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Personal Perspective: Joyce Roché Reflects on Overcoming Imposter Syndrome and Making a Mark as a Board Member

Joyce RochéAfter a rich career in corporate and non-profit organizations, including stints as President and CEO at Girls Inc., President and COO of Carson Products Company, and a senior marketing position at Avon, Joyce Roché sits on several Fortune 500 boards, including AT&T, Macys and Tupperware.

This spring, Joyce’s book, The Empress Has No Clothes: Conquering Self-Doubt to Embrace Success, comes out. The title says it all.  Even with her Ivy League MBA and her track record of C-level success, Joyce, at times, experienced what she calls “imposter syndrome”—a sense of not being up to the task. That extended to her early board experience; by that point, in the mid-1990s, she had been celebrated as a top business leader and a trailblazer, but she was still one of two or three women in the boardroom and she admits to feeling like an “odd duck.”

“My first board appointment was with Southern New England Telecom,” she says.  “And it came about through a search firm. It was my first foray into board service.” Joyce was drawn by the rapid evolutions in the telecomm business. “Telecomm was really intriguing to me. I had grown up in consumer marketing, and here was an industry moving from a monopoly into being competitive for the first time. I felt I was able to advise as they were making that transition.”

“I had some of that imposter syndrome when I joined. I asked myself, when are they going to find out whether I’m up to snuff. I learned how to get that voice out of my head more quickly, how to jump in to the conversation more quickly. Your role is not to nod – you need to be involved in the material and be able to voice your concerns or suggestions.”

Joyce’s clarity about the role and significance of a board member helped her overcome her own self-doubt and participate fully: “They’ve brought me in because of an expertise they see that I have, and not to park my input at the door and only speak when it’s about marketing, or there’s an issue relating to women or minority representation. My role is to be fully a part of the board’s discussion.”

She’s seen a transition in recent years. “One of the good things about Sarbanes-Oxley is that it gave every board member a voice. It was clear coming out of Enron that it was not acceptable to say I didn’t know. It was recognized that every board member had the right and the obligation to ask difficult questions.”

Joyce sees nonprofit board service as an important way to ready oneself for senior leadership in business while giving back to a community, and she notes that the nonprofit and for-profit worlds are often more aligned than it might seem. “When Sarbanes Oxley came out, some of it was applied to nonprofits, and that was a wake up call,” she explains. “You had to have the audit committee in place, you had to have a whistleblower policy, and all of that led to a closer relationship between non-profit and for-profit governance.”

“I’m often asked about the importance of sitting on nonprofit boards,” she reflects. “I do encourage people to do that. It takes you out of the detail and the minutiae of your day job, and teaches you the concepts of governance. That can be very useful.”

Joyce emphasizes that one of the most important things that a board does is to pick executive leadership. “Your primary role as a board member is hiring the CEO of that corporation or institution,” she explains. “Once you select the right person, your expectation is that they are making the right decisions to run this company. The average board meets seven times a year. You cant’ possibly know enough to manage and run the corporation. Your role is to help shape the strategy, and define what is going to drive growth. And from a governance standpoint, your role is oversight and ensuring that the corporation is working to achieve its strategic goals.”

What does she advise for women going into board service for the first time? “Get to know the company and do your research. Your role is to help guide what is going on there. If you’re coming out of your MBA program you’re going to have to make your mark first in your industry. When an organization searches for new board members, they are going to make a decision on the basis of who they read about, so producing in your own environment is going to be critical, because that’s where you start to be a known quantity.”

“When you do gain that first opportunity, it’s natural for most of us to experience imposter syndrome, and to wonder whether we’ll fit in. Every board has a culture and a rhythm. You want to build that relationship with your fellow board members and with the CEO over time. Know that you’ve been asked to be a part of this because you have an expertise that they’re looking for. Start contributing. It’s not acceptable to say you don’t know; if you don’t know, take the time to learn. Take the opportunity to ask questions. Being on a board is an incredible learning environment. You’re always faced with something new.  You are engaged with people who are not from your industry, and you can learn to think differently, and hear points of view and expertise from many different venues. Talk about continuous education!”

For more of Joyce’s wisdom, get her book The Empress Has No Clothes: Conquering Self-Doubt to Embrace Success, published by Berrett-Koehler.

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