Some Really Bad Advice
People fake it to attain something for themselves, whether that is for good reasons or bad. In all cases (except for self-help, self-defense, or politeness), whether a short-term tactic or a permanent strategy, it is at someone else’s expense and it is never the “right” thing to do. It is never a recipe for long-term business success. It certainly is not what real leaders practice. It is simply bad advice.
We face challenges every day. Some challenges are temptations to fake it, to shove a problem under the rug, or to minimize what is going on. Most are opportunities to be 100% authentic, while others demand a compromise between the fake and the real.
There is no textbook for how to deal with these situations, and there is no road map for success. It is all about the “getting there,” the journey to making it, which is what matters most in authentic leadership.
So, You Want to Start a Company …
To spare yourself some of those moments of frustration and doubt, I advise you to ask the question Am I ready to be a founder?
While you ponder that, also consider exactly what role you might play within your company. If this sounds obvious, the reality is that this consideration is one most often overlooked. Most entrepreneurs are so thoroughly consumed with their Big Idea that the reality of actually running a company day to day, let alone understanding their own role as a founder, has yet to cross their minds.
For now, do yourself a favor. Inventory yourself and do some introspective thinking. Align different roles and jobs with your own experience and skill set.
- What functions and tasks are you good at? In which are you lacking? Consider your past professional experience and contrast strengths with weaknesses
- What do you love doing, and what tasks are like fingernails on a chalkboard for you?
- Aside from “founder,” which job title do you envision having within your company? Take a few minutes and research that title. Do you meet the criteria for that job description? Where do you fall short? Who would you need to complement you?
Becoming a CEO
The faker CEO completely avoids the relevant issues, denies the problem, and blames others. Get a different guy to sell the product. Or: Fire that guy. Or: Send out more emails slamming the competition. Or: Offer a discount. For such CEOs, the fake it mindset is also short term and tactical. They end up seeing only what is down the hood, whereas reality-based leaders never lose sight of what is down the road.
Give yourself time. Authentic, reality-based, values-based leadership requires building. And knowing is doing. Filling your leadership team with people who have the skills and the stamina to be successful in both good and in not-so-good times is just as important as hiring people who embody your values, are passionate, and so on. As much as possible, you need to hire for where you think your business is headed, not just where you are today. And that takes a keen awareness of your own strengths and weaknesses, and of what is going on in your market and in the rest of the economy.
Becoming and Staying an Authentic Brand
In the end, you as the CEO, and by extension your leadership team, must steward your brand. You can shape it, grow it, modify it, but you must never let go of its function as the messenger of your company’s promise. As the CEO, the top dog, word from you is powerful and packs a lot of juice. When it comes to branding, you are the ultimate keeper of the flame. You cannot delegate that responsibility entirely. If you do, you’ll surrender control of your company’s identity.
This is a major responsibility. You are the head of state of your company, what it stands for and its brand. You will need the help and advice of others. You must listen very carefully to your leadership team and to other stakeholders. You may at times feel lost in a clamoring crowd, but you must know that, despite all the noise around you, you alone are in charge and responsible. Ultimately, it all really does rest with you.
Get Used to Lonely
As Harvard Business Review’s first CEO Snapshot Survey noted, “Often dismissed and rarely discussed, many CEOs are plagued by feelings of isolation once they take on the top job.”
Those feelings come in many forms: anxiety, fear, loneliness, sadness, even depression. They must be anticipated and dealt with. Unattended, CEO loneliness can chip away at your confidence and affect your judgment and performance. If you begin doubting yourself, feeling like maybe you’ve lost your mojo or you’re somehow not worthy of your success, the imposter syndrome can knock on your door.
Some people are more susceptible to this C-level loneliness than others, especially entrepreneurs and, as HBR observed, first-time CEOs. In a job that has no manual, many of the situations and accompanying emotions you face will be new, and you’ll have to face them in real time. You won’t always know how to react, and the newness of everything can be overwhelming. Female executives are also uniquely susceptible. Being a trailblazer and breaking the glass ceiling comes with its own very unique set of challenges and emotions, not least of which is loneliness.
Aiming for a business that’s airtight means maintaining dynamism within discipline. Your leadership team, who they are and how you work with them, is central to your mission and the success of your business.
There are fewer things more poisonous than unresolved issues, resentment, and distrust within a leadership team. Left to fester, these create a culture of politics and divisiveness that ultimately destroys company values and impairs brand integrity. It is critical to take the time and effort to get to the bottom of conflict and resolve it, or failing that, to part ways justly but quickly.
Whatever you do—the tactics you devise, the action you choose in the moment—must flow from your enduring values, vision, and mission. You, your company, your brand, are not what you say they are. They are what you do. That is worth remembering.
Leader and Loser Both Begin with the Letter L
Markets go through cycles. They consolidate, morph into new markets, or make a comeback later. The economy, of course, also has its cycles. During such cycles, fewer leads are coming in, the competition is tougher, and it can be harder to win. Markets notwithstanding, there are times when your sales presentations might just not be as fresh or as impactful as they need to be or you didn’t come across as hungry enough for the business. It was raining, your lead person called in sick, and you just weren’t feeling it. Whatever the reason, the losses become more frequent.
Along your journey as an executive, you may find yourself on a losing streak. When losing a deal that was yours to win falls hot on the heels of two or three other losses, you start to wonder if you’ve lost your mojo. Your people might start to feel like they are working for a loser company. Morale erodes, and the same old pep talk sounds like a broken record.
When things are going well, almost too well, that’s exactly the time you need to start planning for what’s next. Losing can clobber you when you are already losing, but it can really sneak up on you when you are in the lead. This is another reason why achieving and maintaining a market leadership position for your company is so hard. There is no place to go once you get there, except down. Part of being a great leader is never losing sight of the possibility of losing. Such is the very thin line between loser and leader. After all, they both begin with the letter l.
The Founder’s Curse
All business—and all life, for that matter—is about change. Our task as humans is to navigate through that change to a successful outcome. In that sense, then, we are always in the process of “making it.” That is the business of being alive. We are always searching, looking, and dreaming, whether for a better product, a new job, stronger health, deeper love, more money, a loftier title, or whatever. A better life. We identify these different goals in terms of “success.”
To the entrepreneur, founder, and CEO, being able to start, grow, and ultimately sell your business—profitably—is a huge measure of success. But here’s the thing: it’s how you achieve this success, the journey, that is its truest measure. The how is a collection of strategies, tactics, motives, and values that often are so incredibly hard to execute. They are intricately nuanced, and you certainly won’t find them in any textbook. Doing it the right way, with integrity, evokes the pride and self-esteem that makes the success taste and smell so much sweeter.