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Was Albert Einstein an imposter?

The Leadership Programme cropped

Searching for talent: CEOs’ top concern

A recent Harvard Business School survey of CEOs found that the three things they worry about the most are: having the right talent, operating in a global marketplace, and regulation/legislation. But especially interesting is that ‘having the right talent’ was the runaway winner in two-thirds of the respondents.

It is also interesting to note that the #2 issue also has a strong ‘people’ dimension, namely having employees act to the same standards throughout the world. One ‘bad apple’ really can quickly affect an organisation in today’s interconnected world.

Recruiting, growing and retaining the right talent is a challenge for any organisation, and the more senior one becomes, the more one realises this. Arguably, the better you are at spotting and developing talented people, the quicker you all make the right things happen.

A hard lesson learned

Personally, I shall never forget the day when a major client of a previous employer told me, with dramatic effect: ‘If I ever have to sit through a meeting like that again, I will pull the plug on everything!’. ‘Everything’ was a lot to our business, not just in terms of revenue, but also the other clients this company attracted to our business.

The client recounted the behaviour of one of my team members and whilst I could completely empathise with both the client and the team member, I realised that this was my failing. This particular member of staff did not have the right strengths to be in the role with this client, and I had allowed myself to be over-ruled. Without some quick and decisive action we could all have been out of a job!

Strengths-based approach

With more experience, I would have been able to avoid this issue. I would have said to my boss that ‘Bob’, (not their real name) has many great skills and knowledge, but that they were not suited for this client-facing job. I not only put the company at risk, but also jeopardised Bob’s career.

Taking a strengths-based approach is founded on the premise that you’ll never be great at everything. So, focusing on our weaknesses, as we are prone to do, will not get us or the organisation to where we want to be. Instead, working out what our strengths are, and where they can be most successfully deployed, will create a cycle of success for individuals and organisations.

The neuroscience

The strengths-based approach continues to gather momentum as neuroscience shows that when we play to our strengths, our confidence grows, we make better decisions and business results improve. We experience lower heart rates and our health improves, as positive experiences and confidence stimulate the release of positive chemicals in the brain. All this enhances our resilience and creativity.

Robert Quinn, professor at the University of Michigan, observes in TEDx Talks that individuals usually possess a scientifically validated ‘positivity ratio’ of around 2:1, ie for every negative thought, we have two positive thoughts. But some people naturally increase this ratio to 3:1 or higher and when we realise that we can do this by choice, we create positive energy for ourselves and the sky is no longer the limit!

Brain scans and positivity

When scientists carry out fMRI scans on the brains of successful people, they find evidence of the ability to ‘reframe’ one’s experience of the world into positive thoughts.

However, various researchers have found that striving for perfectionism in the workplace creates extreme anxiety and burnout, likely to be exacerbated by a ‘performance outcomes focus’, where poor performance carries significant costs, leading to stress for individuals and lack of innovation for organisations.

As leaders and managers, one of our main challenges is how we can model a positive, strengths based approach to our own development and careers, and set an example to our team members and colleagues. A key to doing this has to be to accept that we are human, that we make mistakes and that learning from them is the way forward. This brings me neatly back to Bob, who I did manage to move to a different position, by demonstrating that the new role was better matched to their skills and knowledge, and would be more fun. And we managed to retain our client!

Imposters or not, most of us feel like it from time to time

When I feel anything less than positive, ‘imposter syndrome’ is quick to emerge in me.

Research suggests that 40-70% of all people feel like imposters at some point, and I can confirm that over the past 15 years, very few of the executives on the Henley Leadership Programme did not laugh with relief when they heard that their ‘secret’ fear of not being up to the job was so common that it had been labelled as a ‘syndrome’.

They are even more surprised to hear that no lesser person than Albert Einstein was reported as saying to a friend that ‘the exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler’.

Well, if it’s good enough for Einstein, it’s good enough for me!

Published 30 March 2021

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