In the foreword to the reprint of Intel cofounder Andy Grove’s High Output Management, investor Ben Horowitz recalls Grove telling him, “CEOs always act on leading indicators of good news, but only act on lagging indicators of bad news… In order to build anything great, you have to be an optimist.”
I agree that CEOs need to be optimists, but we need to be realists too, especially for the people helping us build that next great thing. When leaders face doubts, they should acknowledge the challenges ahead while still making it clear that they have strategies for overcoming them. That’s real confidence, not fakery.
Learn your way to confidence
Most startup CEOs consider themselves entrepreneurial, and entrepreneurs have to become great salespeople in order to gain the buy-in of investors, employees, and customers. Convincing strangers to spend their hard-earned money on a company they’ve never heard of requires some serious confidence, and it often doesn’t come naturally. Most CEOs have an advanced degree like an MBA, but formal education still can’t equip someone with authentic confidence.
Learning is what I prescribe for any major lack of confidence. Doing broadcast media interviews, for example, had been a source of insecurity for me, but I knew I’d be representing Udemy more and more as we grew. Understanding the secrets of great public speakers has made a tremendous difference in how I come across when communicating. So I took a bunch of public speaking courses and practiced doing mock media interviews with our internal communications director, as well as a few former journalists; eventually my nerves disappeared. If something makes you feel insecure, immerse yourself in it until you gain the upper hand.
Find people to confide in
When you’re a startup CEO, you get used to guiding the company through many firsts. Sometimes you can draw upon past experience, and sometimes you realize just how much you still have to learn. In the latter case, it’s invaluable to have a trusted panel of mentors and advisors. My professional network offers me a safe space for working through questions and testing ideas, so that by the time I’m in front of my direct reports and the rest of the company, I can project confidence and clarity about what we’re going to do next.