When I landed the job of editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan eighteen years ago, I did it, crazily enough, without actually having to apply for the position. I was working then as the editor of Redbook, in the same company, and one Sunday morning my boss phoned me at home, requesting that I come into her office that day. Yikes, what had I done? When I arrived, I braced myself for bad news but instead she handed me the most delicious job of a lifetime. Talk about surprises!

In one sense having things unfold this way was great because I didn’t have to do a monster-size proposal to win the job, or sweat through a bunch of interviews with the top honchos.

But on the flip side, I was taking over without having done squat in terms of research about either the role or the magazine.

The following week I sat down with the consumer marketing person for the magazine, a very smart guy named Chris who I’d already worked with, and I confessed how unprepared I felt.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “Editing Cosmo is unambiguous. You’ll see once you get to know the reader. She’ll tell you exactly what she’s looking for from the magazine.”

And he was so right. The reader was especially straightforward in her communication (not all consumers are!), and it soon became clear that as long as I paid attention to her—through studies and surveys and focus groups, as well as reading consumer emails–I would not only survive but thrive. Perfect example: The previous editor had published a story called The Cosmo Kama Sutra just before she left. Readers emailed by the droves saying they’d loved the story and wanted a follow-up.  In one of my earliest issues, I ran a story called The Cosmo Kama Sutra II, and copies blew off the newsstands.

What Chris had reminded me of that day was the fact that knowledge really is power. When you are making any kind of big decision in your job or creating a vision for your department or company, information can be your secret weapon and propel you to new heights.

Why secret? Shouldn’t it be obvious that we all need to be absorbing information in our work? Yes, it should be. But a classic mistake I see people make again and again in business is failing to use knowledge to their advantage.  They either don’t gather it on a regular basis or reject what they discover because it makes them uncomfortable.

“Just as in love, people in business tend to hear what they want to hear– or discredit where it’s coming from,” says Jane Buckingham, president of Trendera.  “Sometimes bad news is too hard to take so people just pretend they didn’t hear it.”

Don’t let that mistake happen to you. Turn knowledge into your secret weapon. Here’s how:

Be an unrelenting mercenary for information. Regularly monitor what your consumers/customers want. Be on the look out for interesting patterns and unexpected trends.  Surveys and polls are good but they don’t tell you everything (as the last election made clear). Dig deeper. And get beyond the numbers. Gather soft data by meeting with people, picking their brains and really listening, especially between the lines.  When more than two people say something, note it.

You should also train your brain to stop and snag on facts and tidbits when they present themselves.

Once you have the info, play with it. Ask yourself, What’s really going on here? Is this telling me something brand new or something I should be nervous about? What could I do with this? Could I use it in a bigger way than I’m first realizing?

Accept info only from people who really know what they’re talking about.  I’m sure you’ve noticed this by now. People love to weigh in on all sorts of things–even when they know absolutely nothing on the subject.

So with everyone who offers info, ask yourself: How much does he know in this department? Where is she getting her information? Can I really trust what’s being said by this person?

Toughen up. The truth can hurt sometimes, and that’s exactly why people make the mistake of ignoring it. But tell yourself to get over it and face facts. As Bill Gates once said, “Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.”

And don’t rationalize. Instead, decide how you might want to take action. Is it time to change course or cut your losses?

And as much as it stings, take consolation in the fact that this is your way out of danger. The right information allows you to take charge, fix a problem, shift direction, and win the day.

When the information isn’t clear, get more information. That’s something Jane Buckingham taught me and it’s served me well. And don’t just go back to the source. Dare to ask a new set of people—as long as they know what they’re talking about.