Leaders of the Pack Launches!

 When I started writing about women’s leadership in veterinary medicine with Don Smith, the Dr. Donald F. Smith, Dean Emeritus of Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, I felt like an impostor. What did I know about veterinary medicine? Who was I to write anything about this profession? At the time I was working at a women’s foundation and knew a lot about women’s leadership in political life and gender issues in general, but veterinarians? No way.

But if you’re lucky enough to know Don, you’ll know that not only is he super smart, he’s super nice and he makes you feel smarter than you probably are. We had met when I was visiting my niece, then a Cornell veterinary student, and soon launched into a regular penpalship, volleying emails laced with links and citations about leadership and gender. We agreed on some things, debated others, and had fun.

Life lesson: Find a person so far from your background that you’d never meet in a million years, meet them, and find common ground. The world will be a better place.

Anyway, I learned a lot about the profession from the venerated “history guy” and Don invited me to write a guest blog comparing the gender breakdown among leadership at the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) to leadership in the US Congress. I was honored to be invited and proud of that first blog.

The blog posts continued and we began conducting interviews, eventually hundreds of them, with leaders in the profession. Soon we were speaking at veterinary conferences.

Wait, what?!

Yep. I was still an outsider to the profession but I convinced myself that I could talk about my expertise and Don could talk about his, and together we might offer something useful. For that first talk, we drew on findings from the interviews and the data that we mined from veterinary sources. The talk went pretty well, but when I looked out from the podium at that first conference I saw alphabet soup on the nametags: DVM, PhD, ABVP, ACVIM, ACVECC, ACVS, and so on. Me? M.Ed. But they were listening to me and I was talking about gender stereotypes and systemic barriers to leadership. I felt like an impostor but they didn’t know it.

We continued our research, writing and speaking, and in March 2014 we offered the first credit-bearing course on women’s leadership in veterinary medicine to nearly 40 Cornell veterinary students. It was a big success! We offered it at other colleges, we taught others how to launch their own course, and the speaking and seminars continued.

But I didn’t quit my day job. Stick with what you know best, don’t take too big a risk, excel at what you’re good at. Yawn. I’d been at the foundation for almost ten years, had overseen grants to women’s nonprofits as program officer, had started and run a leadership institute as director of strategic initiatives, and had taken the helm as the interim CEO.

Then I quit my day job.

I blame it on two things. The first is a panel on career changes that I was moderating at the 2014 AVMA Convention in Denver. Five amazing women leaders, all of whom I had interviewed, talked about their choices to move on to new opportunities. They talked about taking risks, knowing the difference between being comfortable and being stagnant, and thriving when taking on new challenges. On the outside I was the smooth facilitator, on the inside I was agreeing with everything they said.

The second thing that led to me leaving my day job was Don Smith. He convinced me that we had enough material to write a book and that people would read it. We could find support, find a publisher, and make it happen. He found the support, I found the publisher (big shout out to Purdue University Press!) and we made it happen.

My favorite chapter to research and write? Hands down, “Beyond Fake It ‘Til You Make It.” What could be better than interviewing women who opened up about feeling like impostors? I’m talking about really accomplished women: professors, deans, directors, student leaders. They talked candidly about struggling to overcome their feelings of inadequacy and they worried, still, that someone would find out that they’d achieved their position by chance, because nobody else wanted the job, or because someone made a mistake. They talked about comparing themselves to others and feeling less than. They confessed to being perfectionists and holding themselves to impossible standards. They talked about faking it ‘til you make it, ‘til others believed you were as confident as you were pretending to be. The veterinary leaders didn’t do that in the surgical theater and they never compromised the care of their patients. They were talking about the self-doubt that slowed them or even stopped them when they acted on their ambition.

Dr. Anne Corrigan, St. Georges University professor of small animal medicine and surgery, lives a busy and happy life on the island of Grenada. Board certified in veterinary internal medicine, she’s comfortable discussing, say, chronic renal failure with a couple of students sitting on a beach towel, chairing a promotion and tenure committee, and lecturing to a class of a hundred, all in the same day. Her students and colleagues see her as accomplished and confident, and she is. But impostor syndrome affects even her.

“My impostor syndrome is mixed into my perfectionism,” she says. “If I don’t prepare extra hours for a meeting or a paper, the feeling that I’m going to be found out starts to creep in.”

In the Fake It ‘Til You Make It Chapter, Corrigan and some of her St. Georges colleagues explain how they’ve learned coping strategies to get passed their impostor syndrome and perfectionism.

In the same chapter, University of Georgia’s Sheila Allen, who graduated in the first Cornell veterinary class to have over fifty percent women, says that her mentor pushed her beyond her sense of being ready for her next step. If she had waited until she felt perfectly prepared and ready, she wouldn’t have become dean.

The chapter follows the stories of different leaders and examines the psychological, cultural and business research behind impostor syndrome, perfectionism, confidence, conflict avoidance, negotiation differences between men and women, and ambition. We all feel like we’re faking it at some point in our life. The stories and research tell you the healthy ways to move past it and become the leader you want to be.

As a former impostor in veterinary profession, I wish I could have read the chapter before writing it! I hope it helps you be what you want to be.

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