6 Things to Do When You Don't Have a Clue

Perhaps you convinced them you were ready, or maybe someone convinced you. Either way, you’re in a new job or staring at a new project and don’t have the slightest clue where to start. You feel stupid on the inside and you wonder how badly it’s showing on the outside. Everyone’s looking to you for direction. Now what?

A Story of Not Knowing

“I know one thing, that I know nothing”-Socrates

I recently conducted a workshop on trust and strategic partnership for a group of Nigerian leaders. On paper, this was right up my alley. Trust and authenticity is my gig. I’ve lived the world of strategic partnerships. But after a few minutes listening to their stories, I realized I didn’t have a clue about building trust in their world: 6pm curfews that caused premature closings of universities and businesses; corruption and bribes; lack of tracking and systems. I was not in a position to teach, but only to help in their exploration.

I confessed.

“I’ve never been to Africa. The trust concerns you’ve shared are deeper than anything I’ve ever experienced in my life. I can’t tell you what to do to fix these issues. But like you, I am an experienced business person who cares deeply about trust and knows something it. Like you, I am a parent who longs for a better future for our children. Like you, I want to make Nigeria better. I am humbled to be your guide today in this exploration.

We worked together to build a plan.

6 Things To Do When You Don’t Have a Clue

1. Chill

It’s likely that your panic is not showing as much as you think. Breathe. People will respect that you don’t have all the answers, but they won’t follow a basket case. Show up poised and confident.

2. Trust your gut

You likely know way more than you think. As Michael Hyatt suggests just doing the next right thing. You’re in the position for a reason, trust that it wasn’t an accident. Don’t be afraid to trust your instincts and make some bold moves as needed.

3. Admit what you don’t know and articulate what you do

Chances are they already know what you don’t know. Faking it will just reduce your credibility. Begin with confident humility. Admit what you don’t know, but reassure them with what you do bring to the game.

4. Surround yourself with trusted advisors

Somebody around there knows what they’re doing. And all those somebodies put together have an arsenal of the knowledge you need. Tapping into their expertise creates engagement and gets you out of the gate quickly.

5. Do your homework

Get as smart as you can as fast as you can. Research best practices. Study failures. Dig deep. Nothing beats experience, but if you don’t have much, leverage someone elses.

6. Look the part

This one’s not vital, but a bit like chicken soup, it can’t hurt. If you’re not feeling overwhelmingly confident at least look good. It just might increase your confidence.

Posted in Authenticity & Transparency, Career & Learning and tagged , , , , , .

Karin Hurt

Karin Hurt, Founder of Let’s Grow Leaders, helps leaders around the world achieve breakthrough results, without losing their soul. A former Verizon Wireless executive, she has over two decades of experience in sales, customer service, and HR. She was recently named on Inc's list of 100 Great Leadership Speakers and American Management Association's 50 Leaders to Watch. She’s the author of 3 books: Winning Well: A Manager's Guide to Getting Results-Without Losing Your Soul, Overcoming an Imperfect Boss, and Glowstone Peak.


  1. Well Said. A well rehearsed and valid points . Thanks for sharing. I love your posts. Having said I would like to add my views 1)Brisk Walk 2)Practice house keeping 3)Read a book 4)Listen favorite song 5)Sketch picture or drawing 6)lay down simply

    • Sethupathy, So great to have you join the conversation. I do hope you will come back again and share your insights. Great adds.

  2. Great post, Karin and respect you for your honesty!

    When we are in a situation that is out of our comfort zone or expertise, I find that reaching out to others to help can be the best path to take. I experience this with participants in workshops when sometimes they have a technical background that may be contributing to an issue I am there to help with. I lean on them to roll-out their perspectives and like you just play facilitator.

    Thanks and applaud you for all your new and hard work!

    • Terri, Thanks so much. Oh yeah, technical expertise is definitely something I need to surround myself with 😉

  3. Great points, Karin.

    I especially like “trust your gut.” Our gut instinct is more reliable than we give it credit for, but we tamp it down and try to “reason” out our response instead. LIstening to what that inner voice is trying to tell us is always a good move.

    Thanks for sharing!

  4. When I don’t have a clue? I won’t tell you the exact percentage of time I feel in this awkward role, but we all have had that experience. In fact, it is a rewarding experience because it functions to help us grow. If I always stayed in my “clue-comfort” zone, I would never learn about others, take risks, and contribute to helping others on this planet. Of course, to lead others, it helps to have a few ounces of a clue before you start, but for those who are in the more difficult situation, I offer the following: (1) you are able to give empathy, (2) you are able to listen, (3) you are able to take out a pencil and be a scribe or help facilitate, (3) you can play devil’s advocate (but be transparent about this role) (4) you can use your prior skills and integrate them with the new situation. I recall one instance when I was substitute teaching. The math lesson ended and we had 20 minutes until lunch. The teacher normally had an activity planned for this 20 minutes but there was nothing in the notes. I gave the kids a taste of something that I pulled out of my previous Information Technology career. Yes, I winged it, but I also allowed me to exist. I trusted my past. “Okay. I am going to write a number between 1 and 800 on this piece of paper. Let’s raise hands and try to guess my number. And all I’ll tell you is too high or too low.” They didn’t know it, but by the 2nd game, they were developing a crude algorithm for identifying the number I wrote down. So sometimes when you don’t have a clue, bring yourself, trust yourself. Be present and integrate your past with your present. It might just be what is needed!

    • David, Fantastic story. Thanks for sharing your example. I also love your tips about empathy and listening and jumping in to do small actions and contribute as you learn. Beautiful.

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