Americans may be over-the-top when it comes to celebrating achievement, there is something powerful, and empowering, about significant achievement.  Being able to acknowledge and celebrate achievement helps to raise the bar on performance, both individually and organisationally.  I’d like for New Zealand businesses to get a better handle on just how empowering recognition is.

What's a typical workday involve for you?
 
The wonderful thing about my profession is its variability.  I see many different types of clients and run different types of programs.  So there is no typical day, other than rising around 6am and shutting things down somewhere around 11pm.  In between those hours, I have many coaching conversations, quick catch ups with friends, touch-and-gos through emails and text messages, and lately – focusing on publicity opportunities for the book!
 
If I wasn't doing this, I'd be ...
 
A high level maitre d at an exclusive restaurant in Paris.