Sometimes the best thing you can say is, ‘I don’t know.’ That is as tough as it sounds: no one wants to admit they’re uncertain. It can sound ill-informed or incompetent, or both. But for a CEO, or any executive level decisionmaker, it’s actually realistic – the world has grown too complex for anyone to know everything. Look at how much the C-suite has expanded over the last 10 to 15 years. The traditional roles were CEO, CFO and COO. Now we have chiefs of technology (or information), of people, of marketing. This reflects the digital era – a CEO in the 80s (or even 90s, really) never had to manage the enormous complexities of a business world that operates on nearly every level through computers. Amazon named a CTO in 2005, long before most organisations (and to be fair they were creating today’s digital environment as much as they were incorporating it). The chief marketing officer role today is driven by the digital era, especially social media, and the job has exploded such that it earns a place in the executive suite. The demands of digital marketing, including the scope and pace of it, is far beyond the advertising campaign strategies of a print, radio and television era. This isn’t meant to disrespect the executives who managed the iconic advertisements of Nike or Coca-Cola at the end of the twentieth century. But those responsibilities are just one part of the overall remit for a 21st century marketing leader. In other words, the expansion of the C-suite is in itself a recognition that three people simply can’t know all that is required to lead most major organisations. Certainly any one of them should be saying ‘I don’t know’ more often than ever before – and without apology.
Many of today’s leaders are Generation X. They began their careers in a rapidly evolving world of technology. Can they learn to say ‘I don’t know’?
More than half of the Fortune 500 CEOs are Gen Xers. In 2023, the so-called slackers were anything but, leading 267 of the world’s largest organizations. Whether or not their ability to say ‘I don’t know’ more than any other generation remains to be seen (and frankly, will be hard to discern). But they might have the right instincts to be comfortable with their uncertainty. If you were aged 57 or 58 in 2023 (the average age of a Fortune 500 CEO that year was 57.7) then you were in your thirties during the dot com boom. That’s old enough to have had some leadership responsibilities but young enough to be able to incorporate the rapid changes of that era. They might not have been able to rely on their mentors, who would have been equally inexperienced in how the ‘world wide web’ might someday affect their business decisions. They began to ascend professionally over the last 15-20 years, almost in tandem with the growing dominance of technology, including digital marketing, in the corporate environment. In other words, the rising class of leadership have grown their careers amidst the evolution of the internet age.
It’s not just humility. It’s strategy. It can sound simplistic and naïve to say that in general, we all struggle with an ego, and must learn to admit when we don’t know something. For well-respected leaders running organisations with thousands of people and billions of dollars at stake, it can feel downright trite. And yet, when some clients have asked what is the single most important skill they can focus on, I tell them it’s the ability to acknowledge when they don’t have the answer. It’s more than just a basic lesson in humility. It’s the prudent strategy in today’s business climate. No one who claims to understand how to manage everything should be trusted, even in the best of circumstances. And recent times have hardly been ideal conditions. In the last five years alone, we’ve had Brexit, Covid, and now two major wars. In a truly global economy, everything is local. Every company at a large-scale production level has employees and production capabilities across two or three continents, minimum. It simply isn’t possible for a single person – or even a three-person C-suite – to manage the constant change and challenges of today’s business environment.
Learning to say that you’re unsure as a leader allows for two very positive things to happen in your organisation: for others to offer solutions, and for others to admit they don’t have them. Anyone who has ascended to this level of decision making has likely become unaccustomed to the freedom – yes, freedom – to say they don’t know. We expect leaders to have all the answers, but in so much of today’s environments we don’t even have all the questions. Companies need to recognise the complexity of the world they are operating in. And leaders need to set an example at the top, and by saying ‘I don’t know” they signal that there is value in acknowledging what you don’t know. I recently read an interview of a fiction writer who, in the 1990s, had written a couple of well-received spy thrillers involving the American government. Shortly after the 11 September attacks, he was contacted by US intelligence officers. They were organising a group of consultants for out of the box thinking about how to move forward. A fiction writer was called upon because those leaders didn’t know what to do. And with the stakes understandably high, they were willing to admit it.
Create a culture of honesty about uncertainty. Because the uncertainty isn’t going anywhere.
Fifty years ago, Alvin Toffler said that the illiteracy of the century will be those who can’t unlearn and relearn. That willingness to unlearn is harder than it sounds. For anyone over age 40, the digital era has been a quarter century of unlearning. Some of that change has evolved fairly painlessly: new meanings of text, cloud, stream and spam, for example. (Also apple, über and Amazon, for that matter.) We are living longer, but our skills have shorter lives: the ability to take dictation is all but a dead skill. So is using a fax machine. Or even a paper map (though I admit I find the odd primal comfort in the fact that I can). Today’s leaders are facing an unprecedented number of challenges. They must take in more information, at a faster pace than ever before. When they say ‘I don’t know’, they in fact display great wisdom.
In terms of my background and expertise, I have spent my entire career working as a trusted advisor to senior leaders wanting to improve the effectiveness of themselves, their teams and their companies. Prior to starting my own consulting firm, I led the global executive assessment and development team for Cisco. Earlier in my career I held leadership roles with RHR International, PepsiCo, Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School and the Central European University, Budapest, Hungary.