Tackling Imposter Syndrome as a Woman Pursuing Board Directorship in Health Care

Two business women having a serious discussion in front of an office window

If you’re a woman interested in serving on a corporate or non-profit board, are you worried that, despite your extensive experience, you aren’t really “good enough” to handle the position? If so, you aren’t alone. Many people—both men and women—suffer from imposter syndrome, a form of self-doubt that makes you question your worth or ability, despite having the necessary skills, experience, and accomplishments needed for the role.

While some self-doubt and personal questioning can be typical, it’s really how you handle it that counts, according to Ellen Zane, MA, CEO Emeritus at Tufts Medical Center. She and Laurie Pascal, MBA, MPH, Senior Lecturer on Health Management at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, are Co–Program Directors of the Women on Boards: Getting On and Adding Value program.

Breaking Down “Imposter Syndrome”

“I like to think of imposter syndrome not as a problem, but rather as a situation where someone is facing self-doubt that doesn’t really reflect reality,” Pascal says, stressing that such self-questioning only becomes a problem if it stops you from pursuing your dreams or goals. In fact, she points out that very accomplished women often grapple with such self-doubt, and she guides them in working through the feeling in a constructive way.

“I help them look at what they have already accomplished and are capable of rather than focusing on their doubts. This is a way to take realistic stock of their achievements and what they can do,” she says.

Pascal also points out that it’s important for all women to remember that they won’t be an expert at every single topic and skill. Rather, it’s natural to have some areas of strength and some areas they can build up. In fact, the opportunity to continue to grow is a major benefit of serving on a board.

“I like to think of imposter syndrome not as a problem, but rather as a situation where someone is facing self-doubt that doesn’t really reflect reality”

Learning New Skills through Board Service in Health Care

For instance, Pascal recommends that if you are at a board interview and you are asked if you know how to do something that is outside of your range of experience, you can say: “I haven’t had that as part of my board service experience yet, but I am eager to learn.” And if you have related experience, you can also bring that into the conversation.

Zane agrees that learning new information can be one of the many benefits of board service, and has experienced this personally.

“I was once asked to sit on the board of a semiconductor company,” she recalled. “I told the CEO that I knew zero about semiconductors. The CEO told me that the company was full of engineers who had all the technical knowledge needed. What he felt he needed on the board was someone who had managed a large enterprise and who understood the day-to-day issues he faces,”—i.e., personnel, budget, competition, and more. “He said he needed someone with excellent judgment in dealing with thorny strategic issues. He wanted advice, not technical skills relating to how to manufacture semiconductors,” she explains.

Taking a Holistic Approach to Board Service

Zane suggests that women should think more holistically about all the attributes and skills they can bring to the board table and not become overwhelmed.

“Have a candid conversation with yourself. Ask whether you have the core skills needed for the role and whether you are willing to put the time and the effort into learning more about the areas where you need to grow expertise,” she says. “This effort could take considerable time, and you need to be honest with yourself about whether you have the willingness and bandwidth to invest in this task. Then, take the leap! If you are a willing learner, you will be fine,” she adds.

Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health offers Women on Boards: Getting On and Adding Value, a two-day on-campus course that equips health care leaders with the skills, strategies, and competencies to secure a board directorship—and advance from there.