56Look at everyone around you.
They’re confident, solid secure. They’re comfortable in their own skins. During meetings, they have it together. They always know what they’re talking about. They have no problems going on in their lives. They’re probably able to save tons of money. Their kids are in great schools. They go home to happy spouses. They go to Hawaii every year in January. They’re healthy and have zero cholesterol problems. When they smile they have a sparkle in their grin. Feel like a fraud? When does that ever happen?
Everyone’s got their own battles. Everyone’s got their own cross to bear. Sometimes they don’t know what comes out of their mouths at meetings. Pop the hood and you might discover that, everyone actually has the same challenges: mortgage payments, struggling to save for retirement, spouses that argue, kids who refuse to listen. The list goes on. My point is that nobody’s life is perfect. Ever.
There are points in your life where you will feel like a fraud in your work. Everyone does. The problem is that we often are quick to against our shortcomings against other people’s strengths. We compare our failures to other successes. That is a game you’ll always lose.
Having been a consultant for almost 20 years, I know that we are engaged for our expertise. There is constant pressure to being parachuted into the chaos of a company. You get a crash course on what the problem is. In very little time, you are expected to know how the client’s business works and provide a solution to fix it. After all, you’re there to fix their problems.
Have you ever seen that hit Netflix Original “House of Lies” with Don Cheadle? It was one of the top dramedies on Netflix a few years back. It followed Marty Kaan (Don Cheadle,) a high-priced management consultant and his cohort of less senior consultants through their adventures in BS’ing America’s finest and highest profile businesses.
A significant portion of the time they had absolutely no clue what the problem was, or how to solve it… or if there was even a problem in the organization that they could solve. Their one motivation was to go into a client and identify a big bleeding problem in the organization. The would spend all night proving how their solution would save them millions of dollars in revenue. They would look like the heroes. Their obscene consulting fee justified. Now, I have no idea if that is truly how management consulting in the US works. I’ve never been a management consultant. I’m sure that for drama purposes, much of this was fabricated for emotional effect.
Whenever Don didn’t know the answer to a problem, or when he was trying to BS the client, he would pepper his presentation with acronyms. While it might have proved successful in the fictional world of House of Lies, I wouldn’t recommend it in real life. In fact, I’m pretty sure Don wouldn’t either. Dude, the show is called House of Lies for a reason.
Here’s the rub. If you’re trying to cover up your shortcomings in knowledge and expertise by confusing the client, I’m afraid to say that you’re not fooling anyone. As I discussed in my post “The Douchey-est Buzz Words in Business Today,” the over-use of these and might get you punched in the face one day coming out of a meeting. Honestly, that really causes the fraud factor to set in. Very few of us need this additional method in which to feel like a fool.
Everyone Feels Like a Fraud Sometimes, even CEO’s
There are many articles on how even the seemingly indestructible leaders of the world sometimes have no f*cking clue what they’re doing. Mike McDerment, CEO, and co-founder of Freshbooks recently wrote this article, candidly admitting to his entire employee base that sometimes he felt like a fraud. He spoke about three particular causes as to why even the most powerful people on the planet feel have ‘imposter syndrome:’
- You don’t have all the answers and you feel you ought to have.
- You begin to doubt your own ability
- You’re afraid that people will discover that you don’t actually know what you’re talking about.
He illustrates some clever ways to get around each barrier. He ends his article with this very poignant takeaway: In order to grow, you need to be comfortable being uncomfortable. In stretching beyond your comfort zone, self-doubt is part of the journey. If you learn to read this as a sign that you’re on the learning curve, you’ll see the payoff soon enough. I paraphrased, but I love what he said there. He very much reinforces my next point:
Second Guessing Yourself a Little is Healthy
Every good idea goes through countless debates, tests, reverse engineering, multiple iterations before the final shippable prototype is good enough to meet the market. This concept applies as much to products for external customers, as it does for ideas and processes implemented internally. It applies as much to choices made in your own life, as it does to those made within your team, and especially in an organization. Never is the first iteration ever the best, the cleanest, and free of error.
If you don’t have that sounding board, be it internally in your head, or externally in a mastermind group, or think-tank, your ideas don’t stand a chance. In other words, McDerment is absolutely correct. Covering new ground is like going into unchartered territory. Feeling like a fraud is merely a side effect. Second guessing and thinking that there could be better ways, better versions and possibly better alternatives are necessary for progress.
I remember this from Steve Jobs’ biography. Getting fired from Apple allowed him to shed the heavy weight of previous success. Instead, he put on the lightness of being a beginner again. He embraced being unsure of himself, as he tried and proved out new theories and concepts. This was refreshing. Sometimes it takes innocent questioning of something with self-doubt or second-guessing that creates the break-through.
I’ll Get Back to You
When I first started in the consulting industry, one of the first phrases I was taught when asked about something I didn’t know was “I’ll get back to you on it.” This is a good phrase on which to fall back in times of “I-have-no-clue-what-the-eff-is-going-on” However, it’s a phrase that ought to be used sparingly. Saying “I’ll get back to you” too often shows that we actually don’t know. After all, we’re hired for this particular position because we know. Quite frankly, if you find yourself using this phrase a bit too often, it might indicate that you’re out of your depth. This is thin ice for you because unless you do something to close up the gap, you’re going to be replaced by someone who does know, without having to get back to anyone.
That said, if you want to thrive in this ballgame, you’re going to need to master this one thing: One of the key skills to being a consultant, is the slight ability to BS. Just a teensy bit. Emphasis on slight. Too much BS and no one’s going to take you seriously. Too little BS and you’ve not gained the level of credibility and respect that you need to succeed in the corporate world, regardless the client. I’ve met so many folks, especially in IT, who feel the need to be completely sure… to know without a shadow of doubt about a certain topic before they’ll put their money on it. Even if they are 90% familiar with the topic, they will defer and say they don’t know. It could stem from the fact that if a program code isn’t 100%, it won’t compile. It’s all or nothing. Now that I think about it, this might be why I failed Computer Science in university. It turns out that BS’ing your way through computer code doesn’t actually get it to compile, no matter how hard you try. So then I switched into Commerce… but I digress.
To me, this raises a different issue. It’s not only a question of having the right information. It’s a situation where you’re afraid to take accountability for the answer. So it’s far easier to cop out and say you don’t know. This, my friends, is what separates the diamonds from the cubic zirconia. You need to create comfort for the client and show them that they hired the right guy. The client needs to have confidence in you that they hired the right person for the job. They want to know that they can rely on you to get the job done. To do this, you need to be brave enough to venture out on a limb and take accountability for something on which you can (and probably ought to) follow up and confirm later.
Ultimately the most effective way to build trust and respect with your client is to be real. Being authentic is the easiest way for your client to believe who you are, and what you have to offer them. The more your client knows that you’re real, and professional, the more they are willing to trust you.
My podcasting partner, Andy, and I just recorded an episode about this. At the time of this writing, we are very close to launching our podcast. Once published, I’ll update this post with a link to the episode. Anyways, in this episode, Andy goes into four key attributes that he identifies in superstar consultants. If you have mastered these four to build trust, you’re likely well on your way to being a master in consulting. In addition, here are some other gems that you might want to consider:
Part of being authentic and being real is to have introspection. Everyone’s got limits. He who thinks he knows everything is a fool. I’m pretty sure that’s a Chinese proverb. If it isn’t, it really ought to be. This is further supported by what the great Albert Einstein once said “The more I know, the more I realize how much I don’t’ know.”
Professionals confidently know the limits of their area of expertise. It’s ok to be authentic with your subject matter area. Defer to another expert in what you don’t. People respect that you don’t know everything. They find it authentic because they know it’s impossible to be knowledgeable at everything. Hence, they trust your opinion more because they know you’re not going to BS them. People who claim to know everything about everything is more the fraud than you are. What they don’t realize is that people see right through it.
2. Own up to Not Knowing
It takes a big man (or woman) to admit that they’re not following. It honestly takes a certain level of confidence to admit that you mentally tuned out. When you open up and say that you’re not following, sure, you might get a look of disgust, but you can’t act on what you don’t know. Often it’s far easier to nip it while it’s small than to let the enigma snowball. Ultimately, nothing substitutes for the homework. If you’re not familiar with a subject that you need to be knowledgeable about, invest the time to look into it. People appreciate authenticity more than knowledge. But still, you’re engaged for both.
3. Give Credit where Credit is Due
The best work has always been accomplished in a team environment. Once you’ve realized your own limitations, it’s equally as important to give people credit where credit is due. Raise the entire team. Oddly enough the balance of the equation in reinforcing your own expertise is to recognize the superior ability of someone else. It’s almost counter-intuitive. In the process of genuinely praising someone else’s skill set perhaps that compliments yours, it actually makes you look stronger. It’s almost like you are seen as the dream team, or a strong partnership. Together you can accomplish way more than you could have by yourself.
4. The Danger of the Hero Complex
There was a guy at one of my previous client who never admitted to knowing nothing about a subject. He would pull the old ‘Let me think about it.” Then magically, the next day, he would appear as the expert. He would never defer to anyone. It always had to be him who solved the problem. It turns out, he would pressure Oracle Support to give him the answer behind the scenes. Then he would turn around and present it to the client, claiming the ideas and solution were his own. What’s worse is that whenever anyone else on his team solved a problem, he would belittle the efforts and offer nothing but critique.
Regardless of Oracle support, I’m not sure if anyone ever caught on that he spent his evenings googling the crap out of the subject. If there is one thing he had down, it was that he was thorough in his homework. But by alienating everyone else around him, he built zero allies. He wanted to look like the one sole hero. Consultants often have this Hero complex… they want to be indispensable. No one else can have the answers but them.
Then at the very end, when everything just about runs off the cliff, they swoop in and save the day. I can see identify with how good it feels to be the one to save the day. But it is only effective up to a certain point. First, you can’t take vacation. They won’t ever let you go, which is the worst thing if you truly want to be a contractor. It hinders your career. Second, they get tired of always being fed fish. They want to learn to fish themselves. It’s way too risky for any organization, or team to rely on one person for all the intel, and especially one external to the organization. Third, there will be a day when you need the people around you. If you piss enough of them off, no one will have your back in times of need.
Being the hero in an organization doesn’t mean that you’re the best, and indispensable. If you’re always the one with answers, and you make others feel like idiots, they’re still going to take the first opportunity to dump your ass. On the other hand, the more people you develop with you, the more well-liked you are, and with that comes respect. Hence your area for forgiveness becomes much larger when you do misspeak. Trust me. At some point, you will.
The truth is you can’t be a fraud. The truth is that the only thing you can be is you. But in the consulting game, often you are expected to bring a certain level of knowledge to the table. If you’re not able to answer the question or contribute to the level that is expected, the imposter syndrome sets in. Rather than measuring yourself solely according to the yardstick of knowledge, you’ll go much further when you couple that with the openness of authenticity and building real and trustworthy relationships around you.
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