“What’s Holding You Back Might Be You: Imposter Syndrome”: Sara Varni with Twilio (Video + Transcript)

June 23, 2020

If studies show that imposter syndrome plagues men and women equally, why doesn’t it feel that way? In this session, Sara Varni shares how she’s dealt with imposter syndrome at many stages in her career from climbing the ladder to SVP at Salesforce to her current role as CMO of Twilio, and the tips and tricks she’s learned along the way.


Transcript of Elevate 2020 Session

Rachel Jones: So next up is Sara, we’re so excited to have her. She is the chief marketing officer at Twilio, so she joined Twilio two years ago from Salesforce and today she’ll be sharing her thoughts on imposter syndrome at various stages of her career, from climbing the ladder at Salesforce to her current role as CMO of Twilio, and the tips and tricks that she’s learned along the way. All right, Sara.

Sara Varni: Great, can you hear me okay?

Rachel Jones: We can, yeah.

Sara Varni: Fantastic. So, hi everyone. Good morning, good afternoon. My name is Sara Varni and I’m the CMO here at Twilio and thank you so much for letting me share this session with you. I’m here to talk about imposter syndrome and this is a real condition that I have experienced at all different phases in my career and I say whether I was 22 or now 42, this is a condition where I’ve heard that voice in my head that says, “You’re just not ready for this role, or this is too big of a leap for you.” And today I want to share with you some of my techniques that I’ve used to push through that internal dialogue in my head and to take my career to new heights. But I thought I’d share and start with a personal story. Back in my time at Salesforce, I was tapped to run marketing for one of the biggest products at the company and I was by no means a shoe-in for the role.

Sara Varni: I had worked on a much smaller product line before that, I was just not very well known at the company, and even the team that I was going to be taking over had no idea that I was in the running for this position. And so, when the announcement was made, when I got the role, I did what any manager would do and I reached out to the team, I said, “Hey, I’m so excited to take on this role and to drive some great projects and efforts with this team,” and I expected a warm welcome back and what happened was crickets, basically. And I kept checking my email feverishly, trying to get some sort of inkling of encouragement and over the course of the next 24 hours, only one poor soul responded to me and they didn’t even respond to the group, they just responded to me directly.

Sara Varni: So you can imagine how I was feeling, here I’ve been given this role of a lifetime, this opportunity that I always thought I wanted, and in that moment I felt so insecure and so questioning of if I was deserving of the role. And there was two things I could do with that feedback in that moment, I could say, “All right, I’m going to go curl up in a ball and just be paralyzed by the feedback,” or I could take it and use it as fuel to show why I was supposed to be in that role, why was in the right place at the right time, and to just start on that journey of building trust with that team. And so, I mustered up the courage, I wrote the team back and I said, “Thanks for the warm welcome. I can’t wait to get started with you guys,” and that was the start of that journey. And three years later, we had built an amazing team, we had built an amazing culture and we put some huge wins on the board.

Sara Varni: But if I had just taken that feedback and that experience and let those inner voices take over, we never would’ve gotten to that place and I would have been stinted in terms of where I was going with my career. But just to tell you a little bit about me and my whole journey and this will give you a little bit of color as to how I’ve faced imposter syndrome along the way. I always joke that if there was an award in your high school yearbook that was the least likely to be a tech CMO, you might’ve seen my picture there. I grew up 40 minutes outside of San Francisco in the boondocks, pretty close to the windmills, if you’re a San Francisco local, and I came from a family that was mainly focused in real estate and farming. And so, I flew the coop. I decided I wanted to move away from that and move to the East coast and I became an equities trader, so going from the farm to the trading floor was definitely a culture shock for me, but I loved the energy of being a trader.

Sara Varni: You got there and it was just like you were on the floor of a casino every day, but long term, I was still wanting to scratch a creative itch. I always loved, and seemed to gravitate towards, work that drives me creatively. And so, I went back to business school and ultimately landed a role at Salesforce, which at the time was not a very well known company, but obviously it was a great platform for me to learn and grow. I spent 10 years there, essentially working up from the mailroom of the marketing department to ultimately running marketing for the biggest product line, and that set me up for my role today to be the CMO of Twilio. And one thing that as I reflect back on that journey, I see that there are certain things I gravitate towards. I love being in a high growth environment. That’s exactly what I saw on the trading floor, and I love gravitating towards things that are creative.

Sara Varni: And I think as you’re listening to this presentation, I encourage you to think about what are those things, what are those three to five characteristics that gets you up in the morning, that get you excited about your work because in these times when you have self doubt and these times when you’re wondering if you’re the right person for the role, you need to call back on that and remember these are the things that you’re great at, and it’s most likely the things that got you to where you are today and are highlighted to people that they think these are the reasons that this person should be in that role. So that all sounds easy, it was a breeze, I just went from job to job and ended up in this amazing place but that’s not the truth.

Sara Varni: Obviously there are many bumps along the road, and I had an amazing support system, I’ve had some incredible managers and leaders that have absolutely helped me get to where I am today and have encouraged me at every step of the way. But for all of those people that were encouraging me, those are not always the people that you listen to. And often what creeps into your head is the negative feedback and the naysayers and the haters, I’ll use the term haters a lot in this session. And at every step of the way I heard things like, “You know what? She’s not technical enough. She’s too nice. She’s too positive. She’s too negative.” You often get conflicting feedback. She’s a dark horse for the role. My favorite, when I started at Twilio, there was actually a post online that said I was a low-end Barney. I’m like, at least you could spell my name right. And so, again, I had two choices of what I could do with this feedback, just like the situation that I started out with when I was taking over that team.

Sara Varni: I could let this eat me up, I could let this just completely paralyze me and stop me from moving forward, or I could use it as fuel and turn it into energy for me to go out and prove them wrong and to just start putting wins on the board, given the traits and energy around the things that I like to do, like I said, working in a high growth environment and really being creative. So now I’m going to walk through some of the techniques that I’ve consistently used over the course of my career and I want to put air quotes around the word “techniques”, these are not heavily researched activities, this is not something you’re necessarily going to read about in Harvard Business Review, but they are things that have helped me. So first, I want to say that you have to just say no to haters. And I think it’s really important when you’re entering a new role or taking on new responsibility that you need to be in confidence building mode.

Sara Varni: And there are going to be those people that are always going to have something critical to say. And I think one thing I’ve learned over the course of making these transitions a few times is that often the real feedback that you’re getting from that person often has more to do with them and where they are mentally and what’s going on in their career than it does what’s going on with you in the crux of their feedback. And I recently watched Miss Americana, Taylor Swift’s documentary on Netflix, which I highly recommend, I think it’s incredible. And they highlighted her session at the VMAs where Kanye West jumped on stage, she had won best new artist or best song for the year, I don’t remember the exact award and Kanye jumped on stage and basically grabbed the award out of her hand and said, “Hey, I love you, Taylor, but this was supposed to go to Beyonce.”

Sara Varni: And in that moment, the whole crowd was booing. And Taylor, just in the emotion of everything happening so quickly, thought that the audience was actually booing her, but what they were booing was Kanye, obviously. And I think in these moments, when you’re unsure of your new role, if you’re unsure if you’re up to snuff to do this job, you’re often likely to believe the haters. And I think you have to remember, there are a lot more people in your corner rooting for you then you think. My second piece of advice is to establish a solid network around you that you can call, that you can reach out to, that you can connect with at any point. And this helps you to defer some of the questions that you might be afraid to ask in the early days of taking on a new responsibility and just give you the confidence to push forward to the next part of this role. You might be lucky, you might have this one person that can answer all different types of questions under the sun.

Sara Varni: For me, I have a network of people that I ask different topics for different things. I might have someone that I call for very tactical, practical information on demand gen or how to think about a website. I have people that I call for general strategy and leadership questions. I have people that I call for recruiting and hiring, and I think it’s really important to build a network across all of the different parts of your job that you might encounter. And a big part of this is there’s got to be a give get. If you’re going to reach out to someone and ask for their advice, you also have to offer back like, hey, if you need this, if you need help with X, Y, and Z, please call me anytime, that will build your strongest network. My next piece of advice is that at some point you’ve got to get over the initial fear and doubt of the role and just put your head down and get some wins on the board.

Sara Varni: Who you’re seeing on the screen is Julia Mancuso, she’s one of my favorite athletes. And I posted on my Twitter handle yesterday an article that was written in and around 2014, it’s the article I read almost once a year. And Julia, I think, is super interesting because she came to be famous and came on the world stage at a time when Lindsey Vaughn was super popular, but Lindsey had had a number of injuries and Julia was the lead person for the Sochi games. And so, when reporters would talk to Julia, Julia was an amazing skier herself, but the questions were always about Lindsey and the competition between Lindsey, and Julia was just positioned as being in Lindsey’s shadow. But Julia didn’t let that get to her. She focused on why she loves skiing so much, just like I am trying to focus on the parts of my career and the elements of my roles that I love the most to keep me going and keep me energized.

Sara Varni: And she said, “I just love skiing. I’m going to focus on racing the best race possible and even though I don’t have the appearance or the same style as Lindsey Vaughn, you’re going to see me on that podium.” And they did. Ultimately, no one really realizes this, but Julia Mancuso is the most decorated Olympic female skier in American history. And I think there’s something to be said for that to just put your head down, remember why you have this role and focus on those strengths, start putting some wins on the board. The next piece is once you feel like you’re in a groove in a role, I think you can always be looking for ways to improve. I think the best leaders are constantly thinking about what they could be doing differently, where they have blind spots and really matching programs and training to help sharpen that.

Sara Varni: And this is a place where you do want to get some of those people that aren’t the people that are telling you you’re great all the time, you do want to surround yourself with people that can give you that constructive feedback. I know personally this year, I employed a leadership coach and that has been life changing for me. Through the process I’ve gotten 360 feedback, I’ve worked on roleplay exercises in certain situations where I know I have blind spots and it’s really helped me. Another area that I recommend for all types of leaders is working on your executive presence and especially working with a speech coach. I think that there are so many forums where to move up to the next level you need to present in a clear and concise way and I absolutely think that this is a trait that you can learn. I remember early in my career I just felt like this is something that you’re either born with or you’re not and over the course of the years and over working with a number of different people on my teams, that is absolutely not the case.

Sara Varni: In a lot of situations, your company will sponsor these efforts, so absolutely ask your manager, ask your leadership team what access you can get to these training programs, because I think they can make a world of difference. And my last piece of advice is do what works for you. I think in the course of trying to overcome imposter syndrome, you want to make sure that you don’t become an imposter yourself. You’re going to get all types of feedback, some of it you’ll agree with wholeheartedly, some of it you’ll think is completely not you, and I think you have to take the spirit of the feedback and apply it in a way that still is authentic to how you operate and what your core values are. So these are my five core pieces of advice, my techniques to overcome imposter syndrome. I truly believe that the best leaders are authentic leaders and I encourage everyone listening here, lean into new opportunities and find your confidence, remember to remind yourself that you’re here for a reason and just be your badass self. And so, with that, I would like to open it up to Q and A.

Rachel Jones: Great, thank you so much, Sarah. So now we’re going to start the Q and A. Our first question, how do you keep haters at bay when the hate is coming from your own family?

Sara Varni: Yeah. I mean, I’m one of five, I don’t know if I mentioned that and just speaking from my own personal experience, I think my advice doesn’t change whether it’s a family member or a colleague. And often when I get feedback from my siblings that I think is overly harsh or negative, I take the spirit of the feedback, if there are things that I need to work on I absolutely think about that and try to apply it, but if it seems overly harsh and out of line, it’s often something that’s going on in their own life or something that they’ve encountered in their own journey and I try to diffuse that and try to help them. I try to get to the root of where that’s coming from and figure out if there’s a way that I can help them, as a sibling, to overcome whatever confidence issue they have.

Rachel Jones: Great. For our next question, do you have any recommendations or resources for a career coach or a leadership coach?

Sara Varni: I know here at Twilio, we use a program called Year Up and I know that there are a number of different organizations that provide this for companies. I’ve unfortunately only gone through the companies I’ve been working at, so I don’t have one that I’ve worked directly with outside of a company myself.

Rachel Jones: Sometimes we can be our own biggest haters. So how do you recommend overcoming our own negative self talk?

Sara Varni: I’m sure that you have a network of people that you’ve grown up with, that you’ve relied on through the course of your career and I think it’s a matter of connecting with those people. And I want to be careful, you don’t want to surround yourself with people that are always just going to tell you how great you are because that’s not the right setup either. But I do think it’s important to have a mix of people who can give you constructive feedback and also your cheerleaders. I have people from all different phases of my life. I have a great friend from high school, she’ll say that she’s my fan club president. And if I have a big presentation where I’m nervous to go on stage or I’m just not feeling right about it, I’ll call her as part of my phone a friend network, she’s the first person I call and she’s the person who’ll say, “Hey, you’ve got this, you’ve done this a million times, think of how many times we’ve had this conversation,” and it just helps me get over the hump.

Rachel Jones: How do you stay confident in a junior entry level position without coming across as arrogant?

Sara Varni: Yeah, that’s a great question. And I think always being eager to learn and being willing to be vulnerable and saying, “Hey, look, I don’t know everything yet,” but I think it’s the way that you phrase your responses and how you approach certain conversations. I think that you have to come at it from a, look, I might not have all the answers here, but I do have a fresh approach to this and this is how I think we should go about achieving it. I think always presenting some level of humility while also being convicted in your belief, I think it’s just an approach that people will be willing to work with and help you along the way. And I think being open to feedback.

Sara Varni: Honestly, the people that I’ve managed over the course of the years, there’s the difference between people who have been able to excel and grow has largely been based on their ability to take feedback and work with it. I think people who can’t take feedback or can not digest it well, you create a feedback loop where your manager might be afraid to give you more feedback. And so, I think to the extent you can be open to it, you will have a better partnership with your manager and they will be more willing to help you grow and continue to take on new skills.

Rachel Jones: All right. That’s what we’re going to wrap up this session. Thanks again, Sara.

Sara Varni: Thank you so much. Have a great rest of your session.

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