Imposter Syndrome

Raise your hand if you are in an Art Director, Creative Director or Design Manager type leadership role with little or no management training. If we were all in a room together, you would see more than half of the hands up. Let me be the first to tell you that you are not alone. It's common to find yourself unprepared for the responsibilities.

Imposter Syndrome is when an individual struggles to internalize their accomplishments and feels a persistent fear of being exposed as a "fraud".

Stating the obvious, design leadership is underserved. Schools dedicated solely to design education do not teach leadership or marketing.

There is something about creative exploration and the types of people it attracts that people think are at odds. Traditionally, management is about people and design is about art or “magic”. The fact is, design is largely about people. 

These are generalizations, some talented designers are “type a” and have outgoing personalities, and that could be you. Or perhaps you land somewhere in-between. It’s your personal characteristics and experience that enabled you to gain the trust of an organizaton and ultimately resulted in your being promoted. What we often don’t see until we’ve been managing people for a while is that an experienced manager will, in fact, earmark you early and help groom you into a leadership position. They’re good at recognizing the leadership skills in people and noticed you had potential very early on. In time, we prove them right—or wrong.

In the beginning, we’re underprepared and wrestle with some issues: Fostering exploration and installing process, organizing teams for effectiveness, and creating feedback operations. We manage each process based on the results, learn to polish our communication skills and learn how to build  lasting relationships. It’s a lot to wrap your head around while still trying to be competent in your discipline. This is the point where you feel a sense of loss and feelings of frustration with job satisfaction. It’s not what you expected. You also see your career path forward veering away from the craft that you love. Now, it’s your job to help others get the work done.

Loneliness is another major challenge. In most cases, if you are a CD, you are the only CD in the company. There is nobody in the org that can carry your weight. On a day-to-day basis, we feel like we can’t risk showing our unpreparedness to our manager and certainly can’t look for empathy from team members looking for our leadership.

There was one particular realization that hit me hard during the AMAZING Creative Director Camp event hosted by The Bureau. Carl Smith posed a question to the room, "who here has worked under a CD before." About five of the forty possible hands when up. I was shocked to be on the shortlist of attendees who have reported to an experienced creative leader before. Shocked. I’m incredibly fortunate to have worked for amazing CD’s: Kahn Le, Todd Bemis, Chris Gomersall, Justin Archer, and Patrick Shawn Moore. It was one of those moments when something changes in an instant. 

I have no census data on this, but I know most of us don’t work for mega ad agencies. Most CD’s are the sole creative team lead within the company. To think, that likely means at least fifty percent of us have never worked for someone that provided an example of how to do the job well. That’s an amazing non-scientific stat when you can also add that to an industry-wide lack of collegiate-level leadership education among Creative Directors —even among those few of us who HAVE worked under an experienced CD. 

It’s no wonder that imposter syndrome is so prevalent. It is unfortunate that it goes entirely undiscussed. 

THE ONE PRIMARY SKILL TO FOCUS ON AS A DESIGN LEADER IS: social skills. Turn them up to 11.

Network with your peers. That's not just following them on Twitter or LinkedIn. It means, buying someone a coffee!

Wayne Pelletier