The surprising value of ‘I don’t know’

No one has all the answers all the time, even the best sales leaders. Adam Kay from Paddle explains.

Back in June, we staged our second #SaasGrowth conference, at Here East, part of London’s Olympic Park. There were over 250 SaaS professionals in the audience, watching more than 40 of London’s foremost SaaS experts share their knowledge. Even if you couldn’t make it, we want to share the inspiration and education with you through our #SaaSGrowth2019 articles.

Adam Kay

Adam Kay was on our ‘Confidence and Leadership: Real Talk’ panel along with Elaine Tyler from Venatrix and Tom Castley from Apptio. Adam is VP of Sales at Paddle, building the platform that software companies use to run and grow. Paddle is backed by Notion, BGF and Kindred with over $18m in funding.

However, Adam hasn’t always been in SaaS sales. His experiences before joining the industry give him a different perspective from sales ‘lifers’.

‘My background is in law. I watched too many of those American law shows. It was a huge mistake.’

‘But, my background gave me a hard work ethic. I also got trained to say ‘I don’t know.’

I don’t know

Three simple words. Most of the time, they’re the exact words we need to say. Do we really have a complete and comprehensive answer for every question we get asked? So why is it something we’re often afraid to say?

‘In my career, especially as I’ve moved into management and leadership, too many people are trying to show that they know it all on day one.’

‘I don’t know’ is often seen as a sign of weakness, an admittance that you’re not smart enough to be in the room. However, if you tell someone that you know something when you don’t, you’re creating a whole new set of problems.

The magic of ‘I don’t know’

Rather than a weakness, saying ‘I don’t know’ should be seen as a strength. For a start, it’s the truth. Second, it’s showing your human side. Finally and most importantly, no one can know everything.

As a sales leader, you’ll be in the room making essential decisions with the input of people with different skills from yourself. There may be technical experts, finance people, professionals in HR and law. Sales is an essential component of what makes an organisation successful, but it is still only one part. You’re not there to know everything.

‘We work in startups and scaleups. Nobody knows the answers to everything. I put my hand up and say I don’t know the answer. Then, I try to hire really smart people so we can sit in a room and figure it out.’

When you admit to yourself and your team that you don’t have all the answers, it gives you the license to hire people with different skills and perspectives, rather than clones of yourself.

Plus, you get to the answer quicker when you ask questions.

Being yourself

As is often the case in sales, it all comes down to self-awareness. Are you being yourself, or are you playing a role, being someone you’re not?

‘I try to develop my team to be themselves. It’s all about authenticity. I don’t mind if someone comes to me and says ‘I know I’m not the most outgoing person, but I’m great at building relationships and building value. That’s how I’m going to be successful.’ If that fits with how we’re going to take our solution to market, I’m hiring them.’

You don’t need to be the type of person who always wants to be centre-stage to be successful in sales. Confidence, humility and honesty will always be more desirable traits.

So, next time you pretend you know something, or just nod along as someone talks to you about something you have no clue about, stop. Then, utter those three magic words ‘I don’t know’. See what happens.

Over to you

Adam Kay told the #SaaSGrowth2019 audience that there is no shame in not having all the answers. Now, we want to know what you think.

What other ways are there to build authenticity as a salesperson? When has saying ‘I don’t know’ helped you?

Let us know in the comments below.

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