Why “Make It, Don’t Fake It” is the Best Advice for Leaders

DFJ Growth
Jul 14 · 5 min read

Faking it is when you see another company out there, and you say, “We just want to be like them. What’s their tagline? Just use the messaging from their website.’” That will never work, because it’s not authentic to you.

The guidance to “fake it until you make it” is “the worst business advice ever,” says Sabrina Horn, founder of Silicon Valley PR firm Horn Group (now part of Finn Partners), C-suite advisor, and author of the new book, Make It, Don’t Fake It: Leading with Authenticity for Real Business Success. The problem with that advice, Horn says, is that it encourages fibbing about one’s skills and sidelining integrity, a value in short supply.

Instead, Horn says, “make it” authentically, instead of faking your way to success. That means finding your way realistically and honestly, learning the hard lessons of leadership she cites in her book.

“The idea of ‘fake it until you make it’ is literally telling you it’s acceptable to lie to get ahead,” Horn says. “I wanted to put a pin in that and try to reverse this trend. My book uses the stories from my career to illustrate the mistakes I both made and witnessed in the tech industry. It also provides the guidance, tools, and mental maps to help entrepreneurs and executives run their businesses with a renewed focus on integrity — and resist that temptation to fake it.”

So, what exactly is making it, as opposed to faking it? “Faking it is when you see another company out there, and you say, ‘We just want to be like them. What’s their tagline? Just use the messaging from their website,’” Horn explains. “And that will never work, because it’s not authentic to you.”

“Making it” is, in fact, the tough part of leadership, Horn adds. “It’s about doing the hard work, and establishing what your core values are, before you even start,” she says. “It’s thinking about how you’re going to build a strong culture and business processes that are infused with those values. They, in turn, will radiate out through your brand and create this wonderful, consistent and authentic customer experience. That is making it.”

Facing the tough times openly and truthfully

To make it as a business leader who’s grounded in integrity and truth, you must face the tough times head-on, Horn says — no faking your way through difficult conversations, or shoving problems under the rug.

“If you’re under pressure or behind your goals, the temptation may be to exaggerate the truth or distort the facts, or pretend that you’re something you’re not,” Horn says. “While you may achieve a little bit of short-term success, the truth will ultimately always come out. When it does, you can ruin your reputation, set yourself back, and sabotage your success. This applies to both our professional and personal lives.”

To begin operating authentically, Horn advises leaders to “inventory” themselves. “It’s basically doing a self-assessment of who you are and your skill set. Write down your core values — what you and your company stand for. Then write down what you’re good at, what you’re not so good at, what you love to do, and what you can tolerate,” she says. “You then take that inventory to see how it might play out within your business, both short-and longer-term. It will help you determine who you need to surround yourself with as you build a proper leadership team — the people who complement your strengths and help balance out your weaknesses.”

Once you have a good handle on your weak spots, you should also build a personal support network of mentors or advisors. “Everybody should have at least one or two mentors that they can talk to — it’s your safety net,” explains Horn. “It can be pretty lonely at the top — by definition, as a CEO, there’s only one of you. You need to have your go-to people, who will tell you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear.”

Bringing brand authenticity to the whole company

Once leaders have defined who they are and how they’ll build a brand around authenticity, they can involve more employees. You have to be “vigilant and relentless about it,” Horn suggests.

“First, you want to codify the processes that embody the behaviors you want your people to demonstrate,” she says. That means formally writing them down and sharing them. If the topic at hand is dealing with customer complaints, the process should include everything from the language and protocol you use to talk with customers, to how the complaints are received, processed, responded to, and resolved.

Sabrina Horn, author of “Make It, Don’t Fake It: Leading with Authenticity for Real Business Success”

“Share plenty of examples through a variety of channels, so people can see how they should work and conduct themselves, based on the values and brand you want to establish for your company,” Horn says. “Next, make sure that those values are visible. Talk about them with everybody. Pick a core value, like creativity or accuracy, and have a half-hour conversation about, ‘How do we demonstrate these attributes and traits in our work?’ How do we protect them?”

This authenticity needs to flow through company culture -down to describing behaviors that shouldn’t be part of the business.

“I hated company politics,” Horn recalls of her days running Horn Group. “We included in our handbook a ‘No Assholes’ policy and a ‘No Company Politics’ policy. I figured that If I stated this at the outset, then we would have a better chance of nurturing and protecting that kind of environment. Remember, it’s a lot easier to create a new culture from scratch than it is to fix a dysfunctional one. Our values held us together, infused the way we worked and served our clients, and helped to create a strong enduring brand.”

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