It’s the kind of backroom confession that entrepreneurs typically reserve for only members of their family or their closest friends: They voice the fear that really there’s some way in which they are unqualified.
While entrepreneurship is usually associated with a “take no prisoners” kind of confidence, a surprising number of entrepreneurs deal with a very quiet, yet very real, fear that they are actually unqualified, no matter how well their business is doing.
The panic comes in three varieties: Some worry that people will find out about their lack of degrees or industry experience. Others are apprehensive about becoming a recognized authority. And still others are concerned that any current success is a fluke. Here's a guide to understanding these feelings:
1. Fear of a lack of formal credentials.
This fear might be triggered by a person's recognition that his or her qualifications diverge from the conventional or the traditional standards. Yet it's not uncommon for entrepreneurs to start a business without a related degree or proven track record and meet success partly because of their passion and dedication.
These entrepreneurs find themselves doing a curious dance at parties or when meeting potential investors, dodging questions about their background, fearing that if people really knew that the business has survived on a wing and a prayer, the entire enterprise will be taken less seriously.
To counteract this fear, try a mental reframing. It’s time to rethink those old feelings about the lack of formal credentials: Recognize the value of potent mentors or a significant hands-on experience in lieu of an MBA. Plus there are benefits to having a nontraditional background: People who haven't been involved in an industry for a long time are less likely to buy into dogma and more likely to think outside the box to arrive at innovative solutions.
The reframing task is not about trying to convince others that a lack of degrees or industry experience is better. It's a matter of building confidence and knowing that someone with a background that's different from the norm can bring to the table as much as other people.
2. Fear of being a recognized authority.
What might be called “who, me?” fears can surface in anyone who's suddenly assumed leadership and acquired expertise. Some ‘treps hesitate to claim their authority because they don’t want criticism pointed their way. Others experience the assumption of leadership as if they were entering new and uncomfortable territory. They feel unqualified to stand up as a recognized business authority who is relied on by others.
To address this type of fear, an entrepreneur should assess his or her individual strengths and weaknesses. Often, the fear arises out of the belief that authority figures must have all the answers. And that’s simply not the case.
A person clear about his or her strengths can leverage them even while bringing in key players to assist with areas of weaknesses. This will result in a strong, united front of leadership. From there, criticisms leveled at the company’s recognized leader can be dealt with in a spirit of collaboration by the top-level team. Even the leaders of a small startup or micro business can do this by reaching out to colleagues and mentors to create an informal advisory board.
3. Fear of not having what it takes for the long haul.
An entrepreneur who feels unqualified to make a business work over the long term fears that any current success is a fluke. Any day now, the other shoe might drop and the entire business could fold. In this case, the entrepreneur isn’t recognizing himself or herself as capable of handling the bumps along the way that inevitably arise in a business.
Counteracting this fear requires an two-pronged approach: First, address this mind-set by asking, Why do I assume when problems arise, I won’t be able to handle them? Notice whether the reply raises a past experience that didn’t go well. Then turn attention to what can be learned. The lessons gleaned from mishaps or from when things weren't handled well are the currency for dealing with the new challenges that arise.
Second, entrepreneurs should identify issues and take practical action to bolster their business to meet challenges. For instance, if the business took off as a result of its work for a pivotal customer and the entrepreneur fears the client may now go elsewhere, take steps to expand the client network so that the business is better positioned should the worst-case scenario occur. Taking action in advance can alleviate the fear of not being qualified to handle a potential problem.
Fears of being unqualified can undermine the overall business. That's why it's so critical to confront them head-on. Leadership, recognition of the strengths that brought to the table and a willingness to work through problems, no matter how tough, are all part of the challenge and fun of choosing to forge one’s own path, being an entrepreneur. The very willingness to undertake such an unpredictable journey is an entrepreneur’s best qualification.