As Stanford Business School ex-dean Robert Joss put it, “Only 20 percent of leaders have the confidence to be open to input.” In many ways, this is not a new idea:

  • “It is impossible to begin to learn that which one thinks one already knows.” – Epictetus
  • “He who knows best, knows how little he knows.” – Thomas Jefferson
  • “Nobody really knows what they’re doing. Some are just better at pretending like they do.” Kumail Nanjiani

While this is not a new idea, it does have new significance in today’s rapidly changing world in which success is often determined not by who knows most, but by who can learn and adjust best.

The 80% that think they know, aren’t open to new ideas. They won’t learn and can’t adjust. Even if they are right now, there will come a time when things change and they won’t be right. But they won’t want to let anyone see their “weakness.”

The 20% that are confident enough not to worry about being perceived as weak, know what they know and are open to new ideas, open to new learning and are happy to adjust. They go forward with their current best thinking actively looking for others to help ratchet up that thinking.

How to tell the 20% from the 80%

There are only three interview questions ever, getting at motivation, strengths and fit. Our premise is that having the confidence to be open to input is a strength. Tackle it head on. Ask for an example of a time when someone gave them input that caused them to change what they were doing for the better. Probe for the moment when they realized they were wrong and ask how they felt. Those with more confidence will have felt great that someone helped them improve. Those with less confidence will have felt bad that they needed help.

Executive Onboarding Acid Test

There’s tremendous stress for an executive onboarding into a new role. It’s a crucible of leadership. Those with enough confidence to be open to input get more help, build better relationships faster and do better.

We know 40% of new leaders fail in their first 18 months, either getting fired, forced out or quitting. We know over 90% of the people we’ve helped accelerate their onboarding were either in place or promoted during the same period. At the same time, more than half of the people offered our help and turning it down fail.

The point is not that they are bad people for turning down our help. The point is that these are some of the 80% that don’t have enough confidence to be open to input from anyone. They don’t want our help. They don’t want their peers’ help.

One of the main tenets of successful executive onboarding is converging and evolving. New leaders must become part of the team before they can help it evolve.

Those not open to input build relationships more slowly, take longer to become part of the team and often try to change the team before they’ve become fully accepted. Their ideas are rejected as “not invented here.”

On the other hand, those open to input invite help all the time making others feel needed and valuable. They tend to see these new leaders as less of a threat making it easier to accept them. Then, when those new leaders eventually float ideas for changes, their ideas our more easily accepted as coming from one of us.

For the most part new leaders fail because they don’t fit, don’t deliver, or don’t adjust to changes down the road. They can’t adjust to a change down the road if they don’t see it. And, if they don’t have the confidence to be open to input, eventually people will stop trying to give them input. They’ll stop point out things they don’t think they want to hear or see. And that includes changes to which they might need to adjust.

You can’t fix those people. But you can let others hire them and waste their time trying. Instead, hire those with enough confidence to be open to input and watch them build relationships and their team and soar to success.

Click here for a list of my Forbes articles (of which this is #832) and a summary of my book, The Merger & Acquisition Leader’s Playbook

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