Have you ever been rewarded for a big achievement? And whilst listening to the accolades you heard a whisper in your ear saying ‘fraud’?

Behold, the impostor syndrome, the worry that you’re a sham and one day soon you’ll be found out.

Regardless of who you are, the impostor syndrome can sneak up on you. And it’s common amongst high achieving women such as Sheryl Sandberg and Emma Watson.  My Page 1 Woman has it too.

Meet Sheree Axon, Director of Organisational Change and Programme Delivery, in NHS England, and a longstanding member of the impostor syndrome club. She’s clearly very smart. So how come she often feels a fraud?

Leaving school at 15, with O levels, didn’t help. It lowered people’s expectations of her and became a ‘chip on her shoulder’. However, it didn’t lower Sheree’s expectations of herself. On the contrary, she’s used it to prove doubters wrong and with great effect, a kind of ‘I’ll show them!’

But that impostor feeling is never far away. ‘It doesn’t matter what I achieve, there’s always a moment when I think what do I know about this?’ she said.

She’s a natural leader who honed her skills early by assuming childcare responsibilities around the house whilst being choir leader, school prefect and junior town clerk. She later became the youngest ever female hotel manager in Southern Africa at the age of 21.  The impostor wasn’t allowed to obstruct her risk-taking and courage. ‘I promoted a Zulu guy, Dennis, to Food and Beverage Manager.  The white community boycotted the hotel.  When they realised they needed a bar, they returned.  

And the impostor didn’t stop her being the lead singer in ‘Rock Bottom’ back in the 80’s or taking her 6 weeks old daughter on travelling adventures. If anything it made her learn survival strategies, which she’s tried, learned from and discarded in favour of openness, authenticity and integrity as a leader after years of trying to fit in.  And the pay off? Being head-hunted to lead tough transformation programmes and in the process, creating a strong personal brand with a solid reputation.  ‘I do the work that not everyone wants to do, so I’ve created a niche market for myself that no one ever knew they needed or wanted!’.

So how has this self-confessed ‘courageous wimp’ done it? Read on and find out.


Describe your work.

Sheree: I lead a team of enthusiastic programme and project managers who support the organisation through small change (e.g. restructuring) and extensive change (e.g. those linked to political decisions such as the Health and Social Care Act in 2012). What I enjoy most is supporting service improvement that ultimately benefits patients, for example the RightCare programme.

I’m also involved in reform. I set up NHS England’s women’s network and development programme which primarily supports women in non-managerial grades going through change.

Before NHS England, I worked in senior management for the London Strategic Health Authority and on the Workforce for London programme. My professional background started in hotel management then HR. I’m a card carrying HR Director.


What essential steps got you to where you are?

Sheree: Improving my education and qualifications, because I left school with just O Levels. Also I love learning, so when I was doing my MBA, I saw it as learning a language to use in the Board Room. I was the only woman board member for a PLC.  And to do well, I had to know how to talk to the Finance Director for instance, about return on investment.  So learning has been about language and locking in those types of opportunities.

My essential steps have been about studying a job and asking myself, ‘Is it something I care about? What will I learn from it? Will it improve my education’?


What most significant thing got you into your current position?

Sheree: I believe that my reputation got me my last 5 positions. People have wanted to hire me and their teams wanted me to lead them.  Whenever I’ve been selected at interview, it’s been due to my reputation, integrity and ability to demonstrate that I can handle difficult, challenging programmes and take people with me.

One of my choices was to operate independently for 10 years.  You could’ve slogged your guts out on a project but how you conduct yourself at the beginning and the end is frequently what people remember.  So I think about me as a brand – my integrity, my offer, my value added; what makes me different from the next Director. It doesn’t mean I’m a super hero, although occasionally I do describe myself as working in the trenches to save functions and jobs.  But you have to develop yourself as a brand and not compromise yourself.


 What’s been your greatest challenge?

 Sheree: My self-doubt and poor self-image. So I’ve developed tactics for dealing with that, such as planning and preparing for meetings, thinking about how I present and position myself.  I always feel subordinate to senior people.  When I was first at the Department of Health, I was on holiday, on the beach in swimwear. I got called by the Permanent Secretary’s office. He wanted to talk to me.  ‘I’m on the beach’, said I. ‘He won’t mind’ said the caller. ‘But I do. So tell him to ring back in 10 minutes. I’m going to get dressed’. I wouldn’t talk to the Permanent Secretary with my swimming costume on. So I think the biggest challenge for me is to get over me.

Another challenge has been losing my husband when our daughter was just 3 and we’d only been married for 2 years. My entire focus became about keeping the show on the road, ensuring we have the best quality of life and supporting my daughter whilst doing good work. A lot of women are in this position, and it’s not necessarily obvious.  Ultimately, I want to be a good role model for my daughter and do a good job.


What was your greatest light bulb moment?

Sheree: A couple of years ago on a Springboard programme, I drew my timeline and important events along it. I realised that from age 5 I’d been taking on responsibilities, assumed and delegated.  I saw that taking on responsibility has been a drive and a tendency. It may come from being the oldest, the only girl and being expected to step up . And it may be that I’m just a natural leader.


What key resource has been crucial to your success?

Sheree: Working with a coach has made a massive difference.  At the age of 53, I still need to reverse difficult conversations. I often feel diminished by people around me depending on how they behave and I’ve got nobody to talk to about those things at home.  Coaching is a safe space to talk through my thinking and feeling and to get challenged – ‘What are you scared of?’ ‘Why haven’t you done this?’ ‘What about that?’ It makes me think differently about how I’m going about things.

Sometimes you find yourself being dragged into a space where you feel less capable, overwhelmed and unable to find your way because you’re dealing with multi-situations.  So that opportunity to re-calibrate your thinking and challenge yourself has led me to re-balance a number of relationships that had deteriorated.  I spend a lot of time thinking that these situations are due to the way I’ve handled them. Talking to someone makes me realise it’s not me. It allows you to gird your loins and get back out there.

The other powerful resource is 360° feedback.  I came to realise that the most powerful way to handle a 360 was to go for the disconfirming evidence from people who aren’t fans. That’s the only way you’re going to learn about those relationships and how to get a different perspective, and approaches because everybody is different.


What do you understand by leadership?

 Sheree: I’ve always aspired to be somebody that people trust. People like my integrity and want to be in my team. They might not like everything I’m doing and how I’m going about it, but people are prepared to be led by me. They believe in what I want to do, what I’m trying to achieve and they believe in the outcome.  So that’s where I am around leadership.

We were having some very difficult discussions in Health and Social Care with organisations that we were transferring functions to.  I showed a scene from the movie ‘Braveheart’ – Mel Gibson as William Wallace and his motley crew with wode on their faces and no equipment. On the other hill is a row of well-equipped guys. He’s stomping up and down chanting. I said, ‘That’s what it feels like’.  That’s leadership.

You can inspire people to stay, although it’s not the best situation, and you’re without equipment. It’s about trying to be the best you can be in the circumstances. Also, I think a good leader goes, ‘We got that wrong. We should stop and take another look at it’.

With some of my programmes, I work like William Wallace.   Sometimes it’s hard to explain why we’re doing something and to win hearts and minds.  Ultimately, it’s my job to lead.  Whether it’s improving services or restructuring, we’re messing with people’s lives.  So doing it properly and remembering that there’s someone at the end of it is really important.

As a woman leader, I’ve experienced discrimination and bullying.  And some of my most difficult situations have involved working for women who seem to want to prove themselves.  They’re competitive, driven and don’t show a human side, or their personal lives.

With me, my team know I leave early because of commitments related to my daughter.  They know that I have a hospital appointment.  In return, they support me. Trying to be something that you’re not is the biggest thing that I talk to women about.  Don’t pretend that you don’t have those responsibilities, or that you’re late because you couldn’t find your kid’s PE kit.  That’s life.


What are your top 3 tips for women who want to be leaders in their field?

Sheree: First, be yourself.  I’ve tried many times to be like someone else.  For example, I joined one of the big six management consultancies, and bought a Chanel twin set suit and a cream trench coat in order to fit in. I was miserable and I still wasn’t like anyone else.  But my work meant more to the partners than my looking like everybody else.  So be authentic. Think about your brand, who you are, what’s important to you and your reputation.  Then be that person. You’ll feel more comfortable with yourself. I get notes from women at every level saying that I’ve inspired them by being myself. You don’t have to be liked to be successful, but behave with integrity.

Second, get a coach.  The more senior you are the lonelier it gets.  And it’s hard to talk to people in the same space.  So getting a coach is really important.

Third, remember as a woman leader you can’t be everything to everybody.  It doesn’t matter how much you do, there’ll always be more.  So get balance, because that work will always be there, but quality times with your loved ones won’t be.

Can you identify with Sheree’s impostor syndrome? If so, how have you tackled it? Did Sheree motivate you in any way?

Drop me a comment and let me know. I would love to hear from you.

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