How to Lead Even When You Don't Know All the Answers

Posted by Elise Mitchell on June 7, 2012

PART 3 – LOOKING THROUGH THE TURN

In Part 2 of this series, we discussed the importance of keeping your focus on the end goal. Because we have set our sights on where we want end up, we recognize that we must be life-long learners. That means there will be questions along the way and as a leader, you must do what it takes to find the answers.

“We have this dilemma. What are we going to do?” Leaders face this question from their employees all the time. The problem is we often don’t know the answer, but we feel like we are supposed to. What do you do when you don’t know the answer?

Leaders who look through the turn are not afraid to admit they don’t know. When you’re on a journey, you’ll encounter many twists and turns you don’t expect – or that you don’t know how to navigate. The same is true at work. It’s okay not to know the answer to every problem, and you should not be afraid to say so when you don’t. It’s worse to pretend like you do or make a decision that doesn't deliver what’s really needed.

But you have to decide something at some point. You can’t just stand there wringing your hands wishing you knew and never taking action. This leads to self-doubt, and as a leader, self-doubt can be paralyzing for you and for everyone around you. It is a dark place to be. You must find answers, and you need to do whatever it takes to find them. Your team needs you to push through these times of uncertainty to a point of resolution in as timely a manner as you can.

Here are four things I do when I face dilemmas and don’t know the answer.

• Clarify what is needed – If the answer is not apparent, it could be there is a deeper issue. Identify what the real root of the problem is and determine how to fix it for the long-run. Avoid the temptation to put a patch on something that needs a bigger solution, even if you need to take a bit of time to put that in place. Better to fix it now than have to revisit it again, and again.

• Benchmark – Do your homework. Read selectively looking for examples of similar challenges, solutions tried and results. Talk to peers, various stakeholders and industry experts to find out how they have addressed something like this. Identify what worked, what didn’t and what could if you made some modifications.

• Leverage expertise – Hire smart consultants who have deep knowledge about your need. They are worth their weight in gold if they can help you fix the immediate problem AND teach you how to avoid situations like this in the future.

• Don’t try to go it alone – The best leaders surround themselves with those who bring unique knowledge and skill sets to the table and include them in the decision-making. I turn to my senior leadership team frequently for input and group problem-solving. We often come up with better solutions together and ones that will work for our unique situation as a company. By being inclusive in your decision-making, you also have the opportunity to share with others how you think and make decisions, which helps those around you understand and feel comfortable with your leadership style.

Have you ever been in a situation where you were unsure how to solve a problem? How did you deal with it? Share your thoughts with us in the comment box below or on Twitter through #mcgblog.

Topics: Updates from the agency