Humans. We all want to be right. And to succeed as Senior Executives, Board Members, Advisors, Entrepreneurs, and Investors, we also need to be right, more often than not. Being right is how we build reputations, get promoted, grow companies, and de-risk investments and projects. So I could claim that is my excuse for why, most of my professional life, I took pride in the high frequency of my “I Told You So (ITYS)” moments. I was right and there was the proof. Yet, in reality I was wrong! I now see clearly that each ITYS was in fact a failure of leadership.
I know omniscience is reserved for Deities, and I accept it is not humanly possible to always be right! Nevertheless, I still work hard to be right most of the time, or at least to quickly recognize when I am wrong, acknowledge it, and adjust.
For over two decades, I built a reputation as a global operator, someone who “sees around corners” and make good decisions, and an advisor whose often carefully and intentionally-selected, words, warnings, and predictions, should be paid attention to. So, when I shared that one of my new year’s resolutions a few years ago was to reduce my use of “ITYS” to as close to zero as possible, it was a surprise to many of my colleagues, clients, and friends.
And no, I did not decide to be less informed, or less right; quite the opposite!
When thinking through a business problem, my engineering mind’s stream of consciousness still meanders through many loops and valleys, from Six Sigma and Design Thinking, to Anthropology and Esoteric Mysticism, to Enterprise Architecture and Agile Development, from the forest view to the movement of a blade of grass, and that stream often threatens to overflow its banks. But my process makes me right more often than I am wrong, so opportunities for ITYS still abound.
But, here is the thing — Even though an ITYS is a personal mental victory, an ITYS can also be an indication of my failure to lead. Win the battle, lose the war. Yes, there are some cases of “you can take the horse to water, but can’t make it drink,” and yes, when you are not the boss, all you can do is give your best advice and let the client/boss/team decide, but most of the time an ITYS is preceded by thirst for the right, or at least less wrong, answers. A company is weighing an acquisition, a client is asking for a discount, an executive asks for help making an important hiring decision, a project team needs a tiebreaker, an investor asks for advice on the viability of a startup. These are all times to lead, directly, or indirectly, and if I know I have the right answer but do not communicate that in a compelling way, and help steer the decision to the right outcome, I now see that as a failure to lead. A few years ago I would have taken comfort knowing they will come back at some point and I would get the opportunity to say ITYS, and, frankly, sometimes even get paid more to fix something that could have been prevented if my advice was followed. Now, I choose to celebrate something different.
I decided that if I wanted to be a better leader, the ability to leverage experience and knowledge to help others make the right decisions must far outweigh the emotional satisfaction of telling someone ITYS. And I can tell you, that transition isn’t always easy.
For the last few years, I have been intentionally focused on the leadership challenge to steer right, rather than to simply be right.
Every time the ITYS occasion presents itself, I do my best to avoid using those four words. I note it internally and mark it as a personal failure to lead, rather than as an intellectual victory or proof of my prophetic abilities. The result? I have slowly reduced the number of ITYS’s to a trickle and increased the number of times I hear “How Did You Know (HDYK)?”
I still fail at times, or push a little too hard when I know I am right, but I can see the difference. Every time I have the opportunity to say ‘I told you so’ is a reminder that I failed to lead and settled for advising. Advisors don’t change the world — leaders do. And even when my role is to be an advisor, if someone hears my advice, but takes no action they have not been persuaded, and therefore will not change — leadership opportunity failed!
And because I can’t be a good leader if I don’t continue improving, for 2021 my focus is now on shifting to slow the number of HDYK’s down to a trickle, and increasing the “Thanks For Helping Me Be Right”… Because if my team is right most of the time, I can focus on fewer but more important things where being right could mean much more to our overall success.
So, pay attention to your ITYS/HDYK ratio, and spend some time focusing on how to share your insights and ideas in a compelling way. Great leaders create the environment for success to happen. It’s not just about being right, it’s about helping others learn to be right.
The advice shared in this article is based on how I work and a preview of the counsel I provide to entrepreneurs, founders, Corporate Executives, and Private Equity and Venture Capital clients based on three decades of work in these areas.