#828 You Don't Know What You Don't Know

You don't know what you don't know.  That's a phrase I drilled into the minds of my children as they grew up.

Many parts of the leadership philosophy I learned and built over the years helped me navigate through the sea of people I was fortunate to manage, but this principle was in the top two for sure.

There are so many stories in so many business books that back this principle up but let me tell you mine.

My company had absorbed several smaller companies through the early nineties, and onboarding all of these new people had us wrapped up in a lot of meetings.  One meeting that I recall well was with all of my sales managers.  We had decided on a brainstorming meeting to answer the question; "How can we come together to become a world-class sales organization."  For those of you unfamiliar with using Affinity diagrams for brainstorming let me give you the gist.  We post that question up on the wall, and then each of the participants (in this case there were about 8-10) writes an answer on a 3 x 5 post-it note pad.  The facilitator takes the note and sticks it up on the wall.  The facilitator continues to look from one to the next, going around the room in order and repeating the question from time to time until he has 10 or so answers from each participant.  Then the group gets up and organizes the responses on the wall to create a plan.

I was the facilitator, and in this particular meeting, one guy kept saying, "Please skip me" each time I nodded to him to offer up an idea.  I tried to encourage him, but I was getting nothing.  The other managers were all writing idea after idea, but this guy gave me zilch.  It was getting annoying.  He was very new with us and older than me, and I felt like he was being belligerent; quietly protesting this "newfangled" way of holding a meeting and having to answer to a youngster.   He was the head honcho at his former company so I assumed that reporting to me was unsettling especially considering our age difference.

I didn’t call him out in front of the group even though I was pretty confident he was trying to make me look bad.  Instead, I went with my "You don't know what you don't know" philosophy.  When I pulled him into my office after the meeting, he looked miserable.  Rather than hit him with a WTF ?!, I asked him what happened in the meeting; why he had so much trouble coming up with an idea to throw up on the wall.  I asked him kindly and without challenging him.

He squirmed a bit and looked very uncomfortable, and then he told me that he only had an eighth-grade education and he really couldn't spell or write well.  He was mortified to put his misspelled scrawl up on the wall.

I was humbled that he trusted me with this secret and for the subsequent 10+ years we worked together I did whatever was necessary to employ his numerous strengths and to cover this one little insecurity for him. 

The guy was amazing.  He had worked his way up in his company for 30 years starting out as a warehouse worker and eventually taking over the small operation.  He became an enormous value to our company running a successful branch for us, and I am happy to say I still call him my friend to this day.

Own your sales gene…