Women in workplaces are so often conditioned to be small. Hence, impostor syndrome is not uncommon among women who come into positions of power. Overcoming impostor syndrome is such an important part of the process of owning your leadership and becoming effective at your post. Michelle McGlade interviews Verizon’sKathleen Grillo about her climb to the top, and what it took to get there. Impostor syndrome could be affecting your capacity to lead more than you think. Kathleen’s story could help you make your way towards taking complete ownership of who you are and what you do.
Overcoming Impostor Syndrome With Kathleen Grillo
Have you ever struggled with impostor syndrome? Have you asked yourself how do I overcome impostor syndrome? You are in the right place. If I had to boil down this episode, it is about this beautiful, Kathy Grillo. It’s two words, Impostor Syndrome. We all struggle with this. If you’re thinking you don’t need to know what Kathy has to say, think again because of the new level new devil. Let me tell you about the beautiful Ms. Kathleen Grillo. She leads Verizon’s public policy and government affairs organization. She’s responsible for the company’s public policy platform and advocacy at the federal state and local level.
Kathy’s passion is creating a workplace that values, empowers and inspires employees. What you need to know is these ooze out of her. She lives this. Those are core values connected to her heart space. She has led many efforts inside and outside of Verizon and in the communications and tech industries aimed at supporting, mentoring and developing women leaders and building a community of women in Washington DC. that support one another. When I was preparing for this, I received a little note from her on the intake form and it said, “I’m excited to participate in supporting women and women leaders is my passion. I can’t wait to talk to you about it.” How lovely is that?
Before we learn from Kathy, I have to raise your awareness about a few things in this interview. This is one of those episodes that I’ve already gone to it several times. You’re going to want to do the same. This is a deep episode around the internal workings of ourselves as women and the urge to stay small. Overcoming that urge and kicking that impostor syndrome to the curb even though it will continue to show up for you over and over again and how this is a challenge. This is at the core of leadership because as you’ll learn in this episode, we talk about it’s an inside out game. The most powerful tidbit and tool for you that I learn from Kathy and you’ll learn from it is when you’re challenged with something, especially a limiting belief for yourself.
A message that you keep telling yourself over and over again. The fact is once you talk about it, once you put it out there, it loses its power. It evaporates, and that’s what Kathy says and I couldn’t agree more. You’re going to feel her be vulnerable. She talks about the kind of leader she was versus the kind of leader she is now. Her journey to owning her confidence, her strength, her intelligence, and the fact that didn’t come until several years ago. She discloses that she’s a recovering perfectionist, a baseball fan, and she talks in a powerful way around all of these topics and how it relates to becoming a powerful leader. I believe a leader of self first.
I wanted to ask you, it’s one of the first things that came to mind because you said you wrote down that you were excited to talk about avoiding the urge of staying small. That jumped right out to me right away because how many of us do that? I think 100%.
When I think of the challenges that I’ve had as a leader or the issues that I feel like I’ve had to develop within myself or the capabilities or the strengths, the muscles that I’ve tried to build up, it’s being okay with being successful. Big is a term people don’t use that much, but being big, being strong, being confident and being smart and knowing the answer and feeling comfortable with that. Not feeling I have to dial it back or let someone else be the one who speaks up in the room or not be the one that goes to the meeting. I struggle with how to talk about this a little bit because, for some women, this line of discussion can be hard because they feel like it’s a criticism of something that you do or say, but it’s not.
The impulse to stay small comes in a lot of ways from messages that we get externally. I don’t think it’s innately. I have a niece who is the most amazing. She’s ten years old and she will go to a museum. One time she was practicing being a reporter and she did such a great job and all these people were like, “You did well.” She said, “I know.” She said, “Yes, I did.” That’s how we’re all born. As a woman, as you grow up, especially in your high school years, you can be smart but not too smart. You can be big but not too big. It’s okay to be the vice president, but maybe the president’s a little too much. It’s okay to grow up and want to be a Senator but maybe not want to be the president.
I can trace that back as a high-performer early on. It was almost like, “Don’t shout it too loud.” Where did you first see that show up for you?
I’ve felt that since maybe high school or so. To be honest, I probably still struggled with that until about several years ago. I feel that’s probably when I came into my own as a leader and as a professional and said, “I am good at my job. I do know what I’m doing. I can go to these meetings. I can be in the board room with the board.” Not be there and do well, but enjoy it, take it on and then want it again and not be shy or feel like I have to dial it back or I feel like I shouldn’t say it out loud.
Thank you for saying that because that’s exactly why I’m doing these so people can learn even up. You were maybe holding back. Was there a defining moment, something that said like, “I can see it clearly, screw this,” or was it a gradual process?
It was gradual. Although I do feel spending a lot of time, which I have on thinking, talking and reading about women in leadership and the challenges that we have, particularly in Washington. There was a lot of self-knowledge that came out of that work. Frankly, collective understanding. I’m a big believer in the more that you talk about your struggles and the things that you are, that are challenges for you, then you figure out that a lot of women in leadership have the same struggles. One of my favorite stories about being at Verizon, I was at a dinner with a member of our board of directors, and she’s an amazing woman. Our CEO came up to me and he asked me generally about being a leader and being a woman.
I talked a little bit about impostor syndrome that’s something that a lot of women struggle with that I have struggled with. There was this moment of silence and then I wasn’t sure. I thought, “Maybe I shouldn’t have brought that up.” She chimed in and said, “When I was the CEO, I struggled for a year wondering whether they were going to figure out what I wasn’t right for this job.” When she said that a huge light went off in me, which showed that a lot of women struggle with this. Hearing someone as amazing and accomplished as her say something that I had felt myself, it was a meaningful experience for me. I’m trying to do that too with the women that I mentor.
That’s probably why you said yes to be here?
I love talking about these things.
This is the part that I don’t feel as getting amplified enough, which is it’s the other women. It’s women jumping in this example in anyway. That was beautiful that there was that awkward pause and she probably knew it too and jumped right in and had your back. It was true for her too. That’s the piece that I don’t see happening or getting talked about as much. I’m not in the corporate space. I’m not sure what the culture is, but certainly, at the time when I was several years ago, I almost felt more competition and more friction between the women I worked for than collaboration and support. Do you still see that?
I feel like there’s a lot of collaboration and support certainly here at Verizon there is. We had a conference here for the senior women in the company. It was a group of about 100 of us. It was focused on being your authentic self and showing up at work as that authentic self with the understanding that that’s how people truly perform at the highest level. We talked about a lot of these varied issues. For me, the magic of a bunch of people coming together to share what they worry about. What their real concerns are? What they struggle with? What their challenges are? It’s powerful because it gives everybody that sense of, “I’m not alone.”
Once you talk about something, it does lose its power. Impostor syndrome is a great example that a lot of us have struggled with. Once you talk about it, you realize a lot of women have that thing to deal with and it helps. It evaporates somewhat and it helps you learn how to overcome it in a way. Here at Verizon, we have a culture where we support each other as women leaders. In DC, that’s true too. I don’t feel a real sense of competition in the way that you’re discussing. We could probably have a tighter knit community, especially senior women who tried to support the next generation or the next level of women coming up.
What do you see as the challenge there since that’s something you’re working on?
The challenge is getting a core group of women together whose main purpose isn’t about themselves, but it’s about creating a community where women can support each other in that authentic way that you described so well. In an authentically way where we’re all trying to learn from each other and each other’s struggles and then help each other figure out ways to overcome it.
I agree with that and in my conversations, what I’m learning is women crave the community. For however many years they didn’t do anything about it. It’s getting talked about more and I think it’s going to become more of an expected resource within companies, organizations outside.
I do think you learn more about yourself with other people than you do on your own. When I was in my 30s, I felt like the way to develop professionally was to read a lot of leadership books. It’s to journal, to read the list of things to do or objectives for the year and then check them off. I don’t do any of those things anymore. The real way to learn about yourself is to be in a group of people, men or women. There’s special power over women when they get together. Especially in a group and then bounce off each other and have that contain or where you can be who you are. You can hold the space for someone else when they’re being who they are. That connection both personally and professionally is pretty special.
There are bonds that are created. It’s the whole concept of helping your neighbor in a way. If I was a fly on the wall in one of these Uber supportive women in leadership groups, either at Verizon or wherever you’re hanging out, what am I going to be hearing about? What’s getting talked about?
We did a session on impostor syndrome. My organization here at Verizon and we’ve partnered with Ellevate Network, which is a women’s mentoring and networking group based in Europe. We had a five-part series for women in tech and telecom. We tried to focus on these issues. Our last session was about authenticity and how to stay your authentic self as you rise in your career. We had some women from Congress and then we had somewhat we call Changemakers. Women entrepreneurs or women who have been in a lot of different jobs and had different careers. It was a panel discussion. There was a lot of Q&A. Those are interesting topics, authenticity, vulnerability, things like that where we’re talking frankly to each other about how we stay true to ourselves at the same time we rise and what’s still in much a man’s world, certainly in Washington.
What a lot of the women reading is going to find fascinating is even at the highest levels, it doesn’t matter where you are and in maybe in your career path, but that at every level. I always say it’s a new devil. Impostor syndrome can show up and it might show up in a much different way than when you were starting your career, for example.
There are times where I still struggle or at least I noticed those feelings coming up when I’m the only woman in a room. There are times boards that I’m on or meetings on the hill or sometimes internal meetings, although not as much because Verizon we’re pretty good. Meetings where you walk in, especially on a high level and you’re the only woman in the room. I still sometimes get that. You notice and you’re much more self-conscious about what you say and how you present yourself. You’re in a different space than when there are people from a lot of different backgrounds including gender.
What do you do in that moment? The old way for me would be to maybe not speak up or to seek out a connection more one-to-one outside of the room to say what I would be thinking. I know that would be not the way to do it. What do you do? You probably notice the feelings coming up. How do you encourage yourself to stay big?
I noticed the feelings. It’s exactly what you said. I tried to be conscious of what’s there. The fear or the trepidation or the noticing like, “I’m the only woman in here. I better do a good job.” Catching that and then the confidence comes up because after all these years I do feel I have a lot of confidence and I know that I can do it. I try honestly to make a point in those situations to speak. I try to make a definite effort not to be. I feel like I’ve done a lot of work, both personally and professionally. I know that instinct is there, to your point to stay small. I try to push through it. If I’m feeling I’m staying small, that’s the point where I know that I have to permit myself to be big, to be confident, to put what I know out there and to act and not to give into that.
That was a great tip and I thought of something to add too. You call upon yourself to make it a point to speak up when you have that feeling. For me, I noticed I need to do it sooner rather than later if I wait too long, it makes it more difficult.
It’s hard sometimes because it’s more comfortable to be quiet. Sometimes it’s more comfortable to not mess up to stay. If you don’t say anything, you’re not going to do anything wrong. If you don’t say anything, you’re not taking the opportunity to show other people what you can do or frankly to contribute to the conversation, the action items or the subject matter. That’s the point of that discussion. You’re leaving things on the table and that’s not good for anybody in the room male or female.
One of the other areas that I know is passionate for you that stood out to me when I was doing my preparations is around this in a way. You wrote down having hard conversations. What does that mean to you?
She has a Netflix special that came out and there’s a line in there that it’s good that resonated with me. She says, “Brave leaders never leave things unsaid that need to be said.” In a lot of situations, whether that’s a one-on-one relationship or a complicated work issue. A strategic decision that you have to make or a plan that you need to build over a series of years. They are things that need to be said. Whether that’s confusing, whether that’s awkward, whether that’s something that might hurt somebody’s feelings, whether it’s something you’re worried about offending somebody with. It has to be said to be resolved in a very constructively. Those are the things that I talk a lot about with my team here.
Here’s a good example of that too. How do people bond in the workplace? How do people make a connection? A lot of times, what people do is they gossip or they’ll talk about someone else when they’re not there. It’s this other way to vent. It’s a way to let off steam. Sometimes it’s a way to find something in common with someone and in the office space. It can be toxic in an environment because what that is, is the opposite of a courageous conversation. It’s not saying the thing that needs to be said directly in a way where it can be resolved productively with good intentions on both sides. It’s offloaded in a way where it gets put in a corner and doesn’t get resolved.
If you have an environment and a work environment where people feel like they can have hard conversations with each other, where they can do it, they know how to do it in a way that could’ve deescalated the tension and bring something to the surface that needs to be dealt with, that can be powerful for a lot of different reasons. It doesn’t even show up as a big obvious thing, but it can be small things throughout the day where the elephant in the room gets pointed out and resolved. You can look over the history of companies, business models or industries where people didn’t deal with things that need to be dealt with. The shareholders suffered for it or the customer. That could be as simple as you treat customers in a certain way or a policy that needs to be changed. An issue about diversity or something that needs to be talked about or addressed because it’s something that’s on people’s minds behind the scenes. It’s not easy to do well, but what leaders do well is to know how to have those conversations in a way that it’s not emotionally charged. It takes the charge out of it, but at the same time, it resolves important things.
I would even add that the leader who is excellent at dealing with that controversy in their environments is a competitive advantage. I can’t even imagine as you think about the younger workforce and the younger women coming up being part of a team that addresses controversy had on. That’ll make you stronger in your relationships with your family, your friends, and your partners. You’re doing work beyond the company, but then happy employees come back. It might be the number one skill to develop in a leader.
It is hard to do because when Brené Brown talks about in the context of courage because there’s a lot of fear associated with naming things. There’s a reason why it’s not being named because it’s hard to talk about. You have to be comfortable. We have to be okay with discomfort. Part of me thinks a lot of times when we get into trouble as a society, it’s not that people have bad intentions. They don’t like to be uncomfortable. We would all prefer things to be elided over or to be pushed aside rather than dealing with them straight on. Whether that’s a family issue, a work issue, a personnel issue or whatever it is, it can make a big difference if you come at it with that intention of wanting to resolve it. When you come to that, it’s not that you know the answer and here’s what’s going to be done. It’s, “Here’s the issue. Let’s all talk about it honestly, and let’s all try to work together to resolve it in the best way.”
I know my twenty-year-old self would want to freeze up, crawl under the desk and die before I would say something. For the reason that you said, which is the fear of being laughed at, smooshed back down, keeping it small, not being acknowledged possibly, “That’s silly. You’re making it up.” You’re losing your position, an outcast from the tribe.
That’s why it takes courage to do it because sometimes people react that way. Sometimes people do all of those things that you said. They’ll try to shame you, displace or embarrass you. That’s why it’s important as a leader to create a culture where people feel they can do that safely, where they know they can raise things that are hard to talk about. As the leader, you’re going to set the tone for how the other leaders in the organization are. You could give that guidance to everyone else too, “No.” You want people coming to you when they think you’re wrong. You want people coming to you with the hard thing that needs to be said that isn’t being said in the group or the company or the town or the industry.
What I love about what you’re saying, Kathy, is it all goes back to self, getting it right within yourself. Being honest with yourself, authentic with yourself. That internal work translates externally. You can only go as far with your team as you’ve done with yourself.
Making sure that you are resolving your issues within yourself. You’re not working them out with other people. That’s another thing Brené Brown talks about. It’s like, “Don’t work out your stuff on other people. You have to work it out yourself first.” It’s a big responsibility to be a leader. It’s not one that you can take lightly. You affect a lot of people’s lives on a day-to-day basis. You can do that in a good way or you can do it negatively. I think about that every day. Every word that you say, you have to be careful that you’re saying it in a way that’s going to encourage people to show up as their best self that day and do the best work. That’s how people are going to perform at that high level rather than come and to your point, be afraid or not want to say things because they’re going to get shut down or not want to criticize you. I’ll be honest, I don’t know that I was always that leader at the beginning of my career. I don’t think I understood that well.
If you’re not in an incubator or your company’s not like that. If you didn’t grow up in your career like that, even learn these skills from your family, I had no good start there. Why would you know? That’s where my next question was. If I’m a brand-new leader, it’s my first role of leading a team at Verizon, what happens? Do I go into an incubator?
At Verizon, we do a good job, especially there is a lot of focus on how to be a leader and not just how to manage your business unit well or your organization well. The things that we’ve been talking about are things that we talk about openly and purposely in the company. It still is challenging. You can hear all of these things, but then you have to practice it as a new leader in your group. Also, you’re not going to get it all right. You have to give yourself permission to also not do it perfectly. Things that we’re talking about in particular are hard to do. There’s not a perfect way to do it. You have to have a good intention and to be humble about what you don’t know and what you need to learn.
You said you probably didn’t start this way, which makes perfect sense to me. What would be something you would coach your former self to do differently?
I’m a recovering perfectionist. When I started as a leader, I had high expectations for other people that were probably at times hard to meet. When I look back on it, I realize those were probably expectations I was putting on myself as a perfectionist. Always wanting to do everything exactly the right way. If you put too much pressure on yourself that way, it shows up as putting those expectations on other people. You’re never going to meet those expectations. They’re never going to meet them either. Sometimes when people as I observed over the years, people in leadership positions think, “That’s what you should do.” There’s a gentleman on my team who was telling me this story about a former mentor he had several years ago.
It’s a baseball analogy. He said, “Every time you call up to the plate, you’re going to hit a home run. That’s my expectation for you.” He thought that was encouraging to him. What would there says is you can never fail. In baseball, if you’re a good hitter, you only hit the ball three out of every ten times you come up to the plate. You don’t hit a home run every time you come up, nobody does. I don’t feel like it’s helpful or encouraging to expect people to do well every single time they come up to the plate. That’s not how life is.
You want them to have high expectations for themselves and you will have high expectations for them, but that’s not the same thing as being perfect. I do think when I started out leading a team that was what my expectation was. If I could go back and change things, that’s probably what I would change. I still want to do well. I want everyone else to do well. Our organization is successful generally, but it’s not because they’re perfect. It’s because they try hard. They aim high, but they know that they’re not always going to make it.
Risk is important. If you’re going to take risks, you’re not always going to succeed. That’s the way it is. That’s not what courage is. It’s trying even when you know you might fail.
Where are you on the facing fear spectrum? I already said this, but I do feel new levels, new devils. New things show up for you that you didn’t maybe know where they’re, as you even go through this internal work. Are their fears that still show up?
They still show up. I did an interview, where it was live-streamed. I was with a reporter and it was one-on-one. Even though I have fear in people speaking in public and I love it once I’m in the middle of it. I felt some fear going into it. There are still situations if I have to speak to the board or if I have to be in a big meeting. You still have those moments beforehand where even though I feel like I’m a confident person in my career and professionally, I still have those moments where I think, “What am I doing? I did not say I would do this.” I do feel like I notice it. I can say, “I’m feeling fear.” I’m not trying to push it down and act like I don’t have it. Understanding that it’s there and remembering that when I’m feeling fear, it probably is a sign that something I should do. That means I’m challenging myself and stretching myself. That means I’m pushing past something. I’m not letting something hold me back anymore. When I started as a lawyer, I felt a lot of fear. I was afraid of putting myself in a situation where I could fail. It goes back to that perfectionist piece.
Do you remember a time where you held yourself back because of that in your career or you didn’t take a promotion? For me, one of the patterns I started to realize for myself is I would switch jobs. It would be a promotion on paper, but it was typically because there was something that was pushing against me that I was afraid of, I would go over here and do this.
When I first got promoted to senior management, I was nervous about taking the job. I almost didn’t take it because I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to do it and that they picked the wrong person. Sometimes fears can show up as something else even when they’re about something deeper. “I’m not going to have a personal life or it’s going to be too much work or I’m going to have to travel too much.” All these things pop up static, which hides what is the fear, which is I’m not good enough because that’s something that I do feel like I struggled with and that women struggle with. I’m not good enough for this. I can’t do it. I did almost not take a big job for that reason.
Luckily, even though it was early in my career, I saw that’s what I was doing and I decided to go forward anyway, which was the best decision I ever made in my life because I loved my career as a senior manager at Verizon. I feel like I’ve grown as a person tremendously, but I almost didn’t do it. Sometimes I think about that. That’s a good lesson too because when you look back and think, “I almost made this life-altering decision because of the fear.” I would’ve hated that. I would have always looked back on that moment and regretted it. Since then I’ve tried to even look back on that moment and realize, “You were close there. You can’t let that happen here either.”
Something you can tap back into with a clear vision of what you were doing, which was almost holding yourself back but not.
We’re all good at that. I’m good at that. Sometimes if you think it’s one thing, it’s something deeper and something more than probably goes a lot back a lot further than work.
All this stuff goes way back. It didn’t start at my first job out of college. This is amazing and I feel aligned with what you’re talking about. Thank you for that. I know those reading are gaining a lot of insight through your willingness to share your actual experiences of one, almost holding yourself back. Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you’re dying to get this message out into the world and everybody needs to know it and I didn’t tap into it yet?
I do feel like one thing I’ve been saying a lot is when you’re a leader and you’re a woman, I do think it’s important for us all to spend a lot of time thinking about ways to help other women rise. It’s to help women move forward in their careers. Whether that’s mentoring or networking or particular events or intentionality about it and thinking about, how can I do this? Not just women, frankly, anybody that’s not already overrepresented in leadership in this country. I’ve seen it. Things change when we have diverse representation in the board room, in Congress, in The White House and State Legislators. It makes a big difference. If we all spent a lot of time trying to make that happen, that would change things quite a bit.
I was at a conference with leaders from the product management area and they hadn’t clicked in my mind. The importance of diversity and the studies behind it but giving the example that maybe you’re leading a major company in product development. It’s for a global audience, but yet you’ve never been to some of those emerging markets. I want to wrap it up but I wanted to also say, there’s going to be that one woman that feels compelled to maybe reach out or connect with you. Is that an invitation or is there a spot to find you and what you’re talking about and working on?
Find me on LinkedIn. I’m pretty active there, even a lot of things we’ve talked about here. I will either post my thoughts, articles or things along this line. I do, I get a lot of women who reach out to me on LinkedIn.
I was checking you out as well in preparation for this. What I will say is I found a lot of resources through looking at what you’re sharing. If somebody who’s reading, who are looking for, not just to connect with Kathy, but to find more access in your area. You’re a great launching pad for that. Thank you so much for being on the show.
Are you in love with her? I hope you find her on LinkedIn and connect and follow her content. It’s great and amazing. She is not just talking about this stuff. She’s living it. I’m a fan and I’m an admirer of her. The last thing I wanted to reflect on that I didn’t mention and I know is golden that came out of this episode is she talked about creating a culture of courageous conversations. Referencing Brené Brown. You might want to go back because I know you need to read to this at least three times. It’s a no brainer. There is much powerful information here and it’s grounded and rooted in a knowingness that Kathy has from experience and internal self-work.
You can feel it oozing out of her. What came out of that conversation that when she brought up the concept of courageous conversations was a discussion around how creating a culture around that as a leader could be a competitive advantage for an organization? Certainly, anybody in leadership who takes the time to cultivate a team and a community in that culture where it feels safe to come forward and speak your truth, it will be a competitive advantage for them as a leader. If you’re able to do that in your organization, hands down. I know you will rise. I didn’t want to wrap up without calling that out. If you missed it, go back. Read for that on your second and third time around.
That is a perfect place to spend time cultivating your skillsets and developing your skillsets as a leader. It will make you a better person, no doubt, because it will trickle into your team and your organization, but everywhere in your life. After all, it’s a people game. We’re all people. We’re all human. There’s much in here. I almost split it into two segments because there was much I was thinking about and much I was absorbing and reflecting on. Going back and during the interview, I’m going to let it land there. I hope you have an amazing rest of your day. If you have some thoughts about how you’re struggling with impostor syndrome, an idea that could help another woman in our community, some more to add to the conversation around courageous conversations, please reach out. I would love to hear from you. I would love to be the shepherd, to be able to share your ideas to the rest of the women reading this. We’ll talk to you soon.
About Kathleen Grillo
Kathy leads Verizon’s public policy and government affairs organization. She is responsible for the company’s public policy platform and advocacy at the federal, state and local level. Kathy’s passion is creating a workplace that values, empowers, and inspires employees.
She has led many efforts inside and outside Verizon and in the communications and tech industries aimed at supporting, mentoring, and developing women leaders and building a community of women in Washington that support each other.