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  • Writer's pictureJohn Bowie

Keys to the Boardroom: Getting Comfortable with Ignorance

New managers, especially, may adopt the false belief that management is about knowing more than your direct reports do and exerting command and control over them. These CEOs relate how they learned to work with employees who knew more than they did….

I know that in Orlando when I first went into that position, I spent a lot of time with two people that were on staff there. One was the accounting manager who subsequently became the chief accountant for that plant and the other was a fellow who was the production control manager. He's the guy I learned the most from during those early years. And even when I was working on the nightshift, I used to come in early and spend some time with him just so I could understand why things were being scheduled the way they were. You need a sense of curiosity and the ability to know there are people from whom you should learn and there are people who you don't want to learn from. I think being able to select and distinguish between those people is important as you move along in your career.

CEO of a Fortune 500 Retail Pharmacy Company

Until you reach a point, you have to depend on everyone else who knows a lot more about what's going on than you do. And you're always in that position because whether you're younger than they are, or now, when I tend to be older than most of them, you're always depending on people who really know a whole lot more about what they're doing than you do.

CEO of a Fortune 500 Paper Company

I had a reputation back then as being a real piranha because I was demanding of people, demanding of myself. And very quick to be critical. Although I helped a lot of people, I hadn’t learned the skills to compromise very effectively, which is necessary if you’re really going to do things right.

I’d take charge, tell people what to do, but I couldn’t tell them all that needed to be done because there was a hell of a lot I didn’t know. Even during the early stages, I had to spend a ton of time asking questions because I had never done this before. I was thrown in over my head. I didn’t know the product. I hadn’t run that kind of a manufacturing operation. I hadn’t recruited a group of people like that. So, I had to ask a lot of questions.

But I moved on from that job to become manager of all of manufacturing for the division, which included the plant I just started plus another US plant and a couple of plants internationally. And there again I had moved into an area where I had a lot that I didn’t know and therefore had to ask a lot of questions.

The faster you move the more you realize how little you know and therefore how much you depend on so many other people for the process of getting the job done. You depend on your boss, you depend on your peers, you depend on the people who work for you. It’s a very critical part of getting it done.

CEO of a Fortune 500 Power Tools Company

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