Product Marty Cagan

Coaching – Imposter Syndrome

I have a bit of a contrarian opinion on Imposter Syndrome.

First, let me be clear that I believe Imposter Syndrome is a real thing.  In fact, I think most mentally healthy people (at least those that aren’t egomaniacs) doubt themselves and can feel insecure about asserting their opinions on others.  I like to emphasize to the people that I coach that this is a normal and healthy fear, and I share that I still feel the same way.

Second, I think it’s important to acknowledge that imposters are also a real thing.  I’ve mentioned in an earlier article that I find it very frustrating, especially in the Product and Design spaces, how many people on Twitter, authors of articles and books, and conference speakers are, at least in my personal opinion, advocating nonsense.

I think Imposter Syndrome is a very healthy and necessary emotion, and an important signal from our minds.  But most people misunderstand that signal.  They think it’s just natural fear and insecurities, everyone has it, and they need to simply overcome their worries, and push past that.

But I interpret this signal very differently.  It is my mind warning me of the consequences if I don’t do my homework and truly prepare.  The fear of looking clueless is what keeps me up late preparing, studying, thinking, writing, rehearsing, and iterating.

Most importantly, the fear of looking clueless is also what pushes me to try out my article/talk/presentation beforehand on some people that I highly respect, and I know will tell me honestly if I am not solid in my thinking or my delivery.

The reason I know that my worries are not unfounded, is because more than a few times, those people have indeed saved me from myself.

When I go to conferences I too often hear speakers that if they have imposter syndrome, they clearly did not take the warning seriously.

Should they be praised for overcoming their stage fright fears and getting in front of a group?  To me that’s like giving a child a trophy just for showing up to the game.

More generally, I see this as yet another example of where we need managers and leaders that care enough about their people that they are willing to devote the time and energy to coaching and mentoring their employees.

Whenever I see some product manager deliver an underwhelming presentation to an executive team or a conference, my frustration is centered not on the product manager, but rather on that person’s manager.

Why didn’t she ensure the product manager was prepared?  Did she provide relevant, actionable, honest feedback?  Did she insist on reviewing a draft or a rehearsal?  If the topic was not in her area of expertise, did she ensure the product manager had access to some people that could be counted on to provide honest and helpful feedback?  If the product manager is especially nervous speaking in front of a group (many are), did the manager provide the product manager with several progressive opportunities to get used to public speaking?  Or enroll the product manager in presentation training?

Empowered product teams are predicated on trust.  Especially the product manager having earned the trust of the executives.  When a product manager appears unprepared, or naïve, in front of the executives, that trust is diminished, and it will take a long time to regain.

Moreover, this is why I tell managers and leaders of product that they are only as strong as their weakest product manager.

Whether you’re a product manager or a product leader, there’s no reason to be an imposter.  Listen to your mind warning you of the consequences of not preparing, seek out people you trust to give you honest and expert feedback, and iterate until they are satisfied that you are truly adding value.