In the world of work, women leaders often find themselves grappling with the pervasive spectre of imposter syndrome and feelings of self-doubts, a phenomenon that strikes at the core of self-worth and competence. Our East Africa Communication Manager, Liberty Kituu spoke with Dr. Solange Hakiba, Senior Regional Advisor at Palladium, shedding light on her personal journey through the winding paths of imposter syndrome and the resilience essential to navigate its challenges. Dr. Solange candidly reflects on pivotal moments, influential mentors, and effective strategies that not only fuelled her personal growth but also serve as beacons for those journeying along a similar path.
Can you recall the earliest instance in your professional journey where you encountered imposter syndrome? How did that shape your subsequent experiences?
The imposter syndrome first hit me when I was given my first leadership position at the Ministry of health, coming from the clinical environment and taken to the policy world, I felt alien and less than my new colleagues who could understand and juggle budgets and spreadsheets, articulate global policies and strategies and pitch their ideas in big meetings and survive harsh feedbacks or manage scepticism or resistant-to-change mindsets. That feeling was exacerbated by the fact that I had a breastfeeding infant at the time and my biggest anxiety was that I had to juggle between being a good breastfeeding mother and becoming a professional who hits the ground running and does her homeworks to become relevant and the expert that my employer envisioned.
How has your understanding or perception of imposter syndrome changed as you progressed in your career? With time and as I connected with people, I came to realize that this imposter syndrome was a common feeling to many people and other people’s experience was very insightful. Two feedback have helped me grow stronger: the first one is “work hard, consult often and trust the process” and the second one is “You are a work in progress, you’ll make mistakes and learn from them”. I haven’t totally overcome the monster since it still pops its head but now, I take it as a challenge to get better and surround myself with people who master what I don’t, for complementarity and mutual growth.
Were there any role models or figures in your life who helped you recognize and confront your imposter syndrome? Can you share a valuable lesson you learned from them? Yes, I had the chance to grow on the feets of some giants and one valuable lesson I learned was to delegate smartly and to trust my team. It’s impossible to know EVERYTHING so, as a leader, I’ve learned to surround myself with a good and capable team (sometimes you have a team you didn’t choose so you have to build its capacity based on your common mission) and create the sense of purpose that will rally everyone around the same goals. With a trusted team, I’m able to fight the Imposter Syndrome and gain some self-confidence.
Have you ever been in a work environment that intensified your feelings of imposter syndrome? How did you advocate for yourself or seek change in that situation? Yes I have, I have been given tasks to lead clusters that influence my sector but are outside of my direct expertise. To be able to lead the cluster despite feeling “unfit” to led multiple sectors experts, I started by taking a learning attitude, quieting my mind and my racing heart while breathing in and out intentionally. I force myself to observe and not jump into discussions or debate but sit back to gather my ideas and listen to myself think in order to contribute to/lead meaningfully the discussions and recommendations. To prevent similar situations for others, I set up regular meetings for everyone to get more familiar with the big picture and be able to step in at any given time.
Can you describe a moment when you truly recognized and celebrated your achievements, despite any lingering feelings of self-doubt? A week after my maternity leave for my 2nd childbirth, I was expressly requested to travel to South-Africa for a due diligence mission. I was panicked, afraid to leave my baby so young and equally afraid to disappoint my employer. I gathered my courage and told my Minister that I had to travel with my baby for breastfeeding purposes and that I was determined to perform my mission to the best of my ability….it was unheard of to travel internationally with an infant and pretend to stay focused and professional! We were a team of 4 and every morning for 5 days I would take my baby to the office where we had meetings, breastfeed him discreetly during the discussions and someone would always volunteer to make him burp. He was such a quiet baby that people barely noticed him in the office and upon our return, I received amazing feedback from the Head of our delegation about how I had remained focused, on time and highly participative despite the fact that I had to also care for a baby. This experience built my confidence that I can carry both my dual responsibilities (mother and professional) and voice for my rights and those of my child to be respected as I perform my work.
What are some daily or long-term habits you’ve cultivated to keep imposter syndrome at bay and build your confidence? Reading, asking questions over and over (there are no dumb questions!) and getting out of my comfort zone! A genuine interest to learn is always welcome, so I create a network and I don’t shy away from asking questions or shadowing opportunities (in a meeting, field trip, etc..). When I stumble on a subject that awakens the imposter syndrome, I quickly set up my mind to research the subject and resolve that gap. If it’s about my personality (I get some times “singled out”/pressured to drink wine at events, yet I don’t drink alcohol) or my identity (as a woman, mother, about my faith, etc..), I set up boundaries and remain polite and firm (rehearsing in front of a mirror/a friend is important so you build yourself a composure and ready-to-use short answers).
Based on your experiences, what steps do you think organizations and leaders should take to help women professionals combat imposter syndrome from the outset? A holistic approach to the individual is very important, considering the person with all the factors that influence her/his performance and well-being (mentally and physically) and create a working environment that is flexible and open to discussion, feedback and provides mentoring.