Fake It Until You Make It? Not for CEOs

Recently I’ve heard a lot of people in the startup community discussing “fake it until 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 until you make it approach the right answer? Unfortunately, I don’t think so.

Why Not Fake It Until 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 my colleague Gordon Daugherty of Shockwave Innovations and Austin’s Capital Factory recently wrote, 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 until 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 learnings and 2) their level of self-awareness. Here’s how to cultivate both.

Learn the Job and the Business

CEOs must put in the work needed to understand their role. It’s 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. Even experienced CEOs need a refresher now and then, especially as fire drills compete for their time.

Chief executives must also understand the business. 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.

However, don’t go into the role 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 van 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.

This is also about applying creative ideas and best practices to your organization. Great businesses owe their competitive advantage to doing a few things uniquely. However, the vast majority of their processes shouldn’t be reinvented. If you are bringing best practices into the organization, even if they are not your original ideas, the team will see you as competent.

Build Self-Awareness

Self-awareness skills are critical for CEOs. It’s valuable to understand how you think and react in different situations. By knowing what your strengths and weaknesses are, you can make the most of your talents and hire people to fill the gaps. You can also seek to improve in certain areas that are the sole domain of the CEO, such as communicating to the board and shareholders.

Analyze Decision-Making

One area where you can gauge your self-awareness and overcome self-doubt is in decision-making. CEOs have to make decisions across a wide range of issues. They often encounter problems where they have little background or expertise. 

As a result, I often see self-doubt show itself in a leader who takes too much time making a decision. He or she studies, ignores, thinks, consults others, and waits for more information – everything possible to avoid making a decision. Research by The CEO Genome® project shows that it’s often the highest IQ CEOs who delay making decisions – they assume they’ll figure it out eventually.

Speed It Up

When probing CEOs on this issue, I often find that their challenge isn’t really in making the decision but acting on it. They’re afraid of what may happen if they pull the trigger. However, bad things are usually inherent in the situation. These don’t get better by delaying decisions. Meanwhile, all the bad things related to NOT making the decision continue to compound, such as lost opportunities, missed deadlines, and staff wasting time waiting.

Decisions fuel an organization and, within reason, the more fuel the faster the organization runs. Very few decisions are permanent and can’t be reversed if new information is uncovered. If you are struggling with making quick decisions, ask yourself what some great leader you admire might do in the situation and then DO IT! That would be a better way to use your acting skills than taking a fake it until you make it approach to the CEO role.

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.


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