It’s often said that the best place to make powerful contacts and to learn valuable things is in the first class cabin of a long-haul flight – ideally across at least one or two oceans. But I’m here to tell you that ground transportation can be even better. The ride may be shorter, but it’s certainly cheaper.
I was in India traveling from the airport to the hotel with one of my senior leaders when, as luck would have it, we sat next to a guy who was a supply chain expert. Not only that, but he was in the mood to talk. A lot. And, again, as luck would have it, we needed the latest thinking in this area. Thousands of dollars of free consulting, right there.
All we had to do was keep our mouths shut. Which isn’t easy. There’s a ridiculous part inside all of us that is driven to clue the world in on how much we know. When we override that drive to hear ourselves talk, we give ourselves the chance to hear other people talk. And then we stand to learn something.
You’ll see at the bottom of my emails the motto ancora imparo, which means “I’m still learning.” Widely misattributed to Michelangelo (ironically, we’re still learning who originally said it), it’s the most essential thing I can tell people about myself, especially in my role as a CEO. By being the first in the room to say, “I don’t know,” I’m giving others the chance to fill the void with game-changing information. Or even to admit that they don’t know either, which is also critical for a leader to know.
This a-ha came to me when I first arrived in the United States from Australia in the early 1990s. I was sitting in a meeting, and it dawned on me that I was having trouble absorbing and understanding the subject at hand. I realized that I was just about to walk out of the room at meeting’s end no more informed or better equipped to do my work than I had been when I walked into the room. I had better speak up soon and come clean with my not knowing.
About 20 minutes into the presentation, I raised my hand and said, “I’m sorry, I’m not long in this country, and I have no idea what you’re talking about.” I had naturally assumed it was me. But as it turned out no one else knew either. But no one else was brave enough to admit it. You could hear the sighs of relief.
Simon Sinek, the author of Start With Why, recalls a similar experience. And he says, “The risk you run is that sometimes you get humiliated. But not always. Sometimes you will get people who will say, ‘Oh my gosh, me too.’
“But you worry that you are the idiot. If you let that stop you, you won’t get the great answers.”
What kinds of answers might you get if you ask the questions and let others do the talking?
As with our loquacious friend in India, people feel good when they can hold the floor on the things they know best. We all tend to get expansive when we have a rapt audience. So let’s let the experts expand; and expand our knowledge in the process.
Let’s say you’re in a meeting with your team. Multiple levels are present. Throw out a question and sit back to watch what happens next. Likely your immediate direct reports will jump in and answer your question. You’re their boss; they want to impress you. Your wise direct reports, however, will also sit back, stay quiet, and watch to see how their direct reports will answer the question.
Almost everyone who achieves a senior leadership role thinks they’re supposed to have all the answers. But they have to remember that their job is now to lead others into developing and knowing the answers. If they are going to be true leaders, they have to model your behavior, and stay quiet to let others share what they know.
This means that, as with every other behavior in your organization’s culture, being the dumbest person in the room starts with you.