In recognition of Women’s History Month, we are sharing hard-won insights from alumna on a topic that hits home for many MBAs and high achievers. In a Harvard Business Review article authored by Gill Corkindale, imposter syndrome is defined as “a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success.”

Corkindale writes: ‘Imposters’ suffer from chronic self-doubt and a sense of intellectual fraudulence that override any feelings of success or external proof of their competence. They seem unable to internalize their accomplishments, however successful they are in their field. High achieving, highly successful people often suffer, so imposter syndrome doesn’t equate with low self-esteem or a lack of self-confidence. In fact, some researchers have linked it with perfectionism, especially in women and among academics.”

Maeve McGilloway (MBA ’17), former president of Darden’s chapter of Graduate Women in Business, is our first guest contributor on this topic — stay tuned throughout March for more authentic conversations about imposter syndrome and how Darden’s intentional learning experience helps to set up so many students for long-term success.

Maeve McGilloway (MBA ’17) Talent Manager, Berkshire Partners

Most of my life I attributed my success to luck.  Test scores, college acceptances, job opportunities were not due to some innate ability or talent of mine, but more so it was a fluke.  I assumed that sooner than later someone, whether it be college admissions to employers, would figure me out and learn that I slipped through the cracks.

I felt the same way when I decided to apply to business school — again, crediting my acceptance to Darden as happenstance.  I had convinced myself I would be in a classroom full of qualified classmates and professionals, and I would be the only one coming up the learning curve.  Even worse, I started to panic about the case method and cold calls in class — there seemed to be a high likelihood that I would be exposed as a “fraud” in front of my esteemed classmates.

Maeve McGilloway

Early in my first year at Darden I attended the Graduate Women in Business conference and there was a Darden alumnus, who was now a C-level executive, giving the keynote speech.  In her opening line she asked, “How many of you in the room feel like you don’t belong here?  Let me tell you all something… you belong.”  I honestly felt like she was speaking directly at me — she introduced the term “imposter syndrome” and that the irony of this thought process is that it often happens to women, let alone high-achieving women. I felt seen and heard, and not alone.

During my first semester at Darden my confidence increasingly grew, and my experience was nothing like the embarrassing cold call I had envisioned.  My accounting professor would bring me into the conversation naturally and encourage me to speak up if I knew the answer — at first, if I whispered my answer (for fear of being wrong), she would ask me to shout my answer, because I was in fact right and everyone in the room needed to hear me and have more conviction that I was right. My classmates would message me in class all the time when I made a thoughtful or interesting comment — never once did I receive a negative or discouraging comment when there were wrong answers (which, trust me, there were a handful of those too).

Later on in my first year at Darden there were club elections for leadership positions. Two of my section mates, both women who I thought highly of, encouraged me to apply to be the president of the Graduate Women in Business club. The imposter syndrome at first made me question why I, out of all my accomplished classmates, would be worthy of this leadership position.  They really challenged my own thinking around myself and told me why they appreciated my unique leadership style. I ended up becoming the president of the Graduate Women in Business club, overseeing 250+ members. Fast forward a year, and I was now the person responsible for planning the Graduate Women in Business conference, the same one I found so rewarding during my early days at Darden. It was hard to believe I was the same person, from a bystander who questioned her place at the table to a leader of one of Darden’s biggest clubs, and how I had developed over the course of my two years at Darden.

You will get a lot of valuable things out of business school — that is for sure. For me, personally, one of the most rewarding gains was my confidence and quieting that “imposter” voice that challenged me in the past, largely thanks to my teachers, classmates and peers. Of course, this is uniquely personal, but I think it is hard to find an environment that is as collaborative, safe, and encouraging as Darden to really let you really work on yourself and develop as a business leader, whatever your growth edges may be. I hope that one day I will be asked to be the keynote speaker at a Graduate Women in Business conference, and I will then share the same advice I received — don’t question it, you belong.

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