in collaboration with Ira Fialkow and Ivy Remoreras
Case in point: Ira Fialkow was the Executive Vice President for Shared Services at CEMEX, until recently. His career spans 25 years and he is a highly respected leader in his field. This series marks the culmination of 25 business lessons documented and developed by Ira over the past 25 years of his career. Ira used to distribute these lessons to the team every year. In this series, I will endeavor to share the 25 business lessons that I’ve learned from Ira and our shared services team.
This is part two of the series: 25 Lessons for Work (and Life!) – 3-Minute Coaching Sessions
Business Lesson 2: If You Don’t Know, Say “I Don’t Know”.
Ira once told me, “This isn’t a school test where, if you don’t know the correct answer, you take a guess based on what you think is the best answer. If you don’t know the answer, then simply say ‘I don’t know.’ The worst thing that can happen is that decisions will be made and actions taken based on wrong or incomplete information.” Admitting that you don’t know something is taking responsibility and having accountability.
This second lesson is about attitude. I once overheard Ira telling someone, “You’re lucky you KNOW that you don’t know. You now have an open mind and the opportunity to learn something new and find a real solution!” This is simple and yet so difficult for many people to practice. In this article, we will look at two perspectives of this essential lesson – (a) learning to say “I don’t know” per se; and (b) openness to learning through the humble attitude of genuinely “not-knowing.”
Saying, “I Don’t Know”
The fact of the matter is, it is so difficult for people to say, “I don’t know.” Of course, it’s normal that you would always want to project yourself as knowledgeable to others; showing that you know (all the time!) is one of the best ways to look good. Most of us don’t like it when we ask subordinates at work to explain what went wrong, and instead of getting facts we are met with three little words: “I don’t know.” It’s frustrating, isn’t it? It’s worse, though, when you get “answers” composed of hardly verified truths and opinions. What happens when you take what you are told as fact and respond accordingly – for example, a customer complaint – and later find out that something completely different happened? By then, conflict has been created and it has further complicated the problem.
Of course, you can’t expect somebody to know everything. Here are two simple ways to say “I don’t know” and still be accountable:
- The obvious – say: “I don’t know.” You can include an action or commitment, though, so say “I don’t know, but I’ll take responsibility to find the facts, or answers, for you and I’ll suggest a solution.”
- If you have some knowledge to begin with, but you need to verify it, you may say, “I’m not as informed as I would like to be but this is what I think, based on the information I have. I will look into this further and get back to you right away.” Here you are being honest about the fact that what you think you know may not necessarily be accurate. So, if you are asked to speak out, your audience knows that it’s an opinion.
We grow up afraid of our own ignorance and terrified that it may show. I admire people who have the ability to admit, “I don’t know.” There are many ways to say this, but the most important thing is to be honest, concise and responsible about what you say.
“Not Knowing” as a Powerful Openness to Learn
Think about going to a meeting, seminar or training with the arrogant attitude that there is absolutely nothing new to be learned. Surely, you will arrive disinterested and full of your own perception of the subject matter. Chances are, you won’t learn anything new. The advantage of not knowing is the opportunity to experience learning. Genuine “not-knowing” is a sign of humility and openness that precedes the leap into finding true meaning. We question not only whether we’ll find answers to questions, but also how to learn new things. How many times have you gone to similar work sessions or training programs but learned something new every time? Maybe it’s from hearing someone else’s perspective and how they applied the knowledge. Maybe it’s an insight that helps you link multiple ideas together and come up with a new way of applying the knowledge to a problem. Or maybe it’s an open attitude that allowed you to listen in a new way.
Being open to new ideas shows a willingness to transcend what you know, to look beyond the conventional and obvious view, and to come up with new insights and use these to find solutions.
When people talk about innovation – this is what they are talking about!
Business Lesson 2 Takeaways:
- Acknowledging that you don’t know something is akin to taking responsibility and having accountability.
- People should not be discouraged from saying “I don’t know” in a company.
- There are many ways to say, “I don’t know,” but the most important thing is to be honest, concise and responsible about what you say.
- The positive side of not knowing is the opportunity it provides to experience learning, gain insights, and come up with a better solution.
- Genuine not-knowing is a sign of humility and openness that can lead to expanding one’s knowledge.
About the collaborators:
Ira Fialkow is the SVP of Member Services at Peeriosity. Peeriosity is a confidential network of leading companies from across the world committed to collaborating openly with each other in a completely secure environment with interactions free of consultants and vendors. Prior to Peeriosity, Ira was EVP of Shared Services at CEMEX and Rinker Group (acquired by CEMEX is 2007) from 1990 through joining Peeriosity in October 2010. Rinker Group was the initial recipient of the Best Mature Shared Services Award in 2003. Ira lives in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida and has been the champion of his fantasy football league in three of the past five years.
Glenn Remoreras is an IT Manager at CEMEX. He brings over 12 years of experience as an IT director, business processes manager, project leader, and consultant. He has focused on enabling business solutions through the use of IT capabilities. Glenn has been involved with various post merger integration projects.
Ivy Remoreras is a marketing professional with eight years of extensive experience, particularly in product management, communications and promotions as a manager, university instructor and consultant. She believes in constant learning and has a Masters degree in Business Administration (MBA). Having resided in Europe, Asia and North America, she speaks four languages.
Why do your employees feel uncomfortable about being empowered? Why don’t they follow the instituted risk and change management processes? Why don’t they put customers first? The answers may lie in your control systems — and the fact that mediocrity is too easily accepted.
Whenever an IT organization excels in providing services to its customers, its customer service orientation is guaranteed to be deeply embedded into its culture.
Culture is one of the softer elements of an organization’s identity but it’s extremely important when you want your organization to improve its service delivery system.
Culture offers answers to some really difficult issues in IT services delivery, such as:
- Why employees feel uncomfortable and somehow do not want to be empowered (Review your control systems — your controls might be too tight to encourage empowerment. You might also be surprised to find that making mistakes is severely punished.)
- Why employees don’t follow the instituted risk and change management processes. (Check the extent to which anyone actually follows protocol.)
- Why getting employees to put customers first is so complicated and why there are so many complaints about poor service. (Review what happens when employees fail repeatedly in tasks and have so many complaints against them—most likely nothing! Mediocrity is tolerated!)
- Why critical IT problems are recurring. (Check approach to problem management. Most likely you are reactive in terms of issues resolution. You do not address the root causes of the problems. Do you have a culture of preparedness, contingency and proactive problem management?)
- Why employee turnover is so high even though they are paid competitively well relative to market standards. (Check the extent of camaraderie, teamwork and cooperation. Review learning practices. Are employees mentored or coached by managers and leaders of the organizations?)
If you want to improve the IT service culture of your organization, you have to understand that it is not an overnight endeavor.
Organizations don’t create culture overnight. Culture develops. There is no instant formula for creating culture or else you will end up with an artificial one with a weak foundation. Such type of culture is not sustainable. You don’t create culture by merely creating or declaring mission statements and rules. You don’t create culture by simply implementing new applications and best practices copied from other successful IT organizations. Culture happens through consistent behavior over time embedded and encouraged by leaders.
What does an excellent IT services culture look like? Like any culture, it is a collection of service traits, and behaviors that get repeated over time and embedded in the organization’s subconsciousness. The values, behaviors or traits you need to nurture and develop in your team to improve your IT services culture are as follows:
1. Customer First – Internally and Externally.
Fostering a “customer first” attitude means creating a work culture that values the customers. It needs to be applied internally and externally. Customer-friendly behavior should be encouraged. It is important for IT, at every level of the organization, to build a meaningful relationship with its customers. This practice will help IT to understand the requirements and needs of the business and allow them to align their services accordingly. Every interaction point — from frontline service desk personnel to managers handling customer engagements — should provide a consistent level of customer service.
This “customer first” focus must also be practiced at every unit of the group — and even between themselves. Customer service behavior should not only apply to the external customers of the organization. Each individual, department or function is interdependent. At any point in time, one could either be a supplier or a customer to the other. It is simple logic. If one part is a weak link, it will impact the service of the whole. If customer service behavior is practiced on a consistent basis, externally and internally, it becomes part of the IT group culture.
2. Collaboration and Teamwork
The best teams have a commitment to help each other. The culture of shared responsibility is all about teamwork and collaboration. Developing teamwork is about creating a group culture that values collaboration. With teamwork, no one completely owns an area of work or responsibility. It is shared by members of the team. Each member is encouraged to be involved and contribute to the attainment of the group objectives. In a group that has teamwork, members believe that working, planning and deciding is better done collaboratively.
3. Proactive Approach, Not Reactive
It is important to find or identify patterns and get to root causes of recurring issues. There has to be a strong drive to solve problems and stop recurring critical issues. In addition, teams need to prepare for critical incidents because these will happen. Problem management and disaster preparedness should be built into the IT culture. This is not an individual task. It should be managed collectively and involve all areas of IT.
4. Learning Organization
Learning is the best way to create culture and transmit culture. IT must have a culture of continuous learning. Employees who are well trained take more ownership and have an active role in operations. Attitudes become more positive and people aim to do things better. Learning in an organization should start early. This means starting the moment you hire an employee. An on-boarding program is one of the best ways to prepare employees and cultivate the kind of traits and behaviors you expect from them. In organizations with a strong service culture, new hires — who are selected in part for their service skills — quickly find out that the organization is serious about customer service.
5. Creativity and Empowerment
Creative people don’t accept standards as a given. They are obsessed with innovation and change. They are impatient for progress and will always look for ways and means to improve how things are done. For IT organizations to embed creativity and empowerment into their culture, IT leaders must learn to value negative results as well as positive ones. When you create something new, you don’t always succeed. The culture of encouraging creativity and empowerment will lead employees to be more collaborative, effective and innovative.
Being service oriented, or more specifically, being successful and excellent with providing services can’t be achieved swiftly. A service culture has many attributes that may be difficult to achieve. If you are trying to make your organization more customer-oriented, you need to assess what customer service traits are more prevalent and what needs more work. Creating a culture of service requires that you practice the service traits we covered earlier consistently in order to develop the attitudes and norms that will govern the behavior of all the members of the organization.
Photo courtesy of Ivy Remoreras Photography.
Follow Glenn Remoreras on Twitter.
We’ve all heard the saying that leading by example is one of the most powerful ways of leadership. But ironically, it’s often the most overlooked. “You must be the change you wish to see in the world,” Gandhi once said.
The best way to create culture is to transmit culture. The most obvious ways to transmit culture is through teaching and coaching. IT managers and staff look up to their senior leaders for directions. IT leaders should not limit their engagement with their employees with discussions about operation work. They should engage their subordinates in other meaningful ways so as to help them develop themselves.
The best IT teams must have a culture of continuous learning. In IT organizations, developing employees is not optional, it is a necessity. Development is necessary to acquire the skills and learn the knowledge needed to keep up with new technology and processes in order to achieve business goals. Additionally, development programs in volatile and competitive organizations like IT are important in attracting and retaining employees.
Information Technology needs future-oriented leaders. Arguably, it is the most unpredictable and most innovative area of the company. If the CIO is not forward-looking, IT will most likely neither be as competitive nor at par with competitors who are relentlessly pursuing innovation. IT leaders are fascinated about the future. They are relentless about change and impatient for progress. CIOs should always be looking forward to new technology and practices that are developing, searching for new processes, tools and methodologies and experimenting how it will make sense in business in the future.
- How many types of developmental conversations occur in your organization?
- How can you create a culture of learning that goes beyond traditional classroom training?
- In what ways do your communication tools and practices help build your team’s skills for participating in conversations about goals, changes, and barriers they face?
Photo coutesy of Ivy Remoreras Photography.