Knower & Learner
Disregard your current conceptions of the dictionary definitions of knower and learner. This is about whether you know something or not. It's not whether you're willing to learn something or not. This is a leadership behavioral attribute mindset that exists all throughout many large companies, or any company, actually. And it's a set of behaviors that have unintended consequences. So first let's talk about the knower. Now, in order to get into leadership position in most companies, you have to become an expert in something. So you develop expertise, you know stuff, and then when you get to be a leader, the natural tendency is to share what you know. That makes perfect sense. It's logical, and of course you want to share all of that experience and knowledge and skill that you've learned over the years with the people that you're working with and that's absolutely fine, until it's not. Because that same set of expertise, what got you there, won't get you where you want to go. Leaders nee...
d to adapt their behavior in a different way and most do not. So knowers use their expertise for power. When you're in a room and a question comes up, you want to chime in and say what you know and answer the question first. And that isn't always the right instinct. They wish for control, they ask close-ended questions, so they can demonstrate their prowess, their expertise, they make assumptions about what's going on, they think they know, and when things go bad, the knower leader looks outside for fault. It was them, not me. Now the learner leader, again, doesn't mean they don't know. In fact, most learner leaders that I've ever known are, they know more than a knower leader because they're constantly curious. It's a set of behaviors, it's a way of showing up. A learner leader always looks for possibility. They're willing to let go of control so that they can pull ideas out of others. They ask open-ended questions because they assume they don't know everything. They challenge assumptions and the status quo, and they look within first when things go wrong. So I'm gonna dive in to some language. And this language is quite common, probably be familiar with, to a lot of you, and how powerfully negative some of this language is is actually hard to overestimate, I think. So, let's dive right in. Here's the worst thing uttered daily in most large companies. That won't work, we've tried it before. So where does this phrase come from? This comes from a knower leader that knows the answer to an idea. For example, this is one from my own experience. I had joined a wireless company, we are operating out of Illinois. Every other wireless company, Sprint, AT&T, was doing a free phone promotion during this period back in the 2000s and we didn't. And when I came in, I'm like, why aren't we doing a free phone promotion to compete with the competition? And my boss told me, we've tried that, it won't work because legal won't let us. Well intended, he gave me the answer, I believed him, I had new employees join. What did they ask me? Hey, we should do a free phone promotion. And I said, we can't, we've tried that before, it won't work. Legal won't let us. And so on, perpetuated over, and over, and over again. Until I learned this concept. And then I had a new employee join, and I said, hmmm, hey John, we should do a free phone promotion. And I said, have you checked with legal? Because we've had an obstacle there before and we've not been able to figure out a way to do it. Fully expecting this employee to go away and come back and say, we can't do it. Lo and behold, he comes back, about two weeks later, he's like, hey, I talked with this new guy in legal, he thinks there's a way. We put our heads together and we're pretty sure we figured out a way to do it. And a week later, they had actually got it ratified and for the first time in company history, we were able to do a free phone promotion. So, by just changing my language, possibility emerged. Did I think I was right? Yes, I did. I was sure I was right. But I don't know everything, as it turns out. I know what I'm talking about. This is a classic knower line. You want to start from a place of expertise, so you share your knowledge but sometimes you have to say, you know, there might be things I haven't thought about before. Now, same employee, comes to me after he's figured out the free phone promotion, he's all high on his new idea generating and obstacle collapsing capabilities and he says, we should do the free phone promotion with the new LG touchscreen phone. This was back when touchscreens were new and very expensive. This was a $600 phone. And I'm about to say there's no chance in hell we're gonna do a $50 million promotion because that's what it would have cost. And I caught myself and I said, I wish we had the kind of promotional dollars to do a promotion like that. I'm not sure where we could get the funds. I would love to do it. Fully expecting for him to go away and come back and go, oh there's no chance in hell of that happening. Which is exactly where my mindset was. There's no chance. $50 million, we've never done a promotion of 1/5 of that. He's off for a couple of weeks, he comes back, he's like, I managed to get ahold of the head of LG America and they've agreed to give us a $50 million co-promotion budget because they're so excited to launch this phone. And I, like my mouth dropped to the floor. I couldn't believe it. But by keeping possibility open, he went and found a way, in a, some possibility that never occurred to me. And voila, here we have free phone and the best phone in the market for free, which by the way, completely killed our stores and our call centers. We had to stay open extra hours. People were working overtime, we had long lines, we ran out product. Like it was just, as we said at the time, nobody sells free like us. Which isn't really selling, but here's another classic line. Here's what we should do. This feels great to a knower, and sadly this one of my go-to phrases when I first started at Enterprise. I left consulting, where you're kinda paid to know, but when you're in leadership in Enterprise, you're kinda paid to listen. And I didn't know that lesson when I first came in, so when I came in, I was like, here's what we should do. We should do this kind of thing, we need to do segmentation, targeting, positioning. I knew what I was talking about. I was an ex-consultant. I was very smart, and I shared my expertise with my team and they are very happy with that for about four weeks. Unbeknownst to me, they were not so happy with that. After that, about nine months later, the company did a 360 review. You get feedback from everybody in your direct and indirect team. 9,000 people in the company and I had one of the bottom hundred scores. I was literally one of the worst leaders in the entire company. And I was so embarrassed. So embarrassed, 'cause A, I didn't see it coming. And B, I didn't actually think it was true. This is the worst part. I asked them to re-run the data. And they were like no, it's the same number. And then you know, my leader came to me, he's like, listen John, you know, this has to be fixed or you can't stay. Which was fair. You can't lead a team that hates you, right. But I wanted it. Actually I wanted to quit, but ultimately they sent me off to Center for Creative Leadership, which was a great outfit. I went to their San Diego office and they put you through a series of tests and they make you do these activities with other people at your level, and at the end of the week, they sort of paint a picture of you to you that you can't hide from. Because they've got psychologists watching you through a mirror. And I sat down with my psychologist and she talked through all the things she'd seen and all of my scores. She's like, listen, this is super simple for you. You put together an action plan. Your action plan is this simple. You are gonna go back to the office and every time your instinct is to say here's what we should do, say instead, what do you think we should do? And in my head, I'm like, there's no way this can work. There's no way this is gonna work. I'm gonna get fired. I got six weeks at most. But I went back and I flew, I flew from San Diego on a Friday, midday. I landed in the afternoon, and when I landed, my phone was blowing up. Bunch of text, emails. The Midwest region network was down. Which hadn't happened in my couple of years there. And and as the marketing leader for the region, my job was to also manage communication. So I've got a bunch of calls, particularly from my second in command, Paul, and he's like, John, I need to talk to you. Like, we need to address this. So I called Paul, and I was just about to say what we should do because that's my mode. And I was like, Paul, what do you think we should do? And he says, well, I think we should issue an all-points bulletin to all of the customer service and sales people so they know what's happening so that their customers coming in, they can answer their questions. I said, yes, that's great. And and I was about to say here's what we should do. I'm like, anything else? And he's like, well, we should probably hit the leaders first, give maybe a 10 minute window 'cause leaders don't like to be surprised and that way the leaders can know and they can talk to their employees, so that they're not caught offhand and I was about to say, and I'm like anything else? And he's like, we should call Cathy first. The regional vice-president. 'Cause she hates to be surprised. And I stopped, and I paused, and I'm like, yeah, actually, that's everything. Everything I can think of. Like okay, let's do that. And so Paul went and made that happen and then again and again, I just checked myself for the next six months, and a year, saying what should we do, team? And didn't mean I couldn't provide guidance. If they came back with something that was maybe impossible or the wrong thing to do, or strategically off kilter, I could provide feedback. One year to the day of the incredibly poor culture survey, I had one of the top 20 scores of the 9,000 people in the company. Simply by shifting my language from here's what we should do to what should we do? Being curious as a leader engages people and it makes them feel empowered to have ideas and that is the core for an innovation team. All right. They just won't listen. Classic knower line. If I don't get my way, it's because they, them, those people, aren't supporting my expertise. Versus maybe there's something about my approach that isn't working. I've been at the wireless company for a few years and I had this idea. We knew from research that people hated contracts. We knew that they hated them. And we actually did a poll and we asked people would you go to your wireless store or to the dentist? And 52% said the dentist. This is how poor the customer experience was 10 years ago. And at the core of the root of that hatred for us, as an industry, was the contract. The dreaded contract. And I started and analyzing our customer experience and all these various factors and I started shouting and raising my hand and going to meetings and speaking at some of the director meetings about hey, we gotta do something about this. We need to fix this. And for a little while, people smiled and nodded and then after a little while, actually my boss came to me, and he's like, actually you sorta been voted off the committee. We need you to not keep talking about that. 'Cause there's nothing we can do to fix it. And I realized that I was pushing my ideas into people, declaring this innovation idea versus asking others what they thought. So I backed up, actually worked with my coach from CCL, and we made a new plan. And the new plan was no PowerPoint, no deck, no declaration, pencil, actually pencil sketch on paper or on whiteboard. And I went to the 44 top leaders in the company and I said, this is the data. This is what's going on in our industry. This is what's going on with customer experience. This is what's going on with dissatisfaction. This is what's happening with our competitors and how they're growing and we're not. What do you think we should do? Now, I was leading that horse to water. Trust me, I knew exactly what that answer should be and by painting the data the right way, 43 of the 44 people came to the same conclusion. Oh my God, we need to do something. We need to innovate, we need to have a different customer experience, 'cause we're not gonna be able to compete on technology, and price, and promotion, so therefore, we must do something about this dreaded contract. And a few months later, we were in a director meeting, with the CEO, and unbeknownst to me, a bunch of people had come to talk to him and he said, listen, we need to pivot. This company will not survive the competitive pressures right now and that man there, is gonna take us in a new direction. I was terrified. (chuckles) But ultimately, he gave me the reigns to create an innovation strategy for the company and to try something different and new to stand apart from the competition and those were some of the best years of my life. Was getting to do that project. And it's kinda why I'm here now. Last one, which is the core of what we actually did. This is my favorite innovation phrase. If you hear this, you'll know that you have an opportunity to innovate. If we do this, good thing, then this, bad thing, will happen. Whenever you hear that, that's a false choice. It's actually called the sucker's choice in a great book called Crucial Conversations. It sets up an impossibility. There is no chance to solve this. It sets up the if you do this, then only this. And in the world of infinite possibility, that's just not true. There's always other things that could happen if we do this. So you can simply reframe this to what I want is this, and what I don't want is the bad thing.