Recently I’ve heard a lot of people in the startup community discussing “fake it till you make it” for CEOs. I certainly understand how the concept started. Anyone with a lick of self-awareness recognizes that he or she is not fully qualified to be CEO on day one. There are so many things you can’t possibly know. So is the “fake it till you make it” approach the right answer? Unfortunately, I don’t think so.
Why Not Fake It Til You Make it?
There are two words I most want my team members to use to describe me as CEO: authentic and transparent. If I am running around faking it, my team will see this. I will never establish the trust and credibility necessary for true leadership. This is also true with investors. As Gordon Daugherty writes in his article “Optimizing Investor Relations,” to earn respect and credibility, you must understand the differences between “aspirations, exaggerations, and outright lies.” The truth is that almost no one is really qualified the day they take over as CEO of a company—even experienced chief executives. Yet if you can’t “fake it till you make it,” you also can’t run around saying, “I am clueless and shouldn’t be in this job.” So what is the right approach? It’s dealing effectively with the normal level of self-doubt that any self-aware person has. I think the two most important traits to predict the success of new CEOs are: (1) how fast they can implement new learning and (2) their level of self-awareness. Here’s how to cultivate both.
Learn the Job and the Business
There are a couple of types of learning the CEO can prioritize. The first is a clear understanding of their role as CEO. This is the ultimate learn-on-the-job position. Few first-timers understand exactly what the CEO’s responsibilities are and how to spend their time. Start there: Talk to seasoned CEOs. Read what veterans of the role have to say about it. Even experienced CEOs need a refresher now and then, especially as fire drills compete for their time.
Chief executives must also be continually learning about the business they lead. Being effective requires a deep understanding of the employees, customers, and shareholders as well as the product, market, and sales channels. This takes time. Build learning into your daily routine. In its simplest form, this can come from talking to your department heads, to customers, to the board, and to other stakeholders.
“Any fool can learn from his mistakes. The wise man learns from the mistakes of others.”Otto von Bismarck
However, don’t go into these discussions assuming you have to be the smartest person in every room. Being a constant learner requires commitment and humility. This is especially true in this era of fast-moving technology innovation, evolving business models, and specialization. CEOs must absorb all they can to set the strategy and make good decisions, and let their experts do the jobs they were hired for in the first place.
I have found, though, that most CEOs spend too much time studying the details of their own businesses and not others. Otto von Bismarck famously said, “Any fool can learn from his mistakes. The wise man learns from the mistakes of others.” Good pilots review the accident reports of other pilots. Similarly, CEOs should spend significant time examining other businesses—even other industries—and integrate those learnings into their organizations.
Self-awareness skills are critical for CEOs. Self-awareness gives you the ability to observe the secondary effects of your actions, to understand and mitigate your areas of weakness, and to leverage your strengths appropriately. As CEOs, we have the only job in a company without a direct feedback mechanism, without someone assigned to provide guidance on how well we are doing the job. And we cannot expect that kind of feedback to come from other leaders or employees in the organization. But if we do not learn to see the truth about how we are doing as CEO, we suffer from isolation and a distorted sense of reality
that some have called “CEO disease.”
I will leave you with this one little secret: I have been doing this job for over 25 years, and most days I don’t feel like I have made it yet. It’s natural to feel that way. But don’t try to solve the problem by “faking it.”