We’ve all heard tongue-in-cheek quotes on advice, from “Advice is what we ask for when we already know the answer but wish we didn’t.” (Erica Jong, How to Save Your Own Life) to “When we ask advice, we are usually looking for an accomplice.” (Charles Varlet de La Grange, Pensées). But there is a serious need or room for advice in our personal and professional lives.
Based on my personal experiences and observations, here are some thoughts on what good leaders know when it comes to looking for answers elsewhere.
Advice on seeking advice
Before seeking advice, determine your own personal frame of mind on what you are looking for and the specificity of your decision. This is a crucial step, because it will help you identify who to seek advice from, and perhaps most importantly, it will help you act on it.
Here is a framework that helps me identify the type of advice—hence, the advisor—I am seeking.
Scenario 1: Topics for which you must make a specific “go or no-go” or “do or don’t” decision.
The best folks to seek advice on such topics are those who are in similar situations but are perhaps at a more senior level. This is one case where experience does matter, for only by having gone through certain motions a few times can one offer advice.
For example, a friend who started his own IT services company was looking for help on an RFP for a state government project. He needed some guidance on how to respond to a particular question on subcontracting. At first, he was hesitant to speak to another person who was in the same business, so he consulted with classmates and others who were partners in big consulting firms.
All he got was generic advice, from “Have a lawyer look at it” (wow, why didn’t I think of that?) to classic business gobbledygook like “Enable the right framework to deliver customer value.” Finally, he got his answer from another senior in the same industry, who provided him with specific text to provide for the question.
There are two key lessons from this experience:
- Stay away from advisers who provide generic suggestions. This is usually easy to recognize when advice is full of business buzzwords.
- Prior experience in a particular field or area is a key requirement for an advice giver.
Scenario 2: “How should I think about my future regarding Topic A or Possibility B?” These are usually broad topics that do not necessarily require decisions.
In seeking advice on such topics, one is usually more pensive mood and grappling with the bigger uncertainties ahead. As the great Yogi Berra said, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” For advice on such topics, reach a broader audience. Experience or domain knowledge may not be the right criteria.
For example, post-MBA, I was unsure about which career direction to take. I had an offer from a reputable management consulting firm and an internet upstart, along with positive signs from a few traditional companies. There was the lure of money, but I was convinced that it was not the only leading dimension. So I sought advice from folks who were just graduating with their undergraduate degrees and either starting their own company or joining a startup as well as those who were in mid-point of their careers and closer to retirement.
General advice ranged from “follow your passion” to “make a list of your strengths.” While these may sound cool, they all they’re really saying is “Figure it out on your own.”
However, I did get some good advisors as well. The best one was someone who was at the mid-point in his career, who articulated what each career choices would entail. He then asked me to visualize when I was happiest in my career and what was I doing at that point. (Seeking advice from someone who was too senior may not have helped because they may have been too disconnected from my situation given their life or career journey.) That was the “aha” moment when I was able to relate to a career choice that would potentially be the best fit. I am not sure if I was able to find my passion and follow it, but it certainly did help me draw a line in the sand about a future career option.
Scenario 3: Seeking validation for situations in which you have already made up your mind.
In these situations, all you need is the reassurance of conversations with parents, grandparents, or clergy: “It will all be well” and “It always works out in the end.” Although this is the most common situation, don’t confuse it with the previous two scenarios. You don’t want anyone questioning your decision or providing alternatives when you have already made up your mind.
Seek advice from close friends and family on such topics. They will provide moral support, boost your confidence, and make sure what you are planning to do is not dangerous or unwise.
I hope this article helps you seek advisors and weed out those who supply generic suggestions. A final piece of advice: Never confuse advice with an opinion.
For more insight on business leadership, see Can You Lead Without Formal Authority?