I was excited. I’d been accepted onto a high-profile graduate fast track programme. Everyone said that it was one of the best. The training was exceptional, challenging, exciting. We were the chosen few. Thousands of people had applied, thousands of pounds had been spent to select us, and that was just the beginning of the investment. Now began two years of intensive development, it was going to be an incredible ride.
Six months in and I was lost, disillusioned and terrified of being found out. I was doing fine – in my assessments at least, I’d regularly get top marks. Inside though, I had a sinking, sickening feeling that at some time I would be exposed as a fraud. For all my success, in my view I was failing, working at what felt like 60% of my potential, feeling like an imposter, scrutinised and yet unseen.
Come review time, terrified that I’d be called out for my underperformance, project after project I’d receive high grades. Each time I felt faint with relief that my failings had again escaped detection and censure - and even more trapped, unable to raise the issue without revealing my inadequacy. I began to get stressed, unable to reconcile the psychological dissonance between my own experience and others’ assessment of it. Even now it’s difficult to be open about this. Then it felt overwhelming.
I wish I’d had someone to talk to then, some help to find a solution. I had a ‘mentor’ in the business, but he was senior, remote, the last person to whom I wanted to confess my under-attainment. HR was watching us all, and as the problem worsened, as what felt like the distance between my ability and my performance grew and yet remained apparently invisible, I couldn’t see how admitting it would do anything but harm my career.
I didn’t know about coaching then. That’s what I needed though - someone to confide my fears to, to help me explore and resolve the internal issue of my perceived failure, to help me find a solution. With that I think I could have resolved it. I could have admitted the problem at work, found the support I needed and turned it around. I could have delivered work that I felt was excellent, rather than work that, while judged well, to me was mediocre at best. I could have opened the discussion for all of the fast track cohort. What more potential, dedication and achievement would that have unleashed?
Without that, I didn’t know what to do. I lost respect and confidence in myself, for continuing to operate at what felt like such low performance. I lost respect for the organisation, for failing to spot it. I was stressed, distressed, unable to manage the clash of internal failure and external validation, the daily conviction that I’d be found out. To this day I don’t know if my good reviews were due to genuine assessment or to the reluctance of managers to admit that poor performance was happening under their watch. I wonder if perhaps that was the case – maybe my managers had the same concerns about admitting failure for themselves.
In the end I left, uninspired, disillusioned and exhausted. I found meaning outside of work, in movement and physicality, and made that a focus instead. I’ll be forever grateful that I found that as it’s brought huge value to my life, but in many ways I wish I could have had the high-flying business career as well. My experience is far from unique. Fear and disillusionment are insidious, incessant drains on business talent. It’s time to remove them.
Now I’ve found my home in coaching, in helping others to live up to their potential, creating space for the fears to be aired, the blocks to be addressed and the solutions to be found. I help to create the culture that ensures young talent is nourished and harnessed, not lost.
Most professionals work too much and live too little. I help people to reset, reenergise and take action, so they reach the goals and fulfilment they really want, personally and professionally. I help organisations to ensure their people can reach their best, for the benefit of all involved.
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