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Dealing With Imposter Syndrome, There’s No Such Thing as a ‘Perfect PM’

Handling Promotion
Product Team
Juniors

6 September, 2021

Kirsten Zverina
Kirsten Zverina

Head of Product at Abethos ventures

Kirsten Zverina, Head of Product at Abethos Ventures, shares the steps she took to help a new PM overcome their imposter syndrome.

Problem

No matter how great or how far into a career, it is never too late for imposter syndrome to appear. Imposters suffer from acute self-doubt and a sense of fear that overrides the proof of their competency. If that sounds similar, let’s level the playing field. In one of the companies I worked at, I inherited a team of B2C PMs, who were differently experienced. And there was a junior PM who was feeling a little left behind.

The junior PM had recently transferred to the product team from an engineering team, and they were struggling with imposter syndrome. They were so worried about their inexperience that it drove them to make slower decisions and avoid hard trade-off calls. In one way or another, they were deferring so much to others that it slowed their team and teams dependent on them. Even when reporting significant outcomes, their tone lacked confidence which then sparked negative feedback from key stakeholders. This was creating a downward spiral of self-doubt, further worsening the imposter syndrome.

Actions taken

First, I encouraged the PM to see the skill gaps not as failures but instead as “learning opportunities”. Presenting them this way, helps change the tone. So, when they hit issues or things did not work out as expected, they could just reframe it themselves, as a chance to learn and try again. During our 1:1s, we also built a custom training plan together, based on how they had best learned new skills in the past and they started to make great progress.

Second, I also showed weaknesses as a PM, I had overcome - so they could see they weren’t the only one with inner struggles, and that they can be solved. I opened up about how, coming from engineering myself, I felt for many years I was weak in business skills. So I had similarly undertaken courses to strengthen my skills. I also shared that I was still very new to coaching PMs too and I wanted to build my PM coaching skills. So, I regularly asked for their feedback on my PM coaching, to learn from them and further show my learnings.

Third, as mentors from both Product and Engineering, helped me on my career journey 一 I encouraged this PM to seek a variety of opinions. To reach out to professional networks and find mentors who inspired them. And I nudged them to ask those mentors how they dealt with inner struggles or imposter syndrome (so they could get more ideas). It helped them to see the bigger picture; they were finally able to see it is very common for generalists like PMs, who bring together and amplify experts, to be affected by this syndrome.

Fourth, in our 1-1s, I encouraged them to think about the type of PM career they wanted. I wanted them to see there’s no ‘perfect’ one-size-fits-all career path, or PM either. PMs specialise too - so I wanted to find out what motivated this PM. Did they want to become a senior IC (individual contributor PM), or maybe a manager of PMs? Did they want to specialise in the products they worked on etc., etc? As PMs are rarely interchangeable; a great B2B PM can struggle as a B2C PM and vice versa. So, we set up career chats around our 1:1s, to help them find their unique PM path.

Fifth, I encouraged them to track their progress. As all of us, regardless of our department or experience, should track our successes. I suggested they keep a written record of their wins, praise and learnings, as they go. And as these wins built up, whenever they had doubts, they could look back at that log and see their strengths. And ever so slowly, their confidence started to build up.

Last but not least, I also took steps to openly praise this PM, whenever they did well and presented confidently. Their previously troublesome stakeholder reviews changed. And as they grew in confidence, the positive stakeholder feedback came in. In fact, eventually when new product processes were trialled for our whole department, they were the very first to step up and bravely trial them.

Lessons learned

  • Success for PMs is often correlated to how much someone seeks feedback and can learn from feedback. I believe all feedback has at least a grain, or an ‘event of truth’ in it. And people who know this and can look for that truth, get very good at learning by developing a ‘growth mindset’. And so they get faster at learning new skills. And that drive to learn, is highly correlated to greater impacts over time. (See https://hbr.org/2016/01/what-having-a-growth-mindset-actually-means)
  • Learning is essential but we all have complex lives, especially in a pandemic. We are not just our work tasks and we all have battles going on, many others (even if they work with us every day) know nothing about. So, when you are helping someone learn, while working remotely, overcoming something like imposter syndrome is really challenging. Be patient, as you help your team build their confidence in private and then in public. And be extra kind in your choice of words and help them forgive themselves, so they can learn more and overcome their doubts.

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