When it comes to business, there’s no such answer as “I don’t know”

One of the best pieces of business advice I ever received was from my friend and fellow Astia Board of Trustees member, Jeanne Sullivan, founding partner of Starvest Partners and a real powerhouse.  Like those old EF Hutton commercials, when Jeanne talks, I listen.  Jeanne’s pearls of wisdom comes from the best place:  years of hard-earned experience as a successful entrepreneur, investor, and board member.

Day 14: I Don't Know ANY of This!

I often turn to Jeanne when I am at a professional cross-road with no clear direction to a burning, high-stakes decision I need to make.  In short, she is my go-to resource when I am about ready to jump off a professional cliff without a parachute.

Recently, I was talking with Jeanne about a career decision I was trying to make.  Due to my busy travel schedule, there was a lag in time between when I reached out to Jeanne and when we actually got to speak.  During that time, I had started to formulate a decision path in my head.   That came to a screeching halt about 2 minutes into the call.  It went something like this:

Patti:  blah, blah, blah

Jeanne:  Interesting.  Did you talk with so and so?  What are your options there?

Patti:  I don’t know.  Blah, blah, blah, excuse, excuse, excuse.

Jeanne:  Ok, and if you knew there was an opportunity to do x,y,z, how would that transition play out?

Patti:  I don’t know. Blah, blah, blah, and here’s why it’s okay that I make a decision even when I don’t know the answer to that very basic question you just asked me.

Jeanne:  Patti, I have been an investor and a board member for a long time.  I ask a lot of questions and I get asked even more questions.  Here’s something you need to know:  “I don’t know” is NOT an answer.  The correct answer is “I don’t have enough information to answer your question.”

Flashing of lightbulbs going off, sound of fireworks in the air above my head. I have been working as a business executive for 15 years.  How the heck did that not come up before?  SHE IS ABSOLUTELY RIGHT.

Whether you are pitching to an investor or a client, or you are holding a key meeting with your employees, or working through any decision-process, answering with “I don’t know” is not an answer.  Ever.  It is an INDICATOR that you need more information before making a decision or proceeding.  No one should know your business better than you.  No one should know your customer better than you.

When you change the answer from “I don’t know” to “I need more information”, everything and I mean EVERYTHING changes.

YOUR TURN: what is the best business advice you have ever received? How prepared are you for your next big presentation or to make that burning decision?  Do you have any “I don’t knows” that you need to answer first?  What approach will you take to find the answers?  Please leave a comment below.

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Patti’s blog is a mishmash of research and advocacy mixed with her personal experiences as technology executive and first-time high growth entrepreneur, working mother, and wannabe athlete.


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