Resisting the Temptation to ‘Fake It’ in Your Business

Sabrina Horn, Communications Expert
Aug 4, 2021

“Fake it ‘til you make it” is a phrase you probably heard—and used—at work. But it’s actually bad advice according to Sabrina Horn, award-winning CEO, communications expert, and author. On this episode of PIVOT, hear why. Sabrina shares extreme examples from her new book of what can go wrong when “faking it,” and how to […]

“Fake it ‘til you make it” is a phrase you probably heard—and used—at work. But it’s actually bad advice according to Sabrina Horn, award-winning CEO, communications expert, and author.

On this episode of PIVOT, hear why. Sabrina shares extreme examples from her new book of what can go wrong when “faking it,” and how to “make it” in business with integrity and authenticity.

On this episode, you’ll hear:

  • [00:47-02:57] Why “fake it ‘til you make it” is bad advice
  • [03:38-05:15] How pushing a bomb off a roof during WWII applies to small businesses today
  • [05:41-07:10] The origins of “fake it til you make it” 
  • [07:10-08:26] Why integrity matters in business
  • [08:26-09:23] Extreme examples of what can go wrong when “faking it”
  • [09:24-11:36] The “Fake-ometer”
  • [11:36-14:36] Four things business leaders should do to “make it” post-pandemic
  • [14:37-17:05] How Sabrina made it through The Great Recession without faking it
  • [17:05-18:36] Why business leaders should consider integrity as a core value

After you listen: 

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POPS Star Bio

Sabrina Horn is the CEO of Horn Strategy, where she leverages 30+ years of extensive business and communications experience to help entrepreneurs navigate the startup experience. Sabrina believes small businesses are the “heartbeat of America,” as every small business today could be a Fortune 1000 company tomorrow. She is the author of “Make It, Don’t Fake It: Leading with Authenticity for Real Business Success,” available everywhere books are sold.


Sabrina: Everything emanates from your values, the culture that you want to build, how you want your people to communicate with each other, the traditions you celebrate, how you support diversity, equity, and inclusion. And then from there, what your business processes are and how they embody those values, like how do you service your customers with what quality do you manufacture your product?

Your HR policy is how you report financials. All of that then creates this sort of halo effect that is called your brain.

Didi: POPS. It’s the People Ops Podcast from Zenefits, the only show dedicated to small businesses, sharing stories, pivotal moments. I’m your host, Didi D’Errico, and probably even used the phrase, fake it till you make it. For Sabrina Horn, this isn’t as lighthearted as we might often intend. It’s actually a serious red flag, especially for small businesses.

Resisting. The temptation is also the inspiration behind her new book, make it don’t fake it in her current role. As CEO of horns strategy, Sabrina leverages her extensive business and communications expertise in the technology industry to help leaders navigate the startup experience. For Sabrina, the key to success is integrity and authenticity in leadership.

Sabrina: I definitely had a front row seat to so many. Incredible companies that were wildly successful and their executive leadership teams that, that were behind them, like incredible leaders. But I also saw just as many or frankly, probably even more companies that failed that never really got off the ground.

And sometimes that was because it was good leadership. Honest leadership, but they didn’t execute where there were other market forces at play, or they were just bad leaders. They were fakers. So through my two lenses, one lens is that of a PR counselor, helping them solve their problems from behind the curtain usually.

And the other lens of being a CEO of my own company at the age of 29 and having to figure that all out on the fly, I always believe that it all comes down to. Integrity honesty and authenticity and leadership. I saw so many instances of fakery where we had to say, you can’t do that. That’s lying right where we turn business away.

But I also made many mistakes myself as a leader of my own company. So I wanted to write a book. To help entrepreneurs mostly, really small, medium sized businesses to help them run their businesses with a renewed focus on integrity and avoid the temptation to fake it. 

Didi: After 30 years as a PR and communications expert, what is it about small business that excites Sabrina?

Sabrina: I love small businesses there. It’s the heartbeat of America. Every small business could be fortune 1000 company of tomorrow. And the notion that you can create something out of nothing and the passion and the commitment and the resilience that takes is just all inspiring. It’s awesome. And that is. What I love about working with startups and helping these entrepreneurs navigate the early stages of their companies, which is the most critical stage.

It’s so hard.


Didi: let’s kick it off. Open the book with this personal scenario, your mother, a teenager, I think with two sisters during world war II, who climbed to the top of the childhood home to roll a bomb off the roof, into the ground. So that stops you in your tracks right there. Let’s talk a little bit about how this might be an apt analogy for small business in 2021 and the premise 

Sabrina: of your book.

I included that story for the obvious reason to show that as a small business, as any business, really, there are going to be things that fall from the sky, like a crisis, like a pandemic or a key employee who is leading you or customer that has found a flaw with your product, right? At any given moment, you’re dealing with these problems and these challenges some greater than others.

And. You have to face reality, you have to deal with these problems and these challenges, you cannot pretend they don’t exist. You can’t look the other way and shove them under the rug. You can’t minimize like the gravity of a situation because it will only set you back. It’ll make your problem worse. As hard as reality is right.

You have to face it. And this book. Is all about helping entrepreneurs find the different ways to resist the temptation, to fake it, to find the ways to deal with reality and operate with integrity and find a path forward through these crises. I love 

Didi: that. And it’s the kind of story that, that stays with you.

You did a lot of research in this book talking about the origin of the catchphrase that came more from psychology than from Silicon valley. Why do you think it’s important? Maybe even more today as we sit here working our way out of hopefully out of the pandemic in 2021 for business leaders to really lead by true and transparent example.

Sabrina: Just a quick sort of background on how this meme came into being, it became popular about 10 years ago, maybe 10 or 12 years ago. And back then it was a spinoff of cognitive behavioral therapy, right? Where you’re acting as if, to be more confident and you want to emulate certain behaviors that you want to possess.

And there was a court case. That was actually called fake it till you make it because of some pyramid scheme that was recorded in legal documents. But what happened was it went from this innocent Quip, like tongue in cheek sort of comment. Like for example, I would say to one of my employees like, Hey, are you ready for this pitch to a new client?

And the person would say fake it till you make it. And that was just ha whatever, but it turned a corner. When it started to mutate on social media and it became more popular. And with its popularity, it became business advice. Like literally listen to the words, fake it till you make it. And now it’s air everybody that I talked to many people, especially gen zeros, and even some millennials, they think that if they don’t fail.

But there are losers. That’s the only way to get ahead and okay. Everything is wrong with that. Everything is wrong with that. And we have to get back to this notion that integrity matters. And that integrity really is the only way to build a longterm business like the long game. And if you fake it, you might pull a fast one or you get, take a shortcut or a short hack and you might pull it off.

And then you do it again and again and again, and then ultimately it’s like a worm and it starts to eat away at you. It undermines you if you’re a leader. You have to lead by example. Otherwise you’re going to create a company of fakers. So it’s sort of like parenting. Actually, if I leave my cup in the dishwasher, my kids are going to put their cups in the dishwasher too.

If I leave my cup in the center. They’re just going to leave everything in the sink and then I’m going to have to put it all in the dishwasher. So you have to lead with integrity and lead by example, if you don’t want your employees to be doing something a certain way, then you can’t do it yourself.

That is so important today, particularly in the wake of the last 12 months, where we have a chance to push the reset button on all of this and to lead with greater authenticity and do things the right way. One of the 

Didi: examples you talk about in the book that we all certainly paying attention to with a huge gasp wasn’t there, enough story and Elizabeth Holmes and the deeper she got into her own faking it, the more she brought down her team.

And yet there were still these pockets of very interested, intrigued young people who wanted to be part of this vision. That wasn’t has turned into a shell game in the process. And what does that do to, to them in their career trajectory and their feeling about what business can or should be and what it certainly is.

Sabrina: Yeah, the thoroughness story is an extreme example. So as Bernie Madoff, we work as another extreme example. Most examples of fake it till you make it is more in the middle and you’re exaggerating the truth or you’re minimizing things. You’re leaving out certain details, but in some cases that can be quite serious and could actually put you in prison.

So that’s why you have to really be watchful. So before 

Didi: we dig a little bit deeper, can you maybe give us a little bit of a grounding on how you see those levels and something to pay attention to? As we talk a little bit further about it. 

Sabrina: I call it the fake commoner or the phaco meter. And like, when I was writing the book, I was thinking about all these like examples right.

Of where executives fake it, where they’re attempted to maybe take that shortcut. And I tried to put them in buckets and that’s how the fake amateur came into being on one under the extreme are just really the very innocent, not faking it at all kind of instances of acting as if, as I said before, like, To make yourself feel more confident or wearing a certain color to feel powerful, or what have you, you crossed the line when you start to say things or do things that are at someone else’s expense.

And that could simply be, for example, like exaggerating the truth. You’re an entrepreneur. You’re talking to a venture capitalist, and maybe you’re stretching the truth a little bit about what your product can do today versus next year. Maybe, maybe you haven’t even really thought about what you’re doing next year.

Maybe you haven’t even had the conversation, but yeah, you’re exaggerating the truth or you can minimize the truth. Like you’re downplaying the seriousness of a crisis. Or you’re omitting the truth. Lying by omission is actually a very common because you’re actually telling the truth. You’re just leaving out certain facts.

So it feels more comfortable for people to lie that way, because they’re not actually lying. They’re just leaving out certain things. And then there is what I call ostrich lies. And this is like the ostrich who sticks his head in the sand. You’re in a crisis you’re overwhelmed. You don’t know what to do.

And you’re not lying, but you just are pretending and wishing the whole thing would go away and you’re procrastinating and delaying things. And that by definition means you’re you just can’t deal with reality. And so you’re faking it. And then from there we go off to the other end of the extreme with like gaslighting and total fraud and outright.

You talked 

Didi: about an analogy in your book that I thought was really powerful and a good reminder of Andy Grove, founder of Intel, and how he talked about how leadership needs to really match the environment that you’re in. And he talks about first you determine, are you leading during kind of the business equivalent of.

From wartime, I’d say the last 12 to 15 months, we would probably all agree, feels like war time from a business perspective. And so he knows we’re all starting a cautiously optimistic about kind of that metaphorical bunker of 20, 20, a few ideas for small business leaders to consider, to make sure they’re setting themselves up for making it.

So you’re really thinking about how can you preempt it? Protect yourself from crossing over that line to really be thoughtful for the long-term impact. It will have not only on your reputation, but on your business reputation and on your people. 

Sabrina: I would say categorize it into maybe four or five things that entrepreneurs can be.

Mindful of, as we unravel from this period, the first I would say is we’re still in more time. We’re not completely out of the woods yet in terms of what our businesses are going to actually look like in six months, we haven’t reached that kind of status. So I would start by first looking at your customers.

Do they still want. What you have to offer today? Do they still want the same products that you offer at a year ago or have their desires change? Do they want something that has modifications to it? Do they not want it at all? And how do they want it? Be marketed to customers, people you and I everyone’s lives have been completely disrupted and disintermediated in the last year.

And the messages that we use to market to customers a year ago. Are not the same messages we should be using perhaps now. And so you have to look at your customers. The second thing is what I call the three V’s. You have to look at your core values, your value proposition and your long-term vision. You have to make sure those are in alignment.

The third thing is you got to flex your planning muscles. Again, you either did no plan. Or he did a lot of little planning, but now it’s time to start doing like mid to long-term planning. And what does that look like? The fourth thing, which I love in Jay’s book people operations is this concept of the employee experience, right?

People after what they’ve been through, they want to work for a company that they can relate to where they feel like they belong, the employee experience and the culture matters now more than ever. And then the last thing I would say, and this simply is just self care for those entrepreneurs. If you’re a leader of a business and you still have a business today, you need to also take care of yourself.

And so I offer some thoughts on that in the book. Let’s 

Didi: switch gears now into a relatable example that you could share of a pivotal people moment and where keeping that clear eye on the transparency and the honesty and the integrity really paid off. Maybe made a difference. 

Sabrina: I would share the example of 2008 and 2009 when we were in the recession.

And having been through the internet bubble and burst of 2000 and 2001, where we had to do a layoff, I thought, God, this is the last thing I want to do again. I want to try and avoid doing a layoff and I listened to and watched for like these signs. Okay. The recession is coming. If you see the train coming, get out of the way.

Do some planning. So instead of doing a layoff, we asked everyone to take a salary cut and the executive team took up to 30% pay cuts. So we were all miserable together in a way, but at least we all kept our jobs and we were all in it together. I did other things that I would say I changed my leadership style.

I practice being more open minded and humble and asking for how I could do things better for my employees and for our clients. I became more empathetic to everyone’s situation. And that came through in my communication style. And every week we would have an all hands meeting used to be once a month.

And. I, I felt like over-communicating was just so vitally important. And I reminded our employees of our values. This is what we stand for. This is what we’re made of, and this is how we’re going to get through this. And it might be messy, but we are going to come through this. And I share another example during that period, revenue really mattered and we had a client.

A new CEO and this individual was really abusive to our staff, to the team. And it was just a really toxic relationship. So I fired that client. I fired her on the way to the airport, and I said, you don’t get to treat my people that way. And it was a hard decision to make, but when the morale of your people is at stake and they’re already stressed out because of the recession, you’ve got to do the right thing.

So. When things finally eased up and we came out of the recession. I feel like we were stronger as a company and as a culture coming out of it than we were actually going into. Before we leave 

Didi: here. If there are new companies that are just starting right now, or really starting to try to get a grip on how to set the tone for building their own culture and their own making it platform right now, what would you counsel them to 

Sabrina: start?

I would counsel them to start off by identifying their core values. And honesty and integrity as your number one choice there and everything emanates from your values, the culture that you want to build, how you want your people to communicate with each other, the traditions you celebrate, how you support diversity, equity, and inclusion.

And then from there, what your business processes are and how they embody those values, like how do you service your customer? With what quality do you manufacture your products? Your HR policy, how you report financials, all of that then creates this sort of halo effect that is called your brand and how the outside world relates to you and trusts you.

So start with your core values. It’s not something you can do, like in a couple years when you know you’re thinking about it, you got do. From the outset and it should be in your business plan and everything I just talked about should be feathered throughout the whole core. You 

Didi: talked about the fact that we still are in ostensively still in war times when it comes to running our businesses and keeping our businesses afloat.

As we speak here in may of 2021, with that in mind, what are you most optimistic about for small business? 

Sabrina: I’m optimistic about revenue and progress and commerce, but I think I’m even more optimistic or happy to see a new level of gratitude perhaps, and appreciation that companies have for their customers and their employees after everyone has been through what they’ve been through, it really is an opportunity to push the reset button.

And try and do things differently than we were doing them before. And even though you may be weary and tired from the last year, it really is a chance to, to do things differently and move forward and be successful. 

Didi: I’m Didi and this was PIVOT. If you want to learn more about inspiring people, operations stories like Sabrina checkout, where you’ll find bonus resources, profiles, a link to Sabrina’s new book, and even one to order our new book titled, you guessed it, People Operations. Also, if you have questions you want us to answer on our show, check out the link in the show notes below and we’ll get it covered.


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