Here’s the scene…
I have just taken on the largest team I’ve ever managed. I have prepared for this challenge diligently. I know where I want to take the team and how we’re going to get there. Because I believe in transparency I have started weekly “ask me anything” sessions to create a two-way dialog. I hope this will build trust. We buy donuts and nice coffee. The room is full. Everyone is looking at me.
I give a quick update on some recent wins for the team and then ask for questions. The first couple of questions are easy, I take them in my stride. Then it happens:
“What are the sales numbers for (product built by another team) this quarter?”
My stomach gets tight. My mind starts racing. I HAVE NO IDEA. What do I say? My predecessor always seemed to know this stuff. I decide I should know this stuff to be successful in this role. A good leader knows the answer to this sort of question.
I flub out something about it being privileged information for quarterly results, but the fact I didn’t know eats at me and I resolve to be better prepared next time.
Then the next week rolls around. “Ask me anything” time again. I have prepared better this time. I know sales figures for most of the companies products. The first few questions come. Easy stuff. I’ve prepared well. I’m on a roll. Then:
“How long until the CEO decides our team is too expensive and cans us?”
I obviously don’t know the answer to that question. Our CEO doesn’t know the answer to that question. I waffle something about making sure we keep delivering a quality product that generates customer value and we’ll be fine.
This went on for weeks. Most questions answered honestly and with confidence. And one that I floundered with. Eventually I discovered the three most important words in management.
I don’t know…
I’d fallen into the trap of equating knowledge with competence and value. I’ve met superstar leaders who seem to know everything that was going on in their business. I applaud that. But that wasn’t my role. My role was to create the vision for OUR team and drive us to keep innovating within our product lines.
What gets you promoted to be a manager is often your deep knowledge of a particular aspect of the business. In my case, my first promotion at this company came from knowing what was going on in every project in our group. The manager liked being able to go to one place for answers. The problem is that as I moved up, this became an ever more intractable problem and encyclopedic knowledge became less important. I just hadn’t realized the nature of my job had changed.
As it turned out, my team didn’t care. They didn’t want to work for a politician who gave half answers, non-answers or obviously misleading answers. They were adults. They wanted to work for someone who they could trust. Someone who had the courage and respected them enough to say
“I don’t know”