In this episode of the Impostor Syndrome Files, we talk about the potential risks to ourselves and our organizations of giving into impostor syndrome. My guest, Dana Vogelmeier, who spent much of her career in the same company, shares her experience with impostor syndrome and how she came to manage it. We also discuss why it’s helpful to prioritize our purpose and values when experiencing self-doubt.
About Dana Vogelmeier:
Dana Vogelmeier launched Vogelmeier Consulting in 2018 after working over 30 years for a Fortune 50 company. During her tenure she worked for more than 25 years leading diverse teams and working for different types of leaders with their own unique styles.
She began examining the teams she led and the leaders she worked with to determine the differences. Some experiences were great, energizing, engaging, magical teams. Other times teams struggled to find harmony.
Her work with employee engagement and her own success with leading teams, led to her being selected to improve the workplace atmosphere in one division where she improved the employee opinion scores by 30%. After this, she knew she wanted to help other companies and leaders create work environments people love. She wants everyone to work for a company that they can’t imagine leaving and to feel engaged and fulfilled at the end of the day.
Dana is a lifelong learner and holds an undergraduate degree in Business, a master’s degree in Leadership, a designation of Certified Professional in Talent Development (CPTD), is Prosci® certified for Change Management, and Dare to Lead® trained.
She is actively involved at the local and national level with the Association of Talent Development and with Rotary International.
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Kim Meninger Welcome, Dana, I am so excited. You and I have already started this conversation, so I can’t wait to continue this conversation now, as the official recording, as we move forward with our discussion about impostor syndrome. Before we dive in, I’d love to invite you to introduce yourself.
Dana Vogelmeier Well, thank you, Kim, thank you so much for having me. I’m excited to be here to talk to you about this today. We have a shared passion in this particular topic. And it’s a big one. But I would just kind of share a little bit from my background. I kind of grew up, if you will, in the world of Corporate America. I worked 33 years for the same organization. It was a fortune 50 company. And when I started, I was like, entry, entry-level, like, there is no job more entry-level than the job was I started in. And I went to work there because they offered tuition reimbursement. And that was my driver. So I was going to school at night to work on my degree. And it took me seven and a half years, but I did complete it. And just kind of worked my way up and eventually moved into a leadership role. And I actually spent 25 years in leadership while I was there. But during that time, I had a lot of wonderful leaders and I had some average leaders. And then I had just a few that were not that great. And, you know, I started examining the different teams and the different interactions and what was making some of those teams just magical, and then others that just really struggled to find some harmony. And so I started looking really at workplace culture, employee engagement and just relationship dynamics, and connecting with your people that you work with, and how that can really rise, you know, the whole, the whole group of outcomes that the team experiences. So, in some of my work around utilizing your leadership voice, impostor syndrome comes up a lot. So I love this particular topic, and I’m excited to talk about it with you today.
Kim Meninger Oh, I’m excited, too. I can’t wait. And so I’ll ask you the standard opening questions that I like to ask everyone, which are, you know, what does impostor syndrome mean to you? And how, if at all, has it shown up in your life?
Dana Vogelmeier So, yes, it showed up a few times. But really, what it means to me is that we sometimes feel like we don’t deserve to be in the spot, or when we’re talking about the topic that we’re talking about, or in a particular meeting, that for whatever reason, we feel that we were not worthy of being there, or we’ve not earned our spot there or a seat at the table. And it doesn’t even change the fact that sometimes, maybe we’ve already had some good success, or maybe we’ve been at that table before. But sometimes there’s different topics or different people. And that changes the dynamics in the room. So we have to constantly remind ourselves that we have done work, we have had good results and we do deserve to have our voices heard at that particular table. And I think that the first place that it showed up for me, where I really kind of recognized it, not that I labeled as impostor syndrome, because I didn’t know that language at the time. But where I afterwards was really like examining the whole situation, I had just moved from kind of out and out in the field. I was working at State Farm Insurance at the time. And I was what you would call out in the field moved to corporate. And so here’s my first time at like a big corporate meeting and they have you sitting around the table with all these people that I don’t know them and they don’t know me. But I was working on a really big project — it was a country-wide rollout of this new department. And so there were a lot of people in these meetings, and I’d only been there a few months. So we’re still trying to learn how to work like in corporate, in the, in the corporate way of getting things done. And I had had success in the field, but not at corporate. So I, I was brought into this meeting because everybody that led a particular slice of the project was going to go up on stage, it was like in an auditorium, and kind of talk about where their, their piece of the project was. And there was a project manager and he was asking questions. And so when I went up, you know, I felt, okay. I was like, okay, I don’t love being up here on this stage, feeling like everybody’s looking at me. But I felt like I knew what I was talking about. And I did know what I was talking about for about 50% of the questions, but when he started asking things that I just had no idea, you know, I felt myself like internally shrinking, and just, like even getting a little sweaty, and just nervous and embarrassed. And I came off of stage just internally in my mind, like, this swirl, like down the drain like, oh my gosh, this is all over, they found me out. They know I’m not really right for this job, they’re gonna send me back. None of this is good. My life is over. No one will ever hire me again, my husband’s gonna leave me, you know? Surprising Yes. Just like everything is gonna happen wrong as a result of this one thing. And, of course, that’s not what happened. But that feeling just of like, oh my gosh, what’s so, when it was over I had a conversation with my boss. I mean And again didn’t have this language at the time. But what I realized now is that I did have some psychological safety there. And my boss said, you know, how do you think that went? We talked about it. And the great thing was is he said, okay, so now you know what to expect the next time. So you know, there’s going to be another walkthrough in 30 days, let’s get ready. And we did and I was ready the next time. So a lot less scared, knew what kind of questions we’re going to be asked. But you know that, that experience really shaped me in kind of preparing for meetings in the future. And knowing, having all my ducks in a row and asking questions before the meeting to get me prepared. And that kind of helped eliminate some of that impostor syndrome as I, as I progressed.
Kim Meninger So you brought up so many interesting things in that one story, right? The, just the story itself of the situation of being, thinking you’re fairly comfortable, right. But then as soon as that one question comes that you’re not prepared for, and then certainly when there are more of them, that feeling of just sinking, Oh, no. Like, I thought I could do this. But I can’t. And I think that is a perfect example of how so many of us have felt in, there’s a certain amount of preparation that you can do ahead of time, but a certain amount of time when you just don’t know what to expect. And you’re going to be thrown into the deep end, right. But what I think is interesting is that you had a manager that basically said, okay, let’s, let’s get ready for the next time — didn’t make you feel like you had hugely failed, right? Right. This was all like, kind of in your own head. Right. And you had runway to do it more confidently the next time. And you said something else that oh, ask questions ahead of time. That’s another big one I think. So I think that there’s so many different like the before, during and after, of this process is really important. And unfortunately, I think we all learn the hard way, you just don’t know what you don’t know when, when you’re early in your career. You’ve never been in a situation you do what you can, and then you learn and you keep getting better and better. So I think that’s, that’s a great example of just kind of, uh-oh, but then dealing with it. And yeah,
Dana Vogelmeier I agree. I think we learned the most from our quote-unquote failures. Hmm. And to, to I loved your words, because in my mind, it was much more of a failure than it really was in reality. But I was the one experiencing it. Yeah, yeah. So those are really, really teachable moments. And I think, for those of us who are good kind of reflectors or processing information, you know, looking back and, and assessing what happened, you can learn so much from those situations.
Kim Meninger Absolutely. Absolutely. And you mentioned psychological safety, right, which I think is so crucial to this, too, because there’s a certain amount of anxiety that I think many of us high achievers carry around with us. I certainly speak from personal experience, right that I am, put very high standards on myself, I want to always perform at the highest level. But the stakes change or the pressure level changes when you don’t feel safe, right. Can you talk a little bit more about psychological safety, especially in the context of what’s interesting about what you were describing in terms of culture and dynamics, and all of interpersonal dynamics? All of that?
Dana Vogelmeier Yeah. Yeah. And I love to read about this topic too, psychological safety because I think it plays such a huge role in the outcomes in organizations because if people don’t feel psychologically safe, then they’re not going to take risks. They oftentimes won’t come up to their leader to say, you know, I think something’s going on over there that maybe somebody should look into, you know, maybe someone’s stealing from the organization or whatever. And, but that psychological safety is, if you feel it, then you, you have a comfort level and you know that you’re not going to be fired for one mistake. But sometimes people think that’s exactly what’s going to happen. And there was a real-life situation many years ago from Enron, if you remember Enron, and one of the executives, her name was Sharon Watkins. And she was very high up in the organization on sort of like the financial side of things and the strategy side of things. And she started recognizing a lot of irregularities in the accounting and just things not looking right. And she brought them to her leader’s attention. And so in her mind, she had some psychological safety. She thought they would want to know this. And over time, kind of came to realize that maybe they don’t care about that, like maybe they’re driving that way of working. And then it became well, Enron went bankrupt, a lot of people lost a lot of money, and it became a congressional investigation. And actually, executives went to jail. But when she kind of reported it, you know, she definitely felt some psychological safety, but she was a little fearful. And then after she brought it to their attention, and a little bit of time passed, she was actually, she wasn’t demoted or fired or anything like that. But she was moved to another role. And her work was kind of taken away from her and given like other littler work, and she was actually physically moved out of one office that was like, on up like the 35th floor, not sure exactly what floors, but very high up with all the other executives and was put down on this, like the 16th floor. And she does, she tells some wonderful stories of this on video. So if anybody’s interested in just Googling her and listening, it’s amazing. Because she said even like, you know, her furniture was like, probably old that had been recycled or something. It was just kind of very telling to her what, what the situation was. Message was clear. Yes, yes, she was. Yeah, her conversations were unwelcomed.
Kim Meninger Well, it’s interesting, because you say that, naturally, she probably thought that this something that people would appreciate that she brings to their attention. But clearly, there were nefarious things going on behind the scenes, right. And so I think that we all have our own interpretation of what the system will allow. And I think in many cases, we over-estimate or over-inflate the risk of speaking up. In this case, she kind of under-inflated it right and experienced the unfortunate consequences of that. But she did the right thing. And I think that’s something that has kind of characterized her or defined her ever, ever since. And you and I were talking a little bit about this before we hit record of this idea of purpose and values and things like that, right, as drivers, when you are feeling nervous or anxious about should I speak up.
Dana Vogelmeier Yeah. And for her, you know, bringing this to the attention. And she, she even had a conversation later with one of the executives about this, this isn’t going to end well, this isn’t going to last long. And at some point, having Enron on our resumes is not going to be a good thing. Because it looks like this company was just a big hoax. And you know, so she was kind of thinking about her future, but everybody’s future, but also like, this isn’t going to end, like she was kind of raising the flag, this is not going to end well. So we need to address it. And I think you know, to your point about purpose, Kim, I love that, that piece of this and when people think about what if, what if I do say something what might happen? What if I don’t say something what’s going to happen? And there’s another really good example of this impostor syndrome, but also purpose-driven. Speaking up by Madeleine Albright the very first time after she became Secretary of State when she was in a meeting with a lot of other leaders from around the world. And she was sitting at a table and they all had their plate, their nameplates in front of them and hers said United States of America. She was the only woman in the room. And she kind of assessed the situation. But the meeting began, a few people were saying some things and in her mind, she thought, if I don’t speak up today, then the United States of America will not be heard. And that’s what I need to do. So even if she was nervous, even if she felt like maybe I don’t belong here. She had to speak up so that the United States was represented in this world meeting.
Kim Meninger I love that story so much and it just also shows her sense of commitment and responsibility to the role. Right. And I think that’s something that we can all think about in probably lower-profile situations. Yeah, everyday lives, right, but, but just this idea of what gets lost when I don’t speak up, because you made a really good point when you said, you know, oftentimes, we think, what happens if I do speak up? And we’re so focused on the potential consequences of speaking up, but we don’t balance that with, what happens if I don’t? What is the risk? What is the potential consequence of not speaking up, even when I feel like maybe I don’t belong here, or I’m not so sure that I have the perfect message to deliver right now?
Dana Vogelmeier Right, right. And there could be depending on the organization and what you’re working on, I mean, there could be like life-threatening repercussions of something like this. And I don’t, I don’t recall the details of like, the, there was one of the NASA shuttle explosions where there was an analyst, like in kind of a professional level employee that, who didn’t feel comfortable with the power dynamic in a meeting of speaking up. He had already brought something up, and it was like, oh, it’s okay, we know about that, it’s gonna be fine. So when there was like the final, final meeting, before it got ready to take off, he didn’t feel comfortable bringing it up here, because he had already brought it up in his, like, smaller leadership, amongst his leadership. And so later, when he tells the story, and I wish I could remember his name, but when he tells the story, he talks about that, you know, I, I wish I had brought it up at that second meeting. I brought it up at the first one, and it was, you know, addressed. So if you, you know, if you look at it that way, it was addressed for what he understood. But at the final meeting, he didn’t bring it up. And, you know, it did cost people their lives. And, you know, so you kind of carry that. And while many of us don’t work in something that’s, you know, like that, or, you know, speaking up for the country, or something like that, it still can have some repercussions, like in Enron’s case of people losing their money, and their retirement and their livelihood. And it could also be you didn’t speak up to bring in even like a new idea that could have been really wonderful for the organization. So we just have to get comfortable with using our leadership voice and sharing what we have to say or think.
Kim Meninger Absolutely. And I’m curious, based on your experience, having been with the same organization for so many years, and navigating your own journey through leadership, for, for anybody who struggles with this, are there baby steps that you think can be taken, because sometimes I know that examples that we’re giving are pretty dramatic, in terms of their consequences and everything, but they’re, they’re great illustrations of the concepts that we’re talking about. But in everyday life, you know, somebody’s maybe just generally feeling a little bit out of place, or I’m not quite sure if this is the right time to speak up, or if I have the authority to do, so anything that you would recommend as, like a very first step?
Dana Vogelmeier Yeah, I think the, from the very first step, I would think about doing some kind of self-assessment, especially with things like your own emotional intelligence, of your self-awareness, but also kind of reading the room a little bit and seeing kind of where others are, because at some point, you know, kind of thinking like if you’re sort of new to, to your role, or to the company or something you’re, you are always assessing. And when you can look to find a trusted adviser to somebody that you can have a little bit of conversation with ahead of time, maybe before you take it to a larger room or larger meeting, and just bounce some things off, you know, but you do have to figure out who that person is. And it might not always be the person that you report to. So maybe it’s a peer of theirs or a peer of yours, or someone you worked with in another department if you’re still in the same company. And so I would definitely say, you know, that was helpful for me. Having been in the same organization for so long, I have that kind of network, if you will, of just people that I really admired and trusted, that I could talk to about certain things and just look for some advice. The other thing is to think about when you’re getting ready, maybe to bring something forward is to practice it out loud and try to think of it from all the way around. Because there could be things you don’t know. So sometimes it’s okay to even start the conversation with, you know, from, from what I’m seeing, or even just putting that waiver on the back end, if it’s sensitive that, you know, there might be something about this that I’m not aware of. There are times where I think you don’t want to belittle your words, but if there could be stuff that you’re not aware of, it’s okay to say that, and then it’s kind of, it’s almost like a little safer to bring up the conversation at that point.
Kim Meninger I agree with you, I definitely agree that there’s a difference between what you’re describing and, “This might sound stupid, but…” I really liked that idea, too, of, of just getting the perspectives of other influencers, people that you know are politically astute or are going to be able to help guide you through the process, because it is, it is uncomfortable, there are unknowns, we can’t predict everything. And so it’s, it’s helpful to not feel like we have to do this entirely on our own.
Dana Vogelmeier Right. Right. It’s just, it kind of creates your own safety net. And, you know, to your point about like, the kind of even the political-nesss within an organization, every organization has its own kind of political culture inside. And I don’t mean that from a negative perspective, but it’s just, it’s part of everything. So knowing it, and understanding it, and being able to read it and, and also kind of read the tea leaves a little bit, you know, you can start to know and develop where you need to get some intel ahead of time or have some practice conversations and who’s, who’s safe to have that conversation with?
Kim Meninger Absolutely. And I think, you know, just given that we talked about Enron, which is sort of a classic example. I do think it’s also interesting to think about this in the context of, you know, the whistleblower that you mentioned, Sharon Watkins, and this feeling that many of us have of failure or getting it wrong, that if we speak up, and for political reasons, that’s not what they, they, whoever they are, right we’re looking for, or there’s some negative consequence to what we’re doing. But we are coming from a place of this is what I genuinely believe, these are my core values. This is what I stand for. I think it’s also really important to be able to process that not as a personal failure, but as a warning signal that maybe this is not the right environment for me. And I don’t think that’s typically where we go when that happens. I think we typically self-blame, and think, oh, I, you know, I miscalculated, or I did something wrong. But sometimes, if you can’t speak up, or if you, if you are consistently bumping into these roadblocks, it could mean that you’re not in the right place.
Dana Vogelmeier Yeah, I love that because I totally agree. And one of the situations or one of the teams that I worked on, where I definitely did not feel like in the right place, I just, I didn’t click with the leader that I had. And it felt very much… it was a, it was a dynamic and a culture where, like, even he said, the words to me like, don’t rock the boat. You know, they’re like, don’t bring new ideas, don’t try to be innovative, don’t, don’t bring attention to us. You know, just don’t rock the boat, just keep it going. And you know, prior to that, as a leader, I always felt like your role as a leader is to make things better, to improve the processes or the product or whatever it is you’re working on, but also to develop people and sometimes that means some risks of giving them development opportunities or switching up roles or, but he just, he didn’t want any attention brought to the department. He just was kind of biding his time because he thought he was going to move up to the next level. And in one situation, we were all, several of us in a meeting. And he, there was only one manager in that level, like in this group that we were talking to one female manager, and he took a project from her and gave it to someone else really without explanation. And she was kind of like, what’s, you know, that’s, I’ve been working on that. And he said, well, I’m gonna have so and so do it instead. And it was uncomfortable for everyone, just like there wasn’t rhyme or reason to it. So later, you know, I spoke with her and she actually reported to me at that time, and I, I spoke with her and she’s like, why did that get taken away? And I, did I do something wrong? And I said, you know, let me find out, maybe there’s something, I don’t know what’s going on, and I’ll get back with you. So I had some conversation with him about it. And, you know, he didn’t use the words, I don’t like her. But I mean, it was clear. And he said, you know, I just want the other guy to work on it. I want Mike to work on it. And I said, well, you know, I think she feels like she must have done something wrong. And, you know, she’s, like, in trouble or being punished for doing something wrong. You know, she’s just not feeling good about it. And he said, I don’t care how she feels. Yes. And so that was like, oh, you know, like, just like you said, you know, sometimes you don’t feel like you’re in the right place. Like the sirens went off, the lights are flaring up, blowing. And I was just like, oh, what do you mean, I don’t care how she feels? And I, I couldn’t even comprehend that. I thought, well, oh, my goodness. So anyway, over time, other things came up, too. And it was just like, this is not going to work for me. So I ended up moving over to another department. And probably not soon enough. But it’s okay. You know, I learned a lot of valuable lessons during that time of what not to do, and what to do. But I, even though it was hard going through all that and also kind of the bumps that other people felt kind of hurt my heart too, that it was still just really good learning and coming out on the other side of it. You know, I felt like that definitely made me a better leader.
Kim Meninger Absolutely. And I think when you’re in it, too, there is a tendency to want to give people the benefit of the doubt, you know, you’re hoping that it’s not as bad as you think it is. Right. So and you’re right, like, once we finally reach the point where we remove ourselves from the situation, I’ve learned so much from the people that I didn’t think were great leaders, because that’s, I mean, I, you know, obviously, it’s painful when you’re going through it. But I do think that there’s a lot to be learned about what you don’t want, or what’s not the right way to go about leading as there is from watching the people who do it well.
Dana Vogelmeier For sure. And, you know, kind of back from where we started too, I had had some really good leadership success. And so when all of a sudden I’m up against this new issue and new experience, and it’s not going well, I start thinking, what am I doing wrong, and you know, kind of going back to reaching out, getting advice from others maybe who’ve been through this situation. So, you know, I was given some advice about how to lead up, you know, and, you know, kind of modeling what it is that you’d like to see that person do. And so I tried leading up. I don’t know, if there was ever any transference, you know, over to the other person. I never witnessed it. But I was just kind of hoping maybe over time because eventually, I moved to another department, but all of the people that reported to me left and went to other departments too. So I mean, I would think that you might look at why is everyone leaving? I don’t, I don’t know if he ever did, you know, I don’t know.
Kim Meninger And he may not have ever been put in a situation where he either had to examine his own behavior or had to be held accountable for anything. So yeah, that’s really unfortunate, too. I do think, I mean, that that message of you, mentioned, being told don’t rock the boat, right? We all know, when something is out of sync with who we are or what we value… and to really pay attention to those cues to our instincts, and not, not interpret them once again, as I’m not good enough, or, I’m doing something wrong, but more so of this just isn’t the right place for me and I, I don’t think, right, we all know not every place is gonna be right for every person. And that doesn’t mean you failed.
Dana Vogelmeier I totally agree. Yeah, not every company is for every person. Not every team, not every leader is for every person. Totally agree.
Kim Meninger Yeah. So I love this conversation so much. And I have no doubt that you and I could keep going for a long time. But what are you hoping people will take away from this conversation?
Dana Vogelmeier Well, I hope that people you know, as they’re listening are kind of thinking about some of their own experiences that they’ve had, and reflecting on maybe what went well, what didn’t go as well and maybe what I could do differently and then also just understand we all go through it. You know I equate it a little bit, you know, the vulnerability of it to the lessons of the lobster. But the lobster actually sheds its shell, and then its, its little body is exposed and very vulnerable. But it has to shed, it has to go through this vulnerable experience in order to grow back a harder, stronger, bigger shell. So it can be bigger and better the next time. And that’s what we do as people and as leaders. We have vulnerable experiences like being on a stage and not knowing the answers to the questions. And you, your shell is coming off…. very exposed, and very, and you feel very vulnerable. But because of that experience, I did get better for the next time. And that’s, that’s what everybody does. So not to be hard on ourselves when we have those failures and we start feeling like maybe we’re not the right person for this conversation or this job or whatever. You are. And you just have to do the best you can get prepared. Get the good guidance that you need. Do your homework and, and it works out.
Kim Meninger I love that. Dana, thank you so much. I really enjoyed our conversation today.
Dana Vogelmeier Me too. Kim. Thank you