AN excerpt from MAKE IT, DON’T FAKE IT: Leading with Authenticity for Real Business Success by award-winning CEO, C-suite advisor, communications expert, and author Sabrina Horn.
STEP IT UP, OR STEP OUT
Founding a business calls for one set of leadership skills. Moving from launch to early growth and then expansion requires another. Somewhere around two years into starting my company, we reached an inflection point. Our clients wanted to know if we could scale with them, provide more senior talent on their teams, and offer certain specialized services they would need down the line. They also wanted a firm that was a real industry player, that could bring to the table a broader network of relationships and influence.
The writing was on the wall. If I didn’t grow, I would lose the clients I had, along with my employees and any chance of being something more than a little shop. What’s more, I needed to offer benefits like health insurance and institute proper HR policies for my existing employees. We had outgrown the temporary office facilities and needed our own space. So I signed a five-year, multimillion-dollar lease with my personal guarantee. That was sobering.
Staying the same size, which is a viable strategy for many small businesses, wasn’t an option for me. But stepping up my game meant taking on new levels of responsibility, for which I had even fewer skills than when I first started out. It meant expanding my range from a PR pro to a savvy, strategic businesswoman, and growing into a person of industry repute. Growth also carried with it the potential for a whole new level of mistakes and, yes, opportunities to fake it.
I put “CEO” on my business card when we became an S corporation and changed our name from Sabrina Horn Public Relations to Horn Group. These steps were at once gratifying, motivating, and humbling. Around me, men and (a few) women with the same title—all with a lot more experience than I—were running huge global corporations. They had earned the title and had become CEOs. I felt I had a really long way to go and a lot to live up to.
What I came to learn, though—and it may be of some relief to you—is that a CEO is always becoming a CEO. Even the best, most experienced chief executives know they are perpetually arriving—learning, solving new problems, and earning their title—every day. In fact, I felt that if I actually ever “arrived” or “made it,” I would need to quit my job. Why? Because you’re always making it as a CEO, ready for battle, anticipating your next move, and keeping your edge. And let me tell you, there’s nothing to keep your edge like going to work every day, bobbing and weaving, wondering what you’re going to have to deal with. CEOs have to navigate new unknowns daily while still steering the ship forward.
This was the beginning of real growth—both personally for me and for my company—from founding a business and having the incumbent authority to run it, to growing a business and having the legitimate authority to lead it. Legitimacy must be earned daily from your company’s stakeholders: customers, employees, investors, vendors, partners, advisors, and the media.
And growth is wonderful. It creates opportunity on many levels. It makes the rain go away, the clouds part, and the sun come out. But growth also creates change and, with it, challenges. (They don’t call them “growing pains” for nothing.) CEOs must lead through change and achieve growth while navigating over or around every obstacle along the way and staying true to core values and beliefs.
Make It Don’t Fake It by Sabrina Horn (2021), ISBN 978-1523091492, with permission from Berrett-Koehler Publishers
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