Leadership & Management

Irv Grousbeck: The Power of “I Don’t Know”

Newly minted CEOs need to bear in mind that employees prefer honesty and humility over perfection.

December 13, 2019

| by Bill Snyder



If a leader doesn’t know the answer to a question, it’s important to admit so. “You may be tempted to bluff,” Irv Grousbeck says. “Don’t.” | Elena Zhukova

If you’re a top-level business manager, admitting that you don’t know something can be difficult. After all, anyone who has clambered to the top of the corporate food chain is expected to exude certainty and self-confidence. In short, you’re supposed to be the person with all the answers.

But thinking of yourself that way can be a mistake, says H. Irving Grousbeck, an adjunct professor of management at Stanford Graduate School of Business and the cofounder of Continental Cablevision.

When a direct report comes to you with a question you can’t answer, Grousbeck says, resist the temptation to guess. Instead, consider saying: “I don’t know.” Those three words constitute a powerful answer that shows humility and self-confidence.

“You may be tempted to bluff. Don’t,” he says. “If you bluff an answer, you may be wrong, and that will damage your credibility and your authenticity.”

Grousbeck made his comments in a keynote speech at the 2019 Search Fund CEO Conference, held at Stanford GSB. He discussed the personal qualities that lead a CEO to success, the need to hire and fire “ahead of the curve,” and how executives can serve as a teacher — as well as a manager — to their direct reports.

Here are some of the insights he shared during his talk:

Hire and Fire Ahead of the Curve

When executives become CEOs, they must be clear on their priorities. Conventional wisdom suggests that tasks such as meeting with key customers and suppliers, and forging strong ties with lenders, investors, and directors, should be the CEO’s top priorities. But they’re not, Grousbeck says. Those tasks are critical, of course, but something else should sit at the top of a leader’s to-do list: Put “A” players in the key seats and strive to keep them there while ridding the company of poor performers.

“That’s easier said than done,” he says. Unless you’ve joined a shipwreck, you might worry that bringing in a bunch of new hires could upset your legacy staff. What’s more, you probably have a fair number of second-tier players who are performing adequately. Will it cause problems to lean on them to do better? And what to do about the employees who are simply not adequate?

Solving these issues early in a CEO’s tenure is absolutely essential, Grousbeck says. Strong managers can tolerate average players in seats that aren’t critical, but they cannot afford to employ poor performers at upper levels.


There’s no need to restate your power position: Your reports already know you’re the boss. Rather than throwing your weight around, be deferential. It shows respect.
H. Irving Grousbeck

“Start by hiring ahead of the curve,” Grousbeck counsels. By that, he means look for the best players you can find and hire them as soon as you can — even if their absence hasn’t yet been felt. You will need them, and the expense of bringing top talent on board is money well spent.

Far from resenting an influx of talented new hires, your incumbent high-performers will be pleased. “There are few things more demotivating to top-tier employees than seeing mediocre players holding down key roles,” Grousbeck says.

Firing is not a pleasant task, of course, but there are times when there is no alternative. “We get off track when we make decisions to accommodate nonperforming individuals we like at the expense of the company’s interests,” Grousbeck says. “We can’t have any sacred cows or protected species in our companies.”

Grousbeck warns against swinging the ax too hastily. Instead, managers should spend time with underperforming employees to help them get on track. But if two or three months go by and there’s no improvement, Grousbeck says, those people need to go. Just be sure the firing is handled with respect. “We are not in the business of burning bridges or trashing relationships,” he says.

Be a Teacher and an Intervenor

As a leader, you must be both a teacher and an intervenor, Grousbeck says. As an intervenor, for example, talk calmly with a direct report who acted rudely to a coworker. Set limits (in advance) on things like the gifts salespeople — even the highest fliers — are allowed to give to clients.

There are times when a direct report needs advice about how to handle a problematic situation. So think like a teacher. Work through the alternatives and select a course of action with them. One tactic: Consider role-playing in advance of a difficult conversation or meeting that has them worried.

The teacher/CEO works beside direct reports as a partner in problem-solving and avoids the most toxic phrase in leadership: “I need you to…” That smacks of command and control. Instead, use the word “we.” If you are asking for something, try, “Could you please…”

There’s no need to restate your power position: Your reports already know you’re the boss. Rather than throwing your weight around, be deferential. It shows respect, Grousbeck says.

Kindness Pays

Once you’ve hired the right players, keeping them on board should be a top priority.

Remember: “A” players don’t leave companies, they leave bosses. Be the boss they never want to leave by taking a personal interest in each of them. “Money and stock are in finite supply, while praise and thanks are in abundance and can be even more powerful,” Grousbeck says.

Perhaps you’ve learned some important lessons as a parent. Don’t be afraid to employ them in the workplace. Be patient, be kind, and listen more than you talk, he says.

How is kindness expressed by a leader? “By showing you care about each individual you interact with, not just about the work that he or she produces,” Grousbeck answers. Make time to drop by a direct report’s office, sit down, and say that you are there with no agenda other than to say, “Thank you for your great work and your contributions to our culture.”

Your employees don’t expect perfection, Grousbeck says. “They’ll forgive the occasional gaffe or error in judgment. They just ask for consistency and individual attention.”

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