The Careerist: Don’t Tell Anyone, but I’m Terrified I’ve Been Promoted Too Quickly

Q: I’m one of the lucky ones. While so many of my friends came home after college with lots of debt and no job, I got through school with minimal debt and landed a sweet job with the company I’d interned with over summers and holidays. But here’s the thing. They made me an assistant director, way beyond what a first job out of college should be! I’m managing outside consultants, developing our marketing program and making decisions about things I’m not even sure I fully understand. Every day I go to work feeling like Leonardo DiCaprio in “Catch Me If You Can,” that movie where he pretended to be an airline pilot, a doctor and a lawyer. He ends up in jail. Am I destined for the same fate?


A: Calm down. They already knew you through your intern work, so they wouldn’t have put you in a job completely outside your wheelhouse. The problem might be they know what’s in your wheelhouse better than you do. Or that you just can’t quite believe it yourself.

It’s called impostor syndrome, it’s a real thing and it can be debilitating. Named by two American psychologists in 1978, they described it as a “feeling of phoniness in people who believe they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement.” While some will suggest it impacts women more than men, considerable research finds that it knows no gender preference.

Your average colleague doesn’t live with this baggage. It’s reserved especially for high-achieving people who, despite their success, live in fear they’re frauds and about to be found out. Consider Nobel Laureate Maya Angelou. She once admitted it, saying, “I have written 11 books, but each time I think, ‘Uh-oh, they’re going to find out now … they’re going to find me out.’” For all of humanity, it’s a great gift that she didn’t let it overtake her. How else would we have poems like “And Still I Rise” and books like “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings?”

I know, I know. That’s all well and good but what if, despite all this impostor syndrome talk, you really are drowning?

First, do a deep assessment of your work, the feedback you’re getting from colleagues and vendors, and the status of the projects you’re working on. Chances are you might just be working really, really hard for the first time in your career. As a high achiever, school and work probably came pretty easy – often seeing success without breaking much of a sweat. Maybe you think you’re drowning because you’re having to dig deep to understand the material and expectations, and then devise strategies to create the success you expect. If you feel like your brain hurts at the end of the day, chances are it’s been a good day.

If you’re concerned that you’re not meeting expectations, schedule a sit-down with your boss and discuss it. Think about the kinds of questions you want to ask. “Am I doing OK at this job or failing miserably?” isn’t going to be nearly as helpful as “Does the Madison project seem on track to you or are there other tactics you’d deploy?” Workplaces of old may have been top-down, eat-or-be-eaten, but today’s fast-paced world requires collaboration. Don’t be afraid to seek input and feedback.

Finally, if it’s still tying you up in knots and you’d rather get a root canal than go to work, consider taking a step back. It’s the rare (and very undesirable) boss who will think less of you for wanting to gain more wisdom and insight. And no job’s worth debilitating stress and demolished self-esteem. The career path is long, and the best ones rarely follow a straight line.


Q: Help! I’ve been promoted and now I have to hire someone. I’ve never been on that side of the interview table before. What do I do?


A: Oh my friend. Hiring is but the beginning of this great adventure. Managing that new hire may be where you really earn your chops. But I digress.

First, you need a tutorial on the dos and don’ts of interviewing. Discrimination laws and hiring practices have very strict areas where you can – and can’t – venture. Talk to your HR folks and make sure you know what’s allowable, even in casual conversation.

A good interview requires thought and preparation. It’s not a first date, where you’re deciding whether you want to have coffee again. You’re determining if this candidate is a fit on many levels – in the company, with the workload, with others in the department and with you as the boss. And to further complicate matters, some people get really good at the interview preening and chitchat (possibly suggesting they’re less stellar at the actual job part). One solution: Shuffle the deck of questions and add some wild cards so it’s not so predictable.

I queried my colleagues about their favorite interview tactic, and dead air took the immediate lead: Ask the question, hear their answer, and then let silence reign. “It shows their confidence in what they’re saying,” says Adam Corey, VP of marketing at Tealium, a data technology company. You see if they have that unfortunate need to talk to fill the space – never a good sign.

Do your homework. Google and social media are more effective than a private investigator at times (certainly cheaper). Brook Gramann, founding partner at Lanikai Bath and Body and long-time Hawaii entrepreneur, dives deep before making the hire, saying she looks at friends, attitude, language and the candidate’s personal interests. “We had an individual for a retail job with us and she was excellent,” Gramann says, with promising Facebook and Google profiles. “Then one of our supervisors went on Instagram and saw she was peddling marijuana on the side.” Oops. Maybe she still has the side gig, but she’s definitely not working for Gramann.

Shake things up. I once had to hire someone in Minnesota for a project I was heading up. I’d vetted my candidates and come down to one guy who seemed the perfect fit: stellar resume, raving references and deep contacts with all the right people in the right places. The problem? I couldn’t warm up to him. His phone and email persona was off-putting and formal, and I didn’t know how he’d fit into our larger team. My solution? I flew to Minneapolis, and rather than go to his office, suggested we meet at Mall of America. He arrived in his suit and fancy shoes, and we wandered the mall chatting. We eventually found our way to the amusement park in the mall’s atrium. I suggested the roller coaster. He nodded. He suggested the log flume. We both came out the other end soaked, his fancy shoes squeaking, both of us laughing hysterically. I hired him on the spot, and then we shared a towel to dry off and found him some new shoes. I never regretted the hire and, just as promised, he got the job done – and a new pair of shoes.


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