How a CEO at Big Brothers Big Sisters Embraced the Unknown

"The higher up a person climbs, the less clear cut the rules and expectations are."

Embrace the Unknown

Wendy Foster was a senior executive at AOL before she stepped into the role of CEO at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Massachusetts Bay. The responsibilities were enormous. Not only did she switch from the high-tech private sector to the nonprofit space, but she was suddenly reporting to a board of directors and acting as the public face of a well-known charity.

She said she felt the pressure not just for competence, but mastery. She was conditioned to believe that she was supposed to know all the answers from day one on the job. Her board knew her background and knew she had the competence to figure out the challenges a growth CEO faces. It was up to Wendy to grow into the chief exec she wanted to be, not the leader she perceived that her board was looking for to lead the non-profit to new heights.

Wendy’s experience is common. The higher up a person climbs, the less clear cut the rules and expectations are . . . and yet the more you’re expected to know exactly what to do. The difference between men and women, as gender studies have shown, is that “men take the job; women take the class.” That is, men are more likely to aim for and accept a job for which they feel unprepared. They figure they can attain competence as they go. Women, on the other hand, are more likely to first acquire skills and training. Once they attain competence, they’ll aim for the promotion or new position.

The systemic bias in corporate culture encourages this—sometimes explicitly. Several highly qualified females executives I know have been directed to take Stanford’s class on becoming an effective board member before putting themselves in the running for board positions—a class not required of their male counterparts. Yet these women were fully credentialed and connected at all the right levels, making each of them fantastic board candidates—even more qualified than many of their male peers. There’s nothing wrong with the class. In fact, I happen to like the curriculum for board education. It’s been such a good resource that it’s now available at many other top tier schools. But the certification would serve the whole board, not just incoming women. As it is, it’s another example of blatant sexism.

My research and experience shows that disrupters who reach their goals firmly believe in their own competence. That’s one of the primary drivers of their success. However, they virtually all experience “impostor syndrome.” They worry that they don’t have what it takes to meet new challenges.

One of the reasons I’ve presented in-depth conversations with the all-stars throughout this book is to help you realize that, if you feel imposter syndrome, you’re not alone. Not by a long shot. A lack of confidence is normal.

Excerpted from DISRUPTERS: Success Strategies from Women Who Break the Mold by Dr. Patti Fletcher. Reprinted with permission of Entrepreneur Media, Inc. © 2018 by

Entrepreneur Media, Inc. All rights reserved.

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