I am going to deviate a little bit from my normal career advice here and talk about something a bit more personal for me. I have told this story to colleagues at times over the past several years, and I am always a little surprised that everyone appears to feel the same way. But we never really talk about it.
The most liberating leadership moment in my career came in 2009. We had gone through a couple of re-orgs that left me running product management, product marketing, and operations for a central business unit within Juniper. The entire business unit was close to 450 people at the time, and I was widely seen as being the number 2 guy in the BU. I handled most of the day-to-day decisions at that point, and I had the ear and trust of the BU leader.
Michel Langlois had just joined Juniper from Cisco. He was getting to know his team, and after a few weeks, he called his leadership team together at an offsite meeting. During that meeting, we were supposed to look at succession plans so we could build the organization. I used that particular meeting to say the most cathartic thing I could imagine.
I told a room full of my peers that I was not really a product manager. While I owned product management, I felt like I lacked the deep technical knowledge to set product direction. I told people that I felt perpetually uncomfortable because I was worried that any minute I was going to be exposed as the fraud that I was.
I don’t know what my expectations were in saying this. To be honest, it wasn’t a well-thought-through moment for me. The fear and anxiety of feeling like a fake had been building over the course of a few years where I was rapidly promoted. I felt like the best thing for both the company and for me personally was to just come clean and say out loud what I was certain everyone could see from the outside anyway.
The response I got was actually somewhat unexpected. There was quite a bit of support in the room. People talked about their own feelings of inadequacy. They talked about not knowing the right answers all the time. You see, we were all on the rise, which meant that we were all in positions we had never done before. While it shouldn’t have been surprising, it was shocking to hear that everyone felt just like me – always on the verge of being exposed.
It was a hugely liberating moment for me. To have it out in the open allowed me to be honest with people for the first time in what had felt like ages. I was able to tell my own team, and I told peers in other organizations. I don’t want you to get the wrong impression – this was not like an advertising campaign. But when the moment made itself available, I would confide in people and let them know how I felt. It turns out, the feeling was almost ubiquitous.
What I learned through all of this is that everyone feels the same way. When you talk to people, they feel like they are too in-the-weeds and don’t know the big picture, or they feel like they are too big picture and don’t know the details. They might feel like they are in a role that is bigger than they have done before, or maybe just one that is different. We all feel like frauds. Even the people who seem like they have it all together wonder if they really know what they are doing.
Most of us are just feeling our ways through our careers. There is no master playbook that you can just follow the steps on. If one existed, every company would look the same. There is no perfect plan, no best way of doing things. The best any of us can do is look at the world around us and make the best decision we know how. And no matter how much we might prepare for each decision, we all feel inexperienced or somehow incapable.
Courage is not being unafraid. Courage is doing something even though you are afraid. What separates the high-flyers from the wannabes is courage. The ability to make decisions when everyone else is stuck analyzing the problem. That is courage. And it’s that willingness to move that makes leaders different. They aren’t any more capable or blessed; they just realize that any decision is better than no decision, so they press forward.
I don’t know that a public admission tour like mine is ideal for everyone, but I will say that it was liberating. With my secret out, I was able to spend more time asking questions, delegating real outcomes to people, and otherwise focusing on what I really was good at. So regardless of whether you feel this way publicly or privately, just know that you are not alone. It is likely the people you have come to respect the most feel just as much like a fraud as you.