War Story 3: Don’t Figure It Out, Find Out
Eating Humble Pie on the Road to Success
When I was an undergraduate at the University of Pittsburgh, I was invited to take a graduate course at a professor’s home with students many years my senior. One day the word “anthropomorphic” came up. Ignorant of its meaning, I fashioned a phony question I thought would force our professor to reveal the meaning of anthropomorphic by using the term in another context. Instead she just smiled and said, “August, why don’t you just ask me what anthropomorphic means?”
The room erupted into laughter, my face burned, and I decided right then and there to never again hide my ignorance. My philosophy became that if I don’t know I ask. In other words I decided that humility is the best policy.
I was recently quoted in an article on Forbes.com about the role of humility in business success. In the article I cite a number of business advantages that flow from humility, but at first glance, humility may seem out of place in guerilla marketing where audacity and creativity are so important. However this dissonance probably results from our habit of associating humility with words like “diffident,” “indecisive,” “shy,” and “unassuming.”
On the contrary, authentic humility is the sign of a powerful human being. It requires lots of self confidence and personal integrity to admit ignorance, own up to mistakes, and reach out for help. The best people are so confident in their own intrinsic value that they openly acknowledge their limitations without fear that humility will be mistaken for weakness. Authenticity is the most powerful attribute a leader or brand can have, and I define human authenticity as a willingness to be transparent; even if transparency means courageously owning up to the very flaws that most of us feel compelled to hide.
On the other hand, nothing reveals true weakness more readily than an insecure person trying to paper over feelings of inadequacy with buzz words, double talk, and shameless self promotion. Besides, hiding our ignorance is often insulting because it presumes that others are too stupid to see through our charade.
My policy from college to openly admit my ignorance came in handy when we started our company. As I posted before, we started as resellers of other company’s products, and since one of my ex-students had invented a tool for software programmers we stumbled into the software tool business. At the time I knew absolutely nothing about software tools or developers, and we had precious little time or cash to spend on my education.
Instead of an expensive and time consuming trial and error approach, I picked up a magazine targeting professional developers and went to the advertiser’s index. Quickly identifying companies who made software tools, I called each one and asked for the Vice President of Marketing. Hiding nothing, I told each executive that we were just starting out, had little money, were new to the industry, and desperately needed leads for our sales force. I then just humbly asked for whatever help they were willing to offer.
Of the forty executives I contacted, only one refused my request. Far from reticent, the other 39 were eager to help out and actually seemed flattered to be asked. In a matter of days I learned what would’ve taken many months and untold dollars to learn on our own through trial and error. Beyond these immediate benefits, my exercise in humility forged friendships that later resulted in new products, joint marketing initiatives, and millions of dollars in sales.
A business mentor of mine delights in storming into interminable meetings shouting, “For God’s sake, stop figuring it out. Get off your butts and find out.” Combining the humility to ask for help with an action bias is a critical secret to guerilla marketing. If you give it a whirl, I am sure you’ll find that most people will help and be flattered you asked. Never substitute the more comfortable figuring it out, for the far more expansive strategy of finding out. No matter how good you and your team may be, most of the answers you are looking for are waiting for you outside the four walls of corporate headquarters and the four sides of that white board in the conference room. As for any reluctance you may have in approaching strangers, remember that every friend you have was a perfect stranger when you first met.
I’d welcome any comments or questions you might have. Contact me at info@AugustTurak.com