The power of “I don’t know”

So often people are afraid to look unprepared in a meeting and because of this will make something up rather than just admitting that they don’t know the answer. These ad hoc answers are often incomplete at best and completely wrong at worst and do nothing to move the business forward.

It’s not worth the risk…

Many years ago I worked on the sales floor of a Home Depot store.  This is a place where the wrong answer can cause a customer to be electrocuted from bad wiring advice or see their basement flooded from bad plumbing directions.  This is where I learned to say that I didn’t know.

The risks of the wrong answer were just too high to take, so instead you offered “I’m not sure, but let’s find out together”.

In the end I learned as the customer learned and was better prepared to answer the question the next time a customer asked me.

Changing my habits

A few years ago I started to implement this in my work life. If I didn’t know the answer I said so and would do the research and follow up with the correct response as the information became available. This meant that I became a resource that learned the answers in many categories because I was spending a great deal of time researching each vertical.

At first I was afraid that saying I didn’t know would make people think I was unprepared, but it became quite the opposite. People discovered that if they added questions into the meeting notices I would come armed with as much information as I could and realized that if I gave an answer it was because I had the research to support it.

Challenge the desire to know everything. There is no person who can possibly know everything.  Experts in all categories reference their research and that of others before they make a claim.

So if you don’t know, don’t bullshit. Accept it and start digging up the answers.

What happens when there aren’t any sales?

I have talked about customer service and how to keep customers coming back.  I have even talked about sales hiding your mistakes, but what do you do when you don’t have sales?

How do you hide your mistakes when the customers are not coming through the doors?

Erin Burrell-What Happens Via
Image courtesy of

It is hard finding the motivation when the sales just aren’t there.  When the sales are down, hiring freezes kick in.  With a hiring freeze each employee is asked to pull more than their own weight.  Everyone is so busy they forget to say thank you.  Those missed opportunities for leaders to say thank you lead to the remaining employees starting to feel overworked and underappreciated.

Then they quit.

So how do you stop it?  Controlling the spiral takes a lot of effort that most big organizations don’t take the time to make.

Finding motivation for employees who just had their hours cut takes talented leaders.

Years ago I had the chance to work with such a leader.

To set the stage:

Store sales were in the toilet and associates that had been working 30-40 hours a week were cut down to 4-8 (I was one of them-barely paying my rent while going to school), full time associates were “encouraged” to take half days of vacation or unpaid off without penalty to save payroll and spirits were low.

So this leader hit the sales floor and turned customers into a challenge.  Each associate (including our normally office bound leaders) in the store was tasked with being a personal shopper to those few customers we had.  Tasks were second to being the best customer care associate you could be.  If that meant walking them to light bulbs and helping them chose, you did it.  If it meant debating the power of this saw versus another, you did it.  If it meant escorting them to the bathroom you did it.  You stayed with that customer and made sure they found everything on their list and more.  You got a ladder and pulled the box off the top shelf for them.  You adventured through the chaos of receiving and into the back room to get the colour they wanted. You made sure they knew your name when they left.  You made sure they knew people would help them when they came in.  You made sure they were going to come back.

Then, when the floor was dead we went back to tasking.

It took a few weeks. They were hard weeks with more tasks than staff, but sales started to turn around.  Average ticket went up.  We got more hours on the floor giving us more time to do tasks, and we just kept helping people.

The customer came before getting the stuff put away, and the stuff still ended up getting put away because when someone needed something you were right there to get it for them and leave the rest on the shelf for the next customer.

In the end, we can live without all of the tasks “we think are important” being accomplished, but those tasks don’t matter if we don’t help them buy the stuff in the first place.  Sales can be powerful, but when sales aren’t as high and customers aren’t crashing your site with traffic or blocking your aisles to get to the register, sales are still out there if you focus on the customer’s needs before your own.

Is Your Intent Pure?

Over the last few months I have had a chance to chat with some amazing individuals and they have spurred me to challenge my own motivations.

We do things every day that may or may not enrich our lives or the lives of those around us.  What we really have to dissect is why we are doing things.

The question of intent is valid for work, home or play.  It’s ok to do things merely for pleasure or adrenaline, but for those big tasks you should ask yourself why.

What is the reason you are doing the task in front of you? 

Is it because you want to help? 

Is it because you were asked to? 

Is it because you need to find some validation?

Is it for the credit (money/praise/title) that you will receive?

Is it to meet the expectations of others?

Is it fuel for your ego?

I have taken these questions to heart and they have really started to make me dig deeper into my own motivation for doing things.  I have asked myself why.  I haven’t been proud of all of the answers.

In doing this exercise I have discovered that some of my reasons for doing things are not pure.  In these cases I have set myself on a path to correct them.

The truth is that juicing my ego is NOT a good enough reason to participate in a task.  Neither is having a nicer than the person next to me.

For others I have discovered that my reasons are actually better than I ever gave them credit for being.

An example of this is the fact that a couple of years ago I made the commitment to ride across Canada with the Sears National Kids Cancer Ride.  Participating was easy to validate; I was helping to raise much needed funds and awareness for pediatric cancer.  I was going to help make a difference.  I made the validations my reason why, which was not 100% true.

I could never put it into words why I had felt compelled to join this cause until I started to really dissect my own intent.

Why pediatric cancer over any other cause?

The answer is twofold:

  1. There is an end date on this cause.  Each day we are making remarkable progress on finding an end to pediatric cancer.  Each dollar raised is getting us another step closer to a world where kids aren’t dying of cancer anymore.
  2. This is a battle worth fighting.  While we aren’t going to win every day, we are making progress.  It is also something beyond a single person’s control.  Unlike many causes that are fighting to end something end we have the capacity to prevent from happening in the first place.  Hello Occupy Movement (Yeah I’m looking at you).

My goal in this regard is simple: To find an end to pediatric cancer and then tackle the next most deserving item on my list.  Today I don’t know what that next item is, but I can tell you for certain I will dig into my motivation for doing the task before I commit to starting it.

We all have the capacity for good.  We can make the world better for being in it if we so choose.  Ask yourself why you sent that email, did that task, bought that thing.

What will your participation accomplish?

 If you feel that my reasons for riding are valid please take a moment to donate to this year’s four day cycling event Tour for Kids in support of kids cancer camps.

The Complete Question

I have discovered the reason that I have so many emails that require one line responses.  In a corporate environment we are often rushing when we ask a question so we blast off the email to the relevant person who will know the “answer”.

Too often however we don’t fully craft the actual question, leaving us with pieces of information, as opposed to the complete answer that we actually seek.

If your question for example were about the success of a particular marketing vehicle you might say


How did X do in market?


It was a success

Question 2:

What sales did X vehicle drive?

Answer 2:


Question 3:

What was the response rate?

Answer 3:


Question 4:

How does that compare to other vehicles in market?

Answer 4:

It drove 20% more sales than Y vehicle.

At the end of this lengthy exchange you have slightly more information about the project, but still don’t feel armed to walk into a meeting with your executive teams to discuss the overall process.  You now might have four different files of “results” and you likely have someone sick of seeing your name

Instead a well crafted question might be phrased as such:


Can you give me a summary of the results on Y vehicle including

  • ·         Sales results  VS LY and VS other vehicles in market
  • ·         Response rate VS LY and VS other vehicles in market
  • ·         Any other metrics/feedback that may seem relevant

Win 1

By asking the question this way you are going to get a complete answer.  This method also leaves you with extra data in case someone asks a deeper question when you discuss the program.

Win 2

You are only sending and receiving one email which cleans up your in box and theirs, making you both more efficient.

Win 3
Asking for results this way tells the person that you are asking that you need all the details about a program which more often than not will cause them to offer even more than you are asking for.  By asking them to participate with an open ended request you are encouraging them to include items that they feel are relevant.

In the end a great answer is rarely given for a poorly formed question.

Before you write that next email

1)      Take a minute to think about what you really want to know about before you blast off the email to someone.

2)      Make a list of points that you need answers to-this gives the person a chance to ask for additional details on a particular point

3)      Re-read your request before you send it to make sure you haven’t missed anything and to ensure that it is easy to understand.

The Unpopular Opinion

Have you ever been in one of those meetings where everyone knows that the idea being presented is wrong/unprofitable/impossible/full of holes etc? This fill in the blank idea tends to be presented by someone in a power position and thus we are compelled to listen.

After the meeting everyone chats about how this is silly/a waste of time/broken and yet they have their notepads of takeaways and will go about building the business case for executing said imperfect project.

Have you ever wanted to stand up and ask where the idea came from or called out the holes in the theory?

Have you ever actually voiced the questions everyone is thinking and not saying out loud?

Asking the question makes you the face of an “unpopular” opinion. Personally I struggle to think that it is truly unpopular or contrary. More likely what you are voicing is just not the opinion of the top ranking individual presenting it.

Asking the hard questions is often looked at as a career limiting move.

So being the voice of reason may stunt your career path. Hmm. A bit wrong maybe?

This is where you see the difference between a great leader and a person with a great title.

Great leaders encourage having their ideas challenged. They encourage debate and conversations around new initiatives. This is not to say that you will not be asked to leave the room and proceed with building the business case, but you will be welcomed to speak and voice contrary opinions. Discussion about the gaps show us weaknesses that we can identify and correct before putting a product or service out to market and the best leaders know that.

The person with a great title will shut down the debate before it has begun. They are sure that the product or service is perfect and will save the quarter/make the world a better place/end war and they are not willing to have it challenged. So I challenge you to ask the hard questions.

Yes, you may be the guy that calls out the elephant in the room, but at least you didn’t pretend it wasn’t there.

You will also be the person that can leave the room with your notepad full of takeaways and in place of the gossiping you would have done, you can continue the debate.

If your boss is merely a Great Title, I don’t think the silly project is your issue. Trade in your “title holder” for a genuine leader and live a happier more satisfying life.

If you discover that you are the title, take this lesson as a step towards becoming a great leader.

Knowledge is power and can propel both you and your team forward.