Ex-Spanx CEO likes not knowing all the answers

Tuesday, October 15, 2013Fortune The Most Powerful WomenWashington, D.C., USASUMMIT NEWCOMER MEET AND GREETHosted by Herman MillerPhotograph by Stephanie Merriken / Fortune Most Powerful Women
Tuesday, October 15, 2013 Fortune The Most Powerful Women Washington, D.C., USA SUMMIT NEWCOMER MEET AND GREET Hosted by Herman Miller Photograph by Stephanie Merriken / Fortune Most Powerful Women
Photography by Stephanie Merriken -- Fortune MPW

Good leaders know the right thing to do. Great leaders know that there’s never one right thing to do.

Understanding that there’s no single right answer is one of the most difficult things for executives to grasp. Yet, in the fast-changing, unpredictable and ever more complex world, knowing that you might be wrong is a prerequisite of leading the right way.

So, I was fascinated to hear one of my favorite CEOs in transition, former Spanx chief Laurie Ann Goldman, tell me that she grew up believing that there is one right answer. It was her doctor father who drilled that trait into her, she explained on stage at the Atlanta Women’s Foundation’s annual fundraising luncheon in early November.

During her pre-Spanx career at Coca-Cola (KO), she said she met a Native American woman whose cultural background was vastly different from Goldman’s. The woman changed Goldman’s mind, literally. She showed her the value of opening her mind to “multiple answers and multiple strategies,” Goldman explained. And this helped Goldman move from Coke to Spanx in 2002, where the path to growth was less clear and founder Sara Blakely was calling the ultimate shots, sometimes not to Goldman’s liking. Goldman was CEO of Spanx for 12 years until she left the company early this year. She was instrumental in building the innovative shapewear startup into a billion-dollar business with international reach.

Now Goldman is keeping her mind open to her next career move. And here she is, on the panel that I moderated with Coca-Cola exec Katie Bayne and Best Buy’s (BBY) Paula Goodman, explaining how she learned the value of not knowing it all.

“From the MPW Co-chairs” is a series where the editors who oversee the Fortune Most Powerful Women brand share their insights about women leaders.

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