Andy Katz-Mayfield | Crain's

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Andy Katz-Mayfield

Background:  

Harry's sells razors and grooming supplies online directly to customers.

The Mistake:

When I was working at Charlesbank Capital Partners, a private equity firm, four or five years into my career, I was given a one-off assignment to go figure out if we could put these two companies together and merge them. I remember at the time not really knowing anything about how this ought to be structured, not knowing anything about the industry. Standard operating procedure would be to put together a 20-page PowerPoint presentation that outlines the opportunity and some information around it and some sort of hypothesis, etc.

It was a week of pretty heavy-duty work. I spent the entire weekend on it — but again, sort of playing with half a deck because I didn't really fully understand it. I remember sending this presentation to the senior partner and setting up 15 minutes to talk through it, and him saying to me, "Well, this doesn't really feel like it makes a ton of sense here. Did you think about this? Think about that? Did you talk to anybody about it? Why didn't you grab 30 minutes with me to further go through the opportunity?"

He said he would have been much more impressed if I had thought to ask the right questions, to admit that I didn't know and do the 20 minutes of work rather than wind up spinning my wheels for a week on this issue.

It is OK not to know how to do something.

The Lesson:

If I think about the company we've built at Harry's, one of the two linchpins of our culture is this idea of continuous improvement of learning, which is related to this idea that it is OK not to know how to do something. Learning is the fun part, but don't pretend like you do know; raise your hand and say you don't know and then get the support. Asking for help, admitting when you actually don't know is the right way to manage and lead.

If you don't have the answer, actually admitting that makes it clear when you do have the answer. If somebody knows you're confident saying when you don't, people put more weight behind it when you say, "I actually do have a strong point of view on this."

It also cascades through the organization. "Hey, if the CEO of the company is comfortable saying he doesn't know or doesn't understand, then I should be comfortable doing that,” which I think for junior people is liberating. They don't feel like they have to know everything. They feel like learning is actually part of the process and the journey. 

Follow Andy Katz-Mayfield on Twitter at @AndyKatzM

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