When beginning a new job or career, many of us feel pressure to have all of the answers. The thinking goes that the best people at the company always have the answers. The people at the bottom don’t. And the worst thing that can happen is to be caught without one.
But what if I told you that people who strive to always have an answer are chumps? And that in fact, it’s impossible to have all the answers. As Seth Godin wrote about finding “formidable” leaders, don’t look for “…someone with all the answers, because no one has all the answers.”
Instead of wasting your time on an impossible pursuit, let me fill you in on a little secret. The top performers in any company don’t have all the answers, but they have mastered the art of finding them. Below are three tips to become an Answer Finder instead of an Answer Haver.
1. Master Context
Seth Godin says that the best leaders have “sufficient domain knowledge combined with the vision and the passion to create lightning at will.” Having domain knowledge means you can rise above the details to connect the dots. Where others see detail, you see context. You don’t see the United States, you see the world. You don’t see notes on a page, you see a symphony. You don’t see a math equation, you see a man on the moon.
Those who attain domain knowledge are constantly learning more about their job, company processes, and industry. They are avid readers. They ask seasoned pros to share their experiences. And they have the patience to build up some experience of their own.
Once you’re able to rise above detail to context, you’re on your way to finding answers.
2. Master Questioning
While most focus on articulating smart answers, the pros master the art of asking questions. The problem is, most of us are really bad at it. As Shane Snow pointed out in a FastCompany.com article about the topic, “most of us ask terrible questions. We talk too much and accept bad answers (or worse, no answers). We’re too embarrassed to be direct, or we’re afraid of revealing our ignorance, so we throw softballs, hedge, and miss out on opportunities to grow.”
Seek out the art of asking deep, penetrating questions. You can start by learning from professions who do it for a living like journalists or law enforcement. You’ll quickly find that a smart question beats a quick answer any day.
3. Master Humility
The last tip is the simplest of the three, but by far the hardest. To master the art of finding answers, one must have the humility to know when he or she doesn’t have them. It may sound straightforward, but when you’re sitting in a boardroom surrounded by suits and everyone is looking at you, the pressure to sound smart can be overwhelming. The irony in situations like these is that while most of us will fumble our way to saying something that sounds like an answer, real leaders will first admit that they don’t have the answer. Then they will frame the problem with context, begin asking penetrating questions, and explain how the group can work to find the answer.
And in return, the suits in the room will begin to trust and respect them for their wisdom and humility.
Professionals who seek to have all of the answers are like dogs chasing their tails. Answers always change because people and circumstances change. So they’re stuck running in circles afraid that they’ll be caught without the next solution.
Don’t be a tail chaser. Learn to see the forest for the trees so you don’t get entangled in details when the answer lies in context. Focus on asking better questions instead of articulating answers. And admit when you don’t know the answer. Then explain how you will work to find it.
The world is filled with Answer Havers. The world needs more Answer Finders. Which one are you?
Jonathan Lewis is partner, Vice President and Strategy Director at McKee Wallwork + Co. Advertising, winner of the 2015 Ad Age Small Agency of the Year SW and Campaign of the Year awards. Jonathan’s firm specializes in turning around companies who are stalled, stuck or stale, publishing two books on the topic including When Growth Stalls and Power Branding. Follow Jonathan @JonathanLewis11.