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Why leaders should avoid uneducated guessing – CEO Reflection #2

Updated August 20, 2022 by Carl Lindberg

When a leader makes uneducated guesses, he or she might lose the respect of others. I believe some leaders do this because they feel obliged or expected to always ” have the, answers”. It is almost always better to admit that you simply do not know and try to find the answer together. or at least put together a qualified, thought through and educated guess as a team.

A crumbling facade

I once worked with a leader who constantly “had the answers”. This worked in the beginning, but once the facade crumbled, I felt I couldn’t trust anything this leader said. After all, how was I supposed to know which answers were simple guesses and which ones were proper and correct? Furthermore, the topics that were being discussed were sometimes very serious and poor guessing could have significant consequences for us all. So, this need to “always know the answers” also showed obvious lack of judgement in this person’s case.

Let me give you a very concrete example. We were about to set the budget for this specific business and it was basically my job to handle all the cost aspects. I kept asking my manager, the aforementioned leader, for sales input since this was the area that should be covered by the manager. I got no answers, but rather a dodgy behavior instead. As the budget timeline progressed, the need to project the sales numbers became more and more urgent. This was a start up company with new and complex products and there is no doubt that setting the sales numbers was hard, just like the cost parts were. I finally stepped up my game and booked a budget review meeting with the manager. Instead of simply going through the costs, I basically held an interview on the sales numbers. “How many units of Product x will we sell?”. “How would the monthly distribution of those numbers be?”. My manager could not shy away from answering this time and gave me the information I needed.

There was a problem though. All the numbers were ridiculously inflated. It did not matter how much I challenged and questioned the numbers; the manager would not budge.

Reworking the budget..

There was simply no way I could show this budget to the board without risking both our jobs. I couldn’t change the numbers myself either, that would have been wrong in another way. So, I set a bit of a trap, right or wrong.. I redid the exercise with the manager the next week. I honestly don’t remember what reason I made up to get this to happen, but I managed to restart the discussion almost from the beginning.

This time, I suggested numbers during the interview. The numbers suggested were much lower. Low and behold, the manager took the bait and kept blurting out numbers on more moderate levels, following my lead. The numbers were mentioned to me as unquestionable facts just like the week before. My manager spoke with utmost confidence, talking about leads, product and market maturity and many other topics. Exactly the same type of message delivery as the week before. There was only one problem: This week’s numbers were about 70-80% lower than last weeks.

The final budget revision

In the end, when the numbers were shown to the board, they still thought the numbers were a bit on the high side and we lowered them together through a rational discussion.
This behavior on part of my manager ruined most of the respect I had had for the person. The way of acting I had witnessed was very unprofessional. It made me the think back on ALL the information I had ever been given by the manager and whether it could at all be trusted.

What should the manager have done instead?

What should this manager have done instead? We would all be much better off if the manager had shown some leadership instead of worrying about own prestige.
So, what to do when you as a leader don’t have the answer? Talk to your team and state that you consider the issue complex and that you do not have a good answer at this point. Bring up all the facts you and your team can muster. If you have time, which is almost always the case for this type of topic, investigate what additional facts you and the team need in order to provide a better answer that is more likely to be correct. All this should be a team effort since the other team members might think of issues that you don’t see or consider important enough yourself. In the end, when you have reached what you and the team consider the best possible answer, don’t be afraid to share some of your assumptions when you deliver the answer. The assumptions shows your train of thought and sets additional parameters and circumstances around the answer. In very uncertain situations, you might want to create several possible scenarios together with the team. This stimulates your thought process as well as create draft contingency plans that can be executed later when you better know towards which scenario the real developments are moving.

Have you ever worked with a leader who makes wild guesses? Please comment and give us your story below.

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