Being and Imposter Syndrome

 

How does a "real" business person dress? Do I look like a "real" marketer?

Skirt: JC Penney

Tank top: NY & Co.

Cardigan: Target

Heels: Sam & Libby via DSW

Like the outfit? Click here for more details!

 

I talked about motivation in yesterday’s post, and I’ve been thinking about another topic that coincides with motivation, “being” vs. “acting”. Remember when you were little, and you played house, played teenager (don’t lie, you know you pretended to be in high school when you were 6!), or played cops? When I was younger, my CPA father had to work on Saturdays during tax season, and he’d take us to his office sometimes. He’d give us pens and post-it notes, and, no kidding, we’d play business (yes, I was that nerdy). I played business at my grandmother’s house too, with a box of blank payroll checks for a defunct business and her fancy clip-on earrings and purses. My brother and I would take turns owning the business, and I’d stuff a bunch of checks into my Granny’s purse, clip on those earrings like I was ready for the office, and strut down the hall to the back bedroom, where I’d wave my hands around telling everyone to get to work. Man, I was AWESOME at imaginary business!

The funny thing is, I really do business now. I really slip on my high heels, really go to an office, and really approve invoices. And yet, sometimes it still feels like I’m playing business, like everyone will eventually find out that I’m just a little kid in my grandmother’s clip-on earrings, or scribbling on post-it notes on the floor of my dad’s office. There’s a frequently-used name for this phenomenon, imposter syndrome. Essentially, you feel like you’re lying about your skills or intelligence, being the ultimate pretender in your professional abilities, and eventually, the truth will come out that in fact, you have no idea what you’re doing. It’s not just early career people that feel this, it’s high-powered lawyers, doctors, and professors.

This concept of “playing” at something goes back to my initial thoughts of “being” vs. “acting”, and the motivation for actors. Are you ACTING like a business person would act, or are you BEING a business person? Are you imitating what you think business people should do, or are you taking actions that a business person would take because they make strategic sense? What makes it a “real” business look, decision, or action anyways? I have this vision of an actual business person in a black, pinstripe suit, briefcase in hand, clicking along a marble hallway with large glass windows, on their way to an important presentation to the board. Does this mean that I’m not a real business person in the outfit with color? Am I just pretending to be a marketer if I don’t carry a briefcase? What, exactly, indicates that I’m being a business person, and not just acting like a business person? I think it’s the motivation. I don’t want to imitate business behavior simply because I think that’s what business looks like. It’s part of the reason that Silicon Valley start-ups have non-existent dress codes: they believe business is about DOING business, not playing the part of a business person by dressing up in fancy clothes and waving around worthless checks.

Are you playing business, or doing business? Are you acting like a business person, or being a business person? Are you an imposter, or a smart, driven, no-holds-barred force in the business world? Like the outfit? Click here for more details!

Perpetuating the “In Group”

This post might be a little bit controversial, but I’m going to throw it out there, since it’s been on my mind for a few weeks. I’m completing another Organizational Behavior (OB) class, and we often discuss concepts around forming groups and behavior within those groups. There’s a concept of an “in” group and an “out” group, “we” vs. “them”, “us” vs. “the other”. These concepts have been particularly applicable lately, as I’ve been reading a lot of articles about the pay gap, the ‘ole boys’ club, and disputes between minority groups and majority groups.

From the articles around the web, it seems that many people feel that the ‘ole boys’ club continues because men are intentionally sexist and exclusionary, and that women aren’t fighting hard enough to break down the walls to force their way into the network. I sometimes fall into this hyped-up mentality that often incites sensationalism, instead of an honest look at a problem, and a plan of action to come to a solution. But then, once in a while, my own bias hits me square in the face, and I realize that in general, things keep going the way they’ve always gone simply because of human nature.

Take my MBA classmates, for example. I had the good fortune to work with an excellent group in my OB class, and I would love to work with them again. I would also love to be introduced to people that they would want to work with again, because I trust their word. I commented that I wanted to host a casual networking party toward the end of the summer, and extend it to them, and any of their classmates or contacts that they’d like to invite. The goal is to trade professor recommendations, find good group members for future semesters, and ultimately, build relationships with people that can help you on your ascent up the corporate ladder. This is how networks form: I picked people “like me”, and they will in turn introduce me to people “like them” (and, good ‘ole math, if a=b, and b=c, then a=c… there’s a proper name for that, but I haven’t used it since freshman year of high school!).

It’s interesting, because on the surface, the people “like me” are actually a pretty diverse group. In my group this semester, there’s males and females from several different cultural backgrounds, including China, Haiti, and Chile, a few white males, and a few white females. Groups from past semesters include males and females from several other countries and cultures around the world, so this networking party would be a nice rainbow. However, our backgrounds are very similar. We all grew up with the expectation of going to college, and many, with the expectation of attending graduate school. We all work in nice offices, wearing nice clothes, and we go home to a nice neighborhood, to nice spouses with good jobs. We all speak fluent English, and we all behave according to American norms. Despite a wide array of cultural norms in our personal lives, we do business like Americans.

Quite frankly, it’s just easier that way. When we say “business formal”, we all know what that means. When we say “standard presentation”, we all know what that means. When we divide the work load for a project, we know what “deadline” means. It’s just easier to work with people who are like you, so you end up gravitating toward them, and perpetuating the “in group”. At least in my circle, we’ve moved past skin color and gender issues, but we use education and money as the new barrier. Again, not intentionally, but because it’s just the path of least resistance. I don’t know that this is necessarily wrong, either, since some of it has to do with life stages as well. I relate better to people who are in graduate school or a business environment, just like I relate better to young married professionals than a stay-at-home mom.

The concern is that the “in group” never gives anyone else a chance to break in, even though they may be perfectly suited to join the group. It’s most dangerous when the bias is not obvious, like the group I described in my case. We look diverse and inclusive on the surface, but we’ve got some pretty strong bias in the group. Would we be willing to invite someone with little or no work experience to the networking party? Probably not. Would we be willing to invite someone that isn’t pursuing graduate studies? Pretty unlikely. Then again, Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard, and Google started in a garage. Granted, everyone in the world isn’t a college-drop-out-turned-billionaire, but there are definitely smart, capable, well-connected people that don’t fit “our” criteria. And thus, the same network trends continue, and business as usual goes on. This is also problematic because we live in a globalized society, with a worldwide economy. I like to think I’m open-minded about different business customs and I love exploring other cultures. I rarely examine my own bias when it comes to business interactions, because I believe I don’t have any. This is a false sense of security, and though uncomfortable, it’s necessary to understand the judgements and preconceived notions I have about people with different backgrounds.

I don’t have any concrete solutions for breaking down the “in group” mentality, but I believe it starts with brutal honesty within ourselves. I’ve taken the time to understand a situation with my networking prospects, and I’ve been considering the consequences of my actions. Have you recognized a time when you perpetuated the “in group” mentality? Is there a person that might not fit the criteria, but could bring valuable insight, connections, or perspective to a situation?

TMI

There are certain topics in the workplace that are supposed to be off limits. In polite society, these topics are also excluded from the dinner table! I recently had a somewhat awkward “too much information” situation at work. I’ve had a large mole near my left eyebrow for most of my life, but it’s been growing in the last few years. After several reminders from my mom, I finally made the appointment to have it removed. It turns out that it was large enough and deep enough that they had to perform a small surgery to excise the mole, resulting in 4 stitches sitting smack in the middle of my face! I had to wear a band-aid when I returned to work the day after the removal, and I had black stitches showing for the next week.

The first awkward moment happened when I had to go to my first doctor’s appointment. I was under the impression that I could have the mole removed in one visit, so I scheduled a sick day for the entire day off on a Friday. I walked past a manager’s office on my way out on Thursday, and he said, “I’ll see you tomorrow!” I replied that I would be out on Friday, and he asked where I was going. I replied that I had a doctor’s appointment, and he had a confused look and asked, “Oh, the whole day?” I then explained about the mole and he told me, “good luck.” It’s always said that women give too much information in the workplace, but humans are naturally curious about things, especially when they require a full day of scheduled sick time. And, in this case, it wasn’t an overly gross or invasive procedure, so I didn’t mind going into details. But, what if it had been something intensely personal, like IVF? Or, something particularly gross, like a colonoscopy? Or, more awkward, what if I was lying and I had job interviews set up at other companies? At what point do we deflect questions that might force us to provide TMI? Personally, the interaction with my manager didn’t bother me, because I know he wasn’t trying to “catch” me doing something wrong, but the situation still illustrates how easy it can be to meander into awkward or illegal territory.

In addition to the awkward explanation about the doctor’s visit, it was also awkward when I returned to the office. Since it was clear that something had happened to me, some of my colleagues just asked, “What happened to your eye?” In that situation, I just told them that I had a mole removed, and that was that. Some of my colleagues did their best not to stare, but I finally just spoke up and told them that I’d had a mole removed, and again, no big deal. I think sometimes we draw more attention to an issue if we ignore it, because people are stuck speculating about what happened, why it happened, and what’s been done to fix it. I think it’s better to be up front, with a succinct answer when something is obviously visible to the naked eye. However, I think you should keep less obvious issues to yourself. I mentioned IVF and a colonoscopy above, and if asked about my doctor’s visit, I would probably just say, “Oh, you know, routine check-up stuff. Always good to drop by the doctor’s office once or twice a year!” Most people won’t press you further, and I think it’s better to just leave it vague.

I’ve never had a chronic condition that required frequent doctor’s visits, but this situation can lead to more awkward conversations than a one-time, obviously temporary ailment. I had a colleague that was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease, which affects the digestive system. This colleague did well to excuse his absence and doctor’s visits by saying, “I’ve been having some issues with my digestive system, and I found out that I have Crohn’s.” This allowed us to go look up Crohn’s symptoms, without having to hear the details of his illness directly from him. Contrast this politically correct response to another colleague I had that went through some health issues. She mentioned a mammogram, a colonoscopy, and a visit to the OBGYN, loud enough for several colleagues to hear it. While each of these procedures was medically necessary, I personally wouldn’t want my colleagues (especially the male colleagues!) to know when I went to the doctor for “lady stuff”. Quite frankly, I don’t think the men want to know any more about the “lady stuff” than they already do, so specific comments about the nature of a doctor’s visit are even more awkward!

I think there’s a fine line between explaining frequent or extended absence, and making sure that you aren’t providing TMI in the workplace. In the case of my mole removal, the “gory details” were tame, succinct, and temporary, so I didn’t mind revealing more about my injury. But, for internal issues that are much messier or gender-specific, I think those are best left out of the workplace.

The Last Slice

I’ve attended a few client dinners and company-sponsored lunches, and I’ve noticed some interesting trends about myself and my colleagues when it comes to eating in the workplace. Maybe it’s because I’m early in my career, but it seems to transcend into the senior ranks as well. So, without further adieu, a few observations:

No one wants to be the first to take the bread or chips on the table. I love bread, and I grew up in a family that obliterates bread. Those loaves at Italian restaurants? Yeah, we’re going to need 3 of those to keep us happy until you bring out our drinks. At Mexican restaurants, the waiter quickly discovers that we each need an individual basket of chips, because otherwise, they’ll spend their whole evening replacing our basket. We just LOVE bread and chips! But, when I sit down with my work colleagues, I suddenly feel restricted to one piece of bread. And, I don’t want to be the first to reach for it. This is silly, because everyone is staring at the bread, wishing they could take a piece, and then someone awkwardly offers me the first piece because I’m usually the only woman at the table! Then, no one wants to eat more bread than anyone else, so we all end up with a half-eaten roll on our plates, wishing we could take seconds from the bread basket. So, if we’re all thinking it, why is it so hard to just take the first piece, go back for seconds if you want it, and finish what’s on your plate?

No one wants to take the last piece. The accounting department ordered pizza the other day, and since I sit on the same floor as the accounting department, they invited me to join them. We had the awkward “take the first slice” moment (similar to the bread moment mentioned above!), and we ended up with three extra slices of pizza. Those slices have been sitting in the fridge for 3 days, because no one wants to be “greedy” and take the last piece. Again, this is silly, as we all probably could have eaten one more slice, thus enjoying the meal more, and reducing waste. But, we have to be polite, and apparently it’s more polite to waste food than to be greedy. This is even more ridiculous when you consider that I thought about eating the leftover slices, but since the food was technically meant for the accounting department, and I’m not in accounting, I felt that I shouldn’t take “their” food!

No one wants to be a glutton. It may not look like it, but I can eat A LOT of food. Like, inhale-a-large-pizza-and-dessert amount of food. When I’m with my husband or my parents and siblings, I go back for seconds, and sometimes, thirds of each item. I eat pie and ice cream, baskets of chips, and an entire platter of fajitas and fixings! But, once again, put me with my co-workers, and I start trying to match their food intake. It seems like everyone else does this, because everyone rarely finishes their dinner. Again, this is silly, because we know we’d love to finish the fabulous meal, but we don’t want people to think we’re gluttonous, so instead, we let them think we’re wasteful.

Everyone uses overly-exaggerated manners. It’s always really awkward to go to a pizza place or barbeque place with my co-workers, because everyone tries to use their fancy manners when it’s just not that conducive. Consider paper napkins: they just don’t go in your lap the same way that cloth napkins do! This is especially true when you consider that a lot of places that have paper napkins also serve the type of food that’s best eaten with your hands. Does it really make sense to try to eat a slice of pizza with a fork and knife, holding your paper napkin in your lap? NO. If you don’t want to see this type of normal dining behavior, you should pick a different restaurant! I’m not talking about courtesy, like chewing with your mouth closed, but rather logistics. We love some good barbeque in our southern aviation dinners, so that probably means we should eat the barbeque “properly”… ie: usually best with your fingers. If you’re offended by finger-food, go somewhere that doesn’t serve it!

It’s just hilarious, because we’re all trying to be on our best behavior with our colleagues, and yet we’re all just regular people that like to eat copious amounts of bread with our fingers. This is also incongruent with the ever-present “keep up with the Jones” mentality that glorifies having more, more, more! We want bigger houses, fancier cars, and fashionable clothes, but we can’t eat that last piece of bread? We can’t clean our plates, lest we look greedy? We push to negotiate for a higher starting salary, but we can’t bring ourselves to take that last slice of pizza! So, I ask, are you “real” when you eat with your colleagues?

Tradeshows in the Dark Ages

Dear Tradeshow Organizer,

Why didn’t you sign up for the online ordering option for carpet, furniture, electrics, and every other standard service at a tradeshow? Why do you insist on making me fill out 10 different forms, fax or scan+email them back to you, and email you to request a confirmation of receipt and an actual receipt for my payment? Further, why don’t you take my AMEX credit card in Europe? Is it really that much more expensive? Surely it’s more expensive to process a wire transfer or company check than it is to pay whatever fees AMEX will charge you to operate in Europe!

Signed,

A Frustrated Marketer

Alright, readers, that’s my annoying rant for the morning, but there is some truth to what I’m saying. This is a worldwide show, with hundreds of exhibitors and thousands of attendees, and the provider of the tradeshow services has provided online ordering for several shows that I’ve been involved in. In addition to making it less of a hassle for me to do the ordering, it seems like it should be less of a hassle for show organizers. With online ordering, my information is pre-populated, so there’s less room for human error in entering company name, booth number, and contact information. Particularly for my last name, people have trouble distinguishing my “n” from my “u”. Thus, when they try to email a confirmation to ashleyfans@companyname.com, I don’t receive it. So, now they’re spending more man hours going back and forth with me on the confirmation, and occasionally, denying my credit card because they have attributed it to “Ashley Fans”. I assume someone has to do the data entry into a system somewhere in their system, so why not let it be the customer, one time, instead of forcing the customer to hand-write 10 forms, and then forcing your employee to input it into the system! Then, your employee accidentally inputs the wrong spelling of my name because they couldn’t read the hand-written form, and now you have to waste more labor hours having them fix it. And, what if two different people receive my forms, so now there’s two of me in the system? It just doesn’t make sense to opt out of the online ordering, since I know the system is already in place!

Then there’s the credit card issue. I have a corporate AMEX that I use for the tradeshows, as the bills can be pretty expensive (hence the reason I’m not expected to put it on a personal credit card and expense it). Apparently, the European companies don’t take my AMEX…. but some of them do! I know there are fees associated with credit card processing, but AMEX is one of the most popular cards in the world. It’s surprising that many European countries don’t accept this, particularly tradeshow organizers that do business with the entire world.

So, now you can’t read my writing, AND you can’t accept my payment. Sigh… I’m off to ask for a wire transfer and a penmanship class. Here’s to tradeshow organizers that are making things more difficult than they have to be!

Level Playing Field

My hobbyist husband owns a high-quality lens and studio lights. My amateur modeling, hair, and make-up knowledge and materials come from reality TV and Wal-Mart!

 

We live in the “Information Age”, where it’s possible to get any information, on any subject, anywhere in the world, in less than one minute. Some of my classmates posited that “Information Age” doesn’t equal “Knowledge Age”. And, while I agree with this to some extent, I have to say, technology has leveled the playing field. Case in point: the picture at the top of the post.

Technology has made everything better, faster, and cheaper, including learning. My husband purchased his professional-grade camera and lenses for a few thousand dollars, and a light kit for less than $1k. For a total of about $3,000, total amateurs can set up a studio almost anywhere. Then there’s my contribution, complete with modeling techniques gleaned from a few episodes of “America’s Next Top Model” (you know you see the difference when you schmize, don’t lie!), make-up techniques from around the web, and super convenient hot rollers (vs. the heated metal rods of yesteryear, I can just smell the hair burning!). We then used an open-source software called GIMP to edit the photos, and we’re now sharing them with the world via the free gallery, SmugMug. You don’t have to be a “professional” to get magazine-quality photos anymore.

And it’s not just pictures or “frivolous” endeavors. Take TurboTax and QuickBooks, software programs that allow most anyone to process a simple tax return. Or email and Skype, functions that allow companies to go global from a single conference room. My husband has fixed our dishwasher and rebuilt a toilet after watching a few instructional YouTube videos. Programs like Band in a Box allow you to create music for multiple instruments, and composition software makes it easy to transpose and update the melodies in your head. Airplanes have made travel cheap, easy, and fast… I can literally fly around the world in a day. That’s INCREDIBLE.

So, with all that technology enables common laypeople to do, what’s the point of a fancy degree or hiring a professional? First, there are certainly areas that require specialized training, like medicine. Would you want a surgeon that learned how to clip a brain aneurysm via YouTube? Other professions that deal with government regulations definitely require some standard, so I think it’s reasonable to require a law degree, accounting degree, or pilot’s license. I do think that many professions outside of creative endeavors still need some objective standard, and the licensing and educational requirements ensure safety and accuracy. But the creative professions? I think it’s becoming a free for all, and technology has definitely leveled the playing field. You don’t have to have access to expensive printing presses and hazardous chemicals to achieve quality pictures. You don’t have to have a private recording studio, a fancy sound man, or a huge label to make and share music. This is not to say that you don’t have to have skills and talent, but the “who you know” or prohibitive equipment costs create less of a barrier to entry. The thing is, though, that with so much free information available, it’s also easier to gain the knowledge and skills! You don’t have to take an apprenticeship or spend years learning a specialized piece of equipment anymore, and you can experiment with things cheaply to learn.

I’ve been blown away recently by how much technology has leveled the playing field, both in the professional and personal spheres. I think that as technology enables learning and use, the market is going to start favoring those with the ellusive-to-quantify “people skills”, “management skills”, “spark/charisma/creativity”, and generally qualities/talents that are much more difficult to learn. If anyone can differentiate themselves via technology, what’s the limiting factor in today’s society?

Featured on The Daily Muse

I have another article on The Daily Muse today! Check out my tips in the post titled, “4 Creative Ways to Land the Interview”. I’ve posted on The Daily Muse several times, and you can view all of my articles here.

The Daily Muse is an excellent site aimed at young professional women (there’s some great articles for men, too!) They’ve assembled a wonderful team of talented writers, so make sure you browse through the rest of the site!

Design Fail

The invitation I made for a going away party for a friend!

 

 

The inside of the invitation.

 

I spent the weekend making invitations for a going away party for a friend. My mom is an awesome card-maker, and she had a gorgeous card sitting on the shelf last time I was there, so I decided that I wanted to use the design for my friend’s invitations. My mom and I have a habit of taking apart pretty cards or invitations we receive in the mail, always trying to figure out how the design works. So, true to myself (and my mom, I get it honestly!), I studied the design and came up with my own modification. Turns out, my modification took about 10x longer to complete than the original design. There were two tricks that I couldn’t figure out, and unfortunately, my mom wasn’t in town to show them to me. When she returned, I showed her my Saturday’s worth of work, and explained how I’d made my invitations. My solution was pretty clever, but her knowledge would’ve made the work much faster. So, what does this tale of design failure have to do with the office?

First, working backwards doesn’t always work! Sometimes you need to understand the steps at the beginning, and the logic behind them, in order to come up with an elegant solution. This is particularly true in branding. A lot of companies want to come up with some cool logo or concept, and then force the brand to fit that concept. But, it doesn’t work this way! You have to start at the beginning, take a look at the market and customer’s needs, then formulate the product and concept, then design the branding message and visuals that best represent your solution.

Second, use an expert, and use all the tools available to you. A professional designer taught my mom how to make the card I saw on the shelf, and had my mom been in town, she would’ve taught me. But even when she started showing me how to make the design, I wanted to forgo one of the tools, because I thought I could do it better all by myself. Turns out, using the tools made the assembly of the design much faster. Don’t assume that the experts don’t know what they’re doing, and don’t assume that the tools are actually a time suck. Sometimes, the process has already been optimized, and trying to re-invent the wheel is silly. This has been particularly applicable in my company’s attempts to customize an open-source CRM system “for free”. There’s companies with products that are fine-tuned, yet we keep trying to tweak a whole new solution! We’re not willing to use the tools available, so while it’s been a valuable learning experience, it has taken much longer to see results.

Last, you have to keep an open mind when trying to figure out the next best solution. My design style is somewhat haphazard when I first start formulating a concept. I need to see everything to start coming up with an action plan, and it’s pretty hilarious to watch. I walk in, pull out every piece of paper, ribbon, ink, and die cut that I think could possible work, and throw them all over the floor. I then walk around and start pairing the items that will work together, and tossing all the unwanted items into another pile. After several “random” culling sessions, the pile that’s left is what I will use to make the design. Though that process is haphazard and frenzied, I’m a machine once I’ve made the choices. I am laser-focused, and I don’t get sidetracked by other fun design rabbit holes (the time for tangents was during the pull and sort phase!) My mom, on the other hand, is very calculated in her initial design specs, and she only pulls the items that specifically match the specs. But, once she starts assembling the parts, she gets distracted by the modifications that she could make to her design. Our process is different, but when we work together, we try to keep an open mind. Our combined design styles generally turn out to be beautiful, and between the two of us, our experience usually helps us figure out a way to do it better, faster, and less wastefully. The same is true in business! You need to keep an open mind, and mesh decision-making processes to come up with the next best solution. Does one department throw everything on the wall and see what sticks? Does another hunker down the analyze the numbers? Can you combine the knowledge gained from both approaches to create a “whole is greater than the sum of the parts” effect?

My design fail reminded me of the importance of using all the tools, knowledge and experience available to me, both in the scrapbooking room and in the office!