The most successful entrepreneurs and business owners I know are humble, and they don’t have an inflated sense of self. When you have some success behind you as a manager, executive, founder, or CEO, it’s easy to become less open to the advice and signals around you, and believe you should just continue doing what you are doing to keep climbing. It’s a recipe for disaster.
The only “sustainable competitive advantage” in business is self-awareness. I was struck by this assertion in a new book, “The Messy Middle,” by Scott Belsky, who has spent more than a decade leading in the worlds of technology, design, and startups. I come from the same world, with an additional decade advising entrepreneurs, and I enthusiastically confirm his view.
We both have found that the “messy middle,” with its ups and downs, is the hardest and most crucial part of any bold venture, and that’s where you need to come to grips with your true self. Here are some key points for benchmarking your own sense of self, and the self-awareness of those around you, with a bit of guidance on how to get to the next level and capitalize on it:
- At a peak or valley, you are not your greatest self. When things are going well, ego can get the best of you. When times are tough, insecurities normally run rampant. Maintaining a realistic perspective is your promise or peril. Effective advisors and boards are most helpful in these times when the tough questions are less apparent but critical.
Most successful business leaders, including Richard Branson and Bill Gates, regularly called on their mentors, Freddie Laker, and Warren Buffett, to test their perception of the right questions to ask, and the right issues to tackle.
- Understand your feelings to recognize what bothers you. Whatever triggers your frustration or irritates you is rooted in the core value you have, something you strongly stand for or against. For example, one of my core values is timeliness for completed work and meetings, so I may judge people and results harshly when they violate my limits.
But now that I have made myself aware of this tendency, I can mitigate my quick judgment to recognize valid delays and look at results for their real value.
- The less defensive you are, the more potential you have. Being open-minded while receiving constructive feedback is challenging. Do you immediately try to explain yourself, go on the offensive, or try to avoid conflict at all costs? Self-awareness helps you achieve a balance between these tendencies, and be open to insights from others.
For example, I once worked for a startup CEO who desperately needed money from a venture capitalist but became totally defensive when the VC suggested that my CEO might be better in the chief marketing role, in favor of a more experienced CEO. The result was a broken deal, and ultimately a failed startup, instead of a win-win business.
- Understand the sources of your own negative tendencies. The leaders I admire most have invested a great deal of time understanding their own psychology and learning from their past patterns and difficulties. They don’t hesitate to get help from executive coaches, Meyers Briggs training, or other peer groups, such as the EO Network.
Understanding the sources of your own negative tendencies also helps you make sense of others’ behavior, and support them to maximize their contribution and loyalty. Discussing your flaws openly invites others to do the same.
- Dispel your sense of superiority and primary contributor. With any success, we are liable to overestimate the role we played in it, and underestimate the role of other, and luck. This can alienate people around you who deserve credit, resulting in you becoming more isolated and paranoid, or starting to believe you are actually superior.
The challenge is to integrate humility into your life. It could be a sense of greater good that keeps you humble, a partner who keeps you grounded, or an insatiable sense of curiosity that keeps you inquisitive. Always give credit for your wins to all those involved around you, and be the first to take responsibility for losses.
Ultimately, self-awareness is about being the best competitor and the best leader that you can be, always making sound judgments, and effectively engaging with your team, partners, and customers. In business, you are usually many decisions away from success, but always one decision away from failure. Make every one count.