Weekly Thoughts


Fake It ‘Till You Make It

It’s OK to feel nervous and scared

We recently did a Q&A with some talented business school students interested in joining our CEO-in-training program.  One student inquired as to whether or not a person of foreign descent would face challenges being the leader of a small regional business. 

For us, the answer is decidedly “no.”  In our experience, we have found that in order to authentically lead a group of people, a new CEO must do most, if not all, of the following: 

  • Be physically present (leadership is not a remote job)
  • Get out of the office (leadership is not a desk job)
  • Show up early and leave late
  • Be willing to do the most mundane tasks to help the team (take out the trash, sweep the floors, shovel snow, take tickets, work the line, etc.)
  • Actively listen to all team members (a “listening tour” is always a good idea)
  • Make no assumptions (challenge “we’ve always done it this way”)
  • Create space to make decisions (i.e., no major strategy discussions for the first sixty days)
  • Be vulnerable about where you need help (nobody knows everything, don’t pretend you are some sort of special management cyborg)

The effectiveness of this leadership approach transcends age, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, educational pedigree, socioeconomic status, language barriers, and whatever other ‘difference’ one may perceive.  At the end of the day, good people want to work for somebody who walks the walk. 

It occurs to us that unless somebody is a complete American Psycho-style sociopath, they will have some doubts about taking on a CEO position for the first time.  It’s a very normal emotion.  We will readily admit to having doubts about our ability to lead given our age (slightly less of a problem now!), gender, and lack of operational experience.  

As it turns out, almost everybody has some type of internal insecurity.  A recent New Yorker piece dove into the concept of imposter syndrome

“A university administrator said, ‘I grew up on a pig farm in rural Illinois.  Whenever I attend a fancy event, even if it is one I am producing, I feel like people will still see hayseed in my hair.’ An artisanal-cider maker wrote, ‘I’ve made endless ciders, but each and every time that I start fermenting, my mind goes, ‘This is the one when everyone will find out you don’t know what you’re doing.’”

The eminent are not immune.  In fact, Clance and Imes argued forcefully in their original study that success was not a cure.  Maya Angelou once said, ‘I have written eleven books, but each time I think, Uh-oh, they’re going to find out now.  I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’ Neil Gaiman, in a commencement address that went viral, described his fear of being busted by the ‘fraud police,’ whom he imagined showing up at his door with a clipboard to tell him he had no right to live the life he was living.” 

It’s comforting to know that almost everybody, regardless of achievement level, has insecurities.  In the world of small business, there are enough problems to contend with.  We can’t let concerns about our personal deficiencies hold us back.  As we tell our kids, it’s ok to feel nervous or scared.  But then, we do it anyways.  We hope those business school students will have the courage to do the same.

Have a great week,

Your Chenmark Team

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