Giving Advice: 10 Rules

Smart leaders don’t know everything they need to know  – no one does. But they do need to know enough. They require independent, objective and sometimes contrarian counsel that is highly unlikely to come from within the organization. Why is this so? Because most executives don’t know how to ask for it. And the higher one goes, the more isolated one becomes. Speaking truth to power can be a career-limiting strategy for members of the rank and file. So, important information and critical counsel is often appropriately “filtered” by those below.

A study published by Stanford University suggests that 2/3rds of CEOs today do not receive outside counsel on their leadership skills, yet “all top-ranked” CEOs have external advisors. No one is smart enough, objective enough or experienced enough to consistently know what to do or how best to do it. So, if you are in the advice-giving business, here (in brief) are my rules for doing it well:

1.  Assess if they really want it. I didn’t say need it. They must explicitly and genuinely request it. While I’m often asked for my counsel, it’s taken me a long time to understand the difference between those who actually want to hear what they don’t know and those who simply seek affirmation of what they already think they know. Of the five levels that separate ignorance from mastery, the biggest step is overcoming the difference between conscious and unconscious incompetence. (And my experience is that many executives today would rather be coddled than hear the brutal realities.)

2.  Acquire an in-depth understanding of what the advice seeker’s objectives really are  (i.e., why they are asking for help) before you respond. You cannot give appropriate guidance if you’re unaware of all relevant factors and consequential issues. Ask for specifics so you don’t overwhelm them with useless information. Most people in need of advice speak in generalities. Ask them to focus on outcomes – what it is they want to accomplish – not on the process of how they might go about achieving them.

3.  Ask yourself if you are sufficiently qualified  to provide the advice sought. Do you have the expertise or experience required to be helpful in resolving the matter at hand? If not, either tell them so or suggest someone more qualified than you.

4.  Know what your role is and is not.  Advice giving is not decision making. That responsibility rests entirely with the person receiving counsel. And your job is not to question the decisions they make. Nor is advice-giving psychotherapy – that skill must be left in the capable hands of those who are properly licensed to provide it.

5.  Ask them to repeat back what they heard you say so that quality communication is achieved.

6.  Collaborate, don’t preach. People learn better when they feel included in the solution finding. Acceptance is more likely when they have their own “fingerprints” on the action plan. Encourage and compliment their contributions; it stimulates more questions, a willingness to listen and (often) better ideas. Even the word “advice” can sometimes be intimidating; try suggestions, proposals or ideas.

7.  Suggest additional resources that can enable them to find alternative, insightful and profitable avenues for the discovery of useful information (as well as raising other pertinent questions they ought to be asking).

8.  Look for verbal and visual signs of acceptance, defensiveness or rejection. On receiving guidance, people instinctively react – positively, negatively or with wonder. If your advice is not resonating, then cease giving it. You are either boring or irritating them. That is neither your role nor your purpose.

9.  Encourage them to cherry pick. Life is not “one size fits all” nor a zero-sum equation. Tell them they are free to take what they may need and ignore the rest. Not everything we say has value, despite what we might like to believe.

10.  Ask them what their action plan (for you) will be. Do they require further exchanges or are you finished as an advice giver? Never stay beyond your “best before” date. If they want you to keep in touch, tell them the onus for that is squarely on them, not you. It’s their life, not yours. (My only advice to you, the reader, is to ignore rule #9. Don’t cherry pick the above; it’s all relevant. Good luck and good fortune!)

To my regular readers, thank you for subscribing. More musings will come your way in February.

Best regards,