We interviewed Sue Liburd, an award-winning businesswoman, mentor, leadership strategist, and chair of several senior business leadership forums on the progress needed to advance the women at work agenda.

Sue operates at the intersection of where an organisation is now and where it needs to be. Supporting leaders to rethink what they know today, to influence, shape, and future proof their organisations for tomorrow. Sue was recognised for her work in the New Year’s Honours in 2016 and awarded an MBE for her services to Business, Charity, and Voluntary Organisations.

Our interview with Sue outlines:

  • How to tackle imposter syndrome
  • The importance of role models
  • The Athena Doctrine
  • How employers can continue the inclusiveness of hiring for women
  • The bring your whole self to work initiative 
  • Where the women at work agenda is going

The interview was performed by Natascha Ng (NN), a Content Researcher at MGC.

NN: Firstly, what is imposter syndrome, how would you define it?

SL: Let’s be clear about what imposter syndrome is, it’s a psychological state of mind. Individuals with imposter syndrome suffer from self-doubt about their skills, ability, or expertise, despite evidence to the contrary. Often, we just use ‘imposter syndrome’ as an umbrella term but there are actually two types: ‘true’ imposters and ‘strategic’ imposters. I would argue that we need a couple of different strategies for the different types.

The work of Mona Leonhardt and her colleagues [2] describes ‘true’ imposters as those with a fear of being exposed. For example, an individual is given a role, yet, despite all the external evidence and being selected, they believe that they are a fraud. They’ve got a fear that they’re going to be caught out. So that’s self-doubt.

The second type of imposter syndrome is ‘strategic’ syndrome. Strategic syndrome imposters are individuals who downplay their capability in a given situation to influence the outcome. So, it’s a bit of impression management. I’m not talking about false modesty, what I’m talking about is learned behaviour. For a lot of people, this is not conscious. So, when we come to tackling imposter syndrome, whether it’s a true or strategic syndrome, we need a different range of strategies. 

NN: How can both employees and employers tackle imposter syndrome?

SL: Each party has got to get to the point where they’re aware of the imposter syndrome. We’ve got to begin by changing an individual’s internal narrative because it is their harsh internal critic, that has been honed, formed, and shaped since childhood. Then you’ve got to have a series of interventions to break that dialogue. As an employer the kinds of things that can be done to support somebody with imposter syndrome are coaching, one to one intervention, and mentoring. It is important to get an individual to notice where they’ve performed well. Whenever they may be starting to doubt themselves, ask them: where’s the evidence to support that thinking?

Another great way to tackle imposter syndrome is through development intervention, for example, confidence building courses. However, confidence is that it’s absolutely situational and we must remember that. So, an individual can be confident in one situation, and then, in another, the imposter syndrome is triggered. We must look at recognising patterns and that is why learning development can be a good intervention.

NN: You talk about learned behaviours, on a wider societal level, what do you think contributes to imposter syndrome? What can be done, in earlier life or at school, to prevent this?

SL: In both our younger and more senior years role modelling is really important. Schools are doing a really good job of starting to recognise this. However, you find as an older woman, that when you get into a senior position there are not many other people like you. This can trigger doubt. It is important to have more women, especially women from ethnic minorities, in senior positions as role models. 

Secondly, particularly in our informative years, we get tripped up by double-bind syndrome. We find ourselves in that state of dilemma, we are told to be a good girl or boy we have to be and do certain things. Then, we grow up and we get into a place of work the qualities that make a good manager, or a good leader are conflicting. Therefore, I think in those early years, as parents, as educators, as influencers, we’ve got a duty to support the next generation to not get caught up in that dilemma.

NN: Perceptions of what is considered good leadership qualities are changing. Are you able to discuss this with us further?

SL: The Athena Doctrine [3] looked at 125 human characteristics across 64,000 people globally. They asked people to say what they thought were feminine and masculine behaviours. It was very interesting to see what people saw as being feminine characteristics.

We are seeing a trend, traits that have been traditionally labelled as feminine are now the qualities and characteristics that we consider essential for effective leadership. The world’s changed. We’ve got new leadership competencies, compassionate leadership, inclusive leadership. These are now the competencies that we’re looking for in our leaders now.

NN: Arguably, Covid-19 has changed the qualities we look for in leaders, favouring characteristics that are traditionally considered more feminine. But how can employers continue this inclusiveness of hiring for women?

SL: There’s some really good practice that’s happening in companies of all different sizes. Larger corporations have begun recognising that things have to change. For example, when designing the role specification, they are asking, have we got some inbuilt bias here? The organisations that are being most innovative have a team of people that hiring managers will go to, for example, a women’s group, a racial equality network, or an LGBTQ network. Hiring managers will ask these networks: ‘could you take a look at this through your specific lens, and check if there is an excluding content or internal bias?’

Other strategies that we’re also starting to see in organisations, is that before hiring managers make an appointment, they have to sit in front of diversity champions and justify their decision. 

Alternatively, some companies are bringing in blind recruitment processes. Where a hiring manager can’t see from the application any details that may cause bias. 

When Tony Blair was Prime Minister, he wanted to make sure that he addressed the number of women that were in Parliament, so they said we’re just going to have an all-women list and redress the balance. I think we need some innovation. I do think we need some bold action, and I think we need some creativity. The pace over the last 500 years isn’t acceptable.

NN: On the topic of inclusiveness perhaps we could talk a little more about the ‘bring your whole self to work’ initiative?

I think as an initiative it is really important. We have seen the challenges people have had by trying to contain themselves in a box, to just present themselves in a particular role. As a result, we don’t get the best out of each individual. People have a raft of skills, expertise and opinion, and we only use just a little bit of it. But I would also caution that some people don’t want to bring their whole self to work. To bring your whole self to work, you’ve got to be reassured that there is psychological safety and not all workplaces have psychological safety. It requires some people to be quite pioneering, to be bold, to step up first and go look, this is the whole me. That will give further confidence for others, but again we come back to leaders also having to be role models.

NN: Where do you think the women at work agenda is going?

SL: We need to make sure that we do not homogenise women. We are not all one woman. We are in an era of personalisation. Going forward there needs to be a focus on intersectionality. We need acknowledge that if somebody is part of a particular religious, political, cultural, or ethnic group, and they also have a particular gender, then their experience in the world is going to be different. We need to update our thinking to consider the lived experience of individuals. 

I think we need to move from, what I call, non-passive activity. It is not a tick box exercise. Leaders’ behaviour needs to change. So, we need leaders and managers in my opinion to be far more coaches far more facilitators.

Here are some additional resources to build on what Sue Liburd has discussed:

All Impostors Aren’T Alike – Differentiating The Impostor Phenomenon

Why imposter syndrome hits women and women of colour harder

The Athena Doctrine 

[1] MGC Interview with Sue Liburd, Deputy Chair Armed Forces Public Patient Voice Advisory Group, and Non-Executive Director, NHS Lincolnshire Clinical Commuissioning Group, 15/10/20

[2] Leonhardt, M., Bechtoldt, M. and Rohrmann, S. 2017. All Impostors Aren’T Alike – Differentiating The Impostor Phenomenon. [Accessed 23/03/21].  

[3] Gerzema, J. and D’Antonio, M., 2014. The Athena Doctrine. [Kennett Square, Pa.]: Soundview Executive Book Summaries.  

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We interviewed Sue Liburd, an award-winning businesswoman, mentor, leadership strategist, and chair of several senior business leadership forums on the progress needed to advance the women at work agenda.

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