This is my kingdom and I am king! or it's ok to say I don't know

I was catapulted into my first marketing job with extreme violence.  One day I was an assistant, doing mail, organizing travel or events, managing the calendar and the next I was suddenly a market intelligence “specialist” in speech recognition and telephony.  I had no training, no background and I flew by the seat of my pants for quite some time. My first project was a market penetration study.  My boss blithely gave me those words and a deadline and left it at that.

I certainly never hid the fact that I did not have experience in market intelligence so it should not have come as a surprise to my boss that I hadn’t a clue how to begin.I sent him an email asking for help.  “Just give me some pointers, a few steps to follow” and assured him I was more than willing to jump right in. What I got back was a complete stunner.  I received a long rambling email which made it painfully clear that I was hindering progress and needed to get my act together and JUST DO IT.  The email ended with words I will never be able to forget.  It said “This is my kingdom and I am king.”   I kid you not.

I pondered this email a few times and just felt bewildered.  I printed it out and strolled down the hall to consult with a battle scarred 20 year veteran of business.  After he read the mail he shook his head and laughed. “He has no idea.”  His hunch, which turned out to be accurate, was that my boss was deflecting my question because he did not know the answer.

Ohhhhhhhhhhhh….I was so completely on my own in a new job I had no inkling how to do with a boss who didn’t know either.  Fabulous.I ended up finding an experienced market intelligence professional willing to show me the basics of the discipline.  I muddled my way through with this guidance and my best friend, common sense.  I still don’t know how it was enough and I did not fall on my face.

One of my biggest lessons in compassionate management came from this experience.  Know your people.  Anticipate skills gaps. Give new employees resources to quickly get up to speed.  It doesn’t have to be you teaching them (especially if you aren’t an expert in the role!) it can be anyone, but help them to find the expertise they will need to do a good job.  Over the years I have hired many people with core skills required to do a job but no experience in that particular role – for example I hired a campaign manager who had project management skills but no campaign experience.  I was always sensitive to providing a clear education path, an experienced “buddy” and time and patience to answer many questions.  Not everyone fell in love with their new career, but many did and I believe they all appreciated the helping hand to get them started on the right foot.

A couple months later at a team meeting, I was asked a question and I said “I don’t know, but I’ll find out”.  A colleague pulled me aside when the meeting was over and said “NEVER say you don’t know! It really makes you look bad.”  Oh.

Fast forward another couple months and I am sitting in a meeting next to my battle scarred veteran.  We’re whispering and not paying much attention when someone asked him a question which I didn’t hear.  Ten minutes later I still had no clue.  Later when I asked him about it he told me “oh, I didn’t hear the question either” – but he talked with the total assurance of someone who is sure of themselves, and no one in the room seemed to notice.  Oh again.

Amazing negative lessons all.  I learned despite these wonderful examples from my colleagues to never be afraid to say “I don’t know.”  What I think really matters is not to leave it there.  Despite the assurance to the contrary, I have never felt stupid and never been treated as if I were stupid.  I have rather found respect for honesty and for the willingness not to let it end there.  That is the key – provide a next step, go the extra mile.  Don’t just say “I don’t know”, say “let’s find out”.  Even when you are the boss it goes a long way towards earning respect and trust.  That’s the golden rule in MY kingdom anyhow.