The Power of "I Don't Know"

Editor’s Note: Serial founder Chris Lyman has agreed to share his Janitor’s Blog with us, which he writes as CEO of Fonality, the Los Angeles-based VoIP provider he founded in 2003. The first post we shared was about the law of diminishing returns at young companies Today’s is about the strength of admitting your weaknesses.

What a frustrating day.

I spent 2 hours talking in circles with an executive in what started as a simple question. I got a confusing answer to my first question and pursued that answer with more questions. The answers back to these new questions were even more confusing, and contradictory to the original answers, which morphed into a new set of questions.

Wash, rinse, repeat.

Fast forward two hours and many heart palpitations later … and I finally realized that this executive simply does not know the power of “I don’t know.”

Do you have enough courage to say “I don’t know”? What about when the pressure is on and a boss or potential investor looks you dead in the eye and asks you a question that you think you should know? Do you then have the fortitude at that precise moment to look them dead in the eye and say “I don’t know”?

It’s such a weird paradox. People have been trained to believe that “not knowing” makes them look weak. So, instead of owning up, they fake the funk, fast-talk, or engage in disfluency and other generally circuitous behavior.

In trying to look strong, they end up looking weak.

I wonder if folks think that others cannot tell when they don’t really know the answer? Don’t they know that even if our IQ doesn’t catch it, our EQ always does?

It drives me nuts in business.

Many VC rounds ago (I have raised over $20M in 4 rounds at 2 companies), I learned that the best strategy was honesty in raising money. I would walk into some shiny VC office in Silicon Valley. You know the kind, replete with a $20,000 conference table, a spate of Herman Miller chairs and automated shades that dim the room as they drop in unison with a rising projector.

I would walk in, wearing my only tie and would pitch my model to them. I would be adroit in tongue and expert in craft. Most questions I could answer in a Hollywood second.

But, if they asked me a question I didn’t know, no matter how much I thought that I should know it, I would tell them “I don’t know.”

And, I would look ’em right in the eye when I did it.

It tells the audience that I know what I know and I know what I don’t know and that means you can trust that when I say “I know” I really do know and because I admit what I don’t know, I at least somewhat know myself and I certainly know that I need others.

To many of them, this answer was a shock to their system – not sure they often heard a CEO say “I don’t know”, and maybe it even confused them about us (I would bet that on most of Sand Hill Road, those three words are rarely uttered on either side of the table).

Most have been coached not to utter this phrase, to pretend you have all the answers. But, I always found, in the end, that “I don’t know” was taken as a sign of an honest and pragmatic executive. Investors invest in people. They have no clue if the damn business idea is going to work or not.

A mentor of mine said that true strength is vulnerability. I never knew that. ;)