The Three Most Powerful Words in Collaboration: I Don’t Know

Early in my career, as I sought to climb my way to the very top of the proverbial advertising ladder, I believed that I had to have all the answers. For my boss. My clients. My team members. Answers about everything, in fact, from brand-building to problem-solving to ad deadlines and specifications.

It was exhausting.

A few years ago, I was fortunate to attend Google’s Brandcast. I don’t remember every lesson of the session, but one response the VP of Global Brilliance or Something Along Those Lines made to a question really had an impact on me:

“I don’t know. We’re figuring it out as we go.”

I don’t know. It was earthshaking to hear. Three little words that I realized were the key to becoming a true collaborative leader rather than a detail-obsessed, dictatorial one. Because let’s face it: How can we know everything – even a fraction of everything – in today’s beyond-complex and ever-changing world? Stating the obvious, digital technology affords real-time change that requires full-time attention to grasp and leverage. Not to mention the roller coaster that is our economy, politics, and a virus that just won’t quit.

So a few things that I, the consummate know-it-all, learned about saying, “I don’t know”?

Collaboration is a business imperative. The logic train here is simple: Our multicultural world is built on diverse perspectives. To communicate in a meaningful and compelling way – we are charged with growing our clients’ brands, after all – our work must reflect those perspectives. To do so, our teams must reflect diversity, bringing their unique experiences and ideas to the table.

Collaboration requires grace. Collaboration isn’t an innate personality trait that we’re born with; it’s a skill to be learned. And it requires vulnerability – also a skill to try on, learn, and grow comfortable with.

Collaboration needs a brave space. Not just a safe space, but a brave one built on empathy and respect for the individual balanced with a sense of community and common organizational goals. One in which team members know that their leader hears their voices, champions their ideas, and has their backs.

Collaboration asks us to listen loudly. No judgment or preconceived ideas allowed – this is lean-in, concentrate-on-the-speaker-and-forget-about-what-you’ll-say-next listening. This is looking for what’s not being said as well as what is being said. It’s asking open-ended questions. It’s not simply hearing, but understanding.

Collaboration is leadership and followership. Contrary to my early-career beliefs, leadership is not a lone-actor scenario; we must have followers to lead. The key to gaining followers is to know when to follow others too. Collaborating as peers is not an abdication of authority – it’s what it means to be part of an effective team.

What else can I learn about collaboration? As you might expect, I don’t know! I welcome your ideas, perspectives, and resources that help me along this journey.