Although she was winning awards and the TTC was going from strength to strength, Debbie grappled with imposter syndrome. Like many women in similar positions, she experienced self-doubt. She says she never felt undermined or openly challenged by others around her, but she often faced questions like – “Are you sure you want to…”, “Won’t it be very hard/risky to…” or worse—“You know what you should do instead?” The questions may have been well-meaning, but fed easily into her imposter syndrome. She knows she is not alone in this. In the course of her work, she has realized that many women face the same challenge and realizing this helped her tackle it head-on. It was a break-through. She shares, “to overcome it, I had to first silence the imposter syndrome, sometimes I would check in with people I trusted and valued. Then most importantly, I just had to give myself permission to “fail” or get it wrong. Like so many women, I’d been raised to want to be perfect (whatever that means) and to avoid failure at all costs. Once I can let go of that fear, I can jump. And over time, I’ve come to love that; I’m happiest doing something that faintly terrifies me!”
Debbie followed that with the following example: “Several times now, I’ve reached a high point in a career or organization and then stepped out into a new sector/field/organization. Each time I have a few people who think I’m crazy to leave behind something that is “working”, to try something risky and new. Most recently this was stepping back from leading a successful charity to start portfolio work. Initially, it was terrifying—would I be broke and have no work in sight?! But 3 years in, I’m busy, challenged and loving it.”
Being in start-ups, Debbie has learned that you’ve always got to balance the helicopter-view with dealing with what is on the ground. She notes, “Building in regular, ruthless review and reflection points is crucial and also surrounding yourself with both visionaries and cynics for balance.” According to her, leadership teaches us ‘failure is a waypoint’ and is inevitable if we are breaking new ground. She adds, “Our success comes from how we learn and pivot and change when we “fail”.
Debbie believes successful leaders are those who are people-centered. Therefore when it comes to bringing people into her organization whether partners or employees, she is all about supporting and bringing different people together to generate creative thinking and build a culture that feels safe to put questions and think differently. She asserts, “It’s easy to just let people become driven by the tyranny of the inbox or the to-do list. Rather, I value challenge, energy, and push-back, but in a spirit of ‘give and take’, of dialogue.”
Outside work Debbie loves theatre and wine and loves to travel, read and walk in the Buckinghamshire countryside. As a personal goal, Debbie Forster strives for a better balance in life, both as a person and as a leader. She exclaims, “On the one hand I love living in an information age, but I need to be disciplined, to turn the devices off, to not just consume but also to process and reflect.” Honestly, it’s a bit of advice that everyone in this age should take seriously.
She is currently reading the book ‘Invisible women’ by Caroline Criado-Pérez that reflects on the issues that she is fighting against. She says, “I think the challenge [for next generation]will be to push for real inclusion for all, to move things from the zero-sum game (i.e. man vs woman) and to ensure what is achieved isn’t just for young white middle-class women. Aspiring women can do this by keeping the conversations going, by working to take everyone with them. We need to move the discussion from a focus on diversity to focus on genuine inclusion. We need to take everyone with us on this or there will always be one step forward and two back.”
For the women who are striving to be leaders, she only has one lesson: “Don’t listen to your inner critic, take the risks, don’t fear failure or wait until you don’t feel scared. Do it while you feel scared—be brave, not fearless. And every time you move forward, turn back and bring another woman along with you. Be an ally and supporter and breathe!” cheers Debbie. “You’re doing just fine.”
As for Debbie, “I hope my greatest accomplishment hasn’t happened yet; half the fun of life and work is knowing I’m not done yet.”