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“I don’t know the answer to that.”

I have a really smart, very successful coaching client we’ll call Leslie. She is used to knowing a lot of things. In fact, I would say she is used to being “a knower of things” in her field. She has many other admirable qualities, of course, she’s politically savvy, hard-working, and big-hearted.

Luckily for Leslie she has a really smart, inquisitive four year old who asks her a lot of questions, like “why does Elmo talk like that?” and “why can’t we sing the theme song from Chicago really loud at daycare?”

Leslie has developed the habit of saying “I don’t know the answer to that” to her son when he asks one of his fabulous questions. And she doesn’t feel bad about it – and her son doesn’t either. He just comes up with another question.

However, at work it’s a different story. Leslie feels tremendous pressure to know how to solve any problem that crosses her path, even, and maybe especially, things that others aren’t even quite aware are problems…yet. During a particularly stressful week, I asked her whether she could say “I don’t know the answer to that” at work. I suggested that this could be a powerful response – giving her colleagues an opportunity to pause, reflect on the question, find other sources of help or information.

She was (rather uncharacteristically) quiet for a minute. I imagined her toes lined up with the rim of the Grand Canyon as she considered her options. “Well…I guess I could try…”

Does this have the ring of familiarity for you? Do you have a hard time admitting to yourself when you don’t know something? Or how to do it “right?” Or what success might look like at this new level?

I can relate – I know I “prefer not” to admit my not-knowing-ness. And yet, if I’m not willing to line my own toes up with that Canyon’s edge I will not learn anything new, I will not move on to the next question, like Leslie’s son, I will soon find life stale and dull. And so will others’ around me.

So, you find yourself wrestling with a tough question, simply say “I don’t know the answer to that” and find out what the next question might be. Leslie did, and it started to bring down her stress level.

Investing in the most important work on the planet…

For the past two months I’ve been meeting with a group of professional coaches who are or are interested in coaching leaders in the social sector. One of the main topics of discussion is the fact that most CBOs (community benefit organizations) don’t invest in themselves or their own leaders. Money for professional development is limited at best, and many executive directors and board members believe that funds should always go to programs first.

What message does this send to the people who’ve chosen to spend the bulk of their time and energy working toward the mission of this organization? Is their development less important than the organization’s clients?

Can you imagine if Costco or Starbucks had this attitude? They would never be able to retain the talent that makes them successful, that gives them a competitive advantage.

Foundations and corporations are often reluctant to fund leadership coaching or other professional development efforts in the CBOs they support. If it doesn’t contribute to the “bottom line” of meeting the mission, it may seem irrelevant.

There’s a major fallacy in this line of thinking, however. Without the people who do the work, the leaders who make a difference, there are no programs, there is no mission impact.

There is a profound and I would argue essential connection between the hearts and minds of the people doing the work and the effectiveness of CBOs themselves. And we ignore this connection at our peril. Its time to put our money where our mouths are.

If we are doing the most important work on the planet, we need the very best care and feeding available. Like a top athlete who eats only the freshest, most nutritious food before a game, we deserve to care for our hearts and minds so we can do our best work, even if it’s for the good of our clients. Maybe especially so.