What all good leaders know: Advice on seeking advice

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Despite tongue and cheek quotes on advice ranging 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, or “When we ask advice we are usually looking for an accomplice.” Charles Varlet de La Grange, Pensées, there is a serious need or room for advice in our personal and professional lives.

Based on my personal experiences and observations, I have developed some thoughts on what good leaders know when it comes to looking for answers elsewhere.

Advice on seeking advice

Before seeking advice, first determine your own personal frame of mind on what you are looking for, and the specificity of your decision. This is crucial step because it will help you identify who to seek advice from, and perhaps, most importantly, then act on it.

Here is a framework that helps me at least identity the type of advice hence the advisor that I am seeking.

Scenario 1: These are topics where a specific “go or no go” or “do or don’t” type decision must be made, and it is related to a specific topic or area.

The best folks to seek advice on such topics are those who are in similar situations as you but perhaps at a more senior level than yourself. This is one case where experience does matter, for it is only having gone through certain motions a few times before does one qualify for advice on this matter.

For example, a friend who started his own IT services company was looking for help on an RFP for a state government project. There was a particular question on sub-contracting that he needed some guidance on how to respond. First he was hesitant in speaking to another person who was in the same business and so he was in conversations with others like his classmates who were partners in big consulting firms.

All he got was generic advice that ranged from have a lawyer look at it (“wow, how come I did not think of that”) to classical business gobbledygook like “enable the right framework to deliver customer value”. Finally, he got his answer when he spoke to another senior in the same industry who provided him with specific text that needs to be provided for the question.

Two key learnings from this experience, one stay away from advice givers who provide generic suggestions, this is usually best determined if the advice starts to get filled with usual business buzzwords and the second learning is that for prior experience in a particular field or area is key requirement one should seek in an advice giver.

Scenario 2: The second topic on which most of us need advice is around “How should I think about my future regarding topic A or possibility B”, these are usually more broad topics that do not need a decision to be made like in earlier case.

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 advise on such topics reach a broader audience, experience or domain knowledge is perhaps not the right criteria here because that may often lead you down the well-trodden path.

For example, post MBA I was unsure about which career direction to move ahead, I had an offer from a reputed management consulting firm and an internet upstart along with positive signs from a few traditional companies. There was a clear lure of money or future riches but I was convinced that it was not the only leading dimension. So I sought advice from folks who were just graduating from undergraduate and either starting their own or joining a start-up to those who were in mid-point of their careers and closer to retirement.

Once again general advice emerged with advice like “follow your passion”, “make a list of your strengths”, while these may sound very cool but again when someone says these phrases to you, they really do not mean anything other than go figure it out on your own.

However, I did get some good advisors as well, the best one came from someone who was at mid-point in his career and was able to articulate what each of these career choices would entail and then asked me to visualize when I was happiest in my career so far and what was I doing at that point in time. Seeking advice from someone who was too much senior than me would not help either because they are probably disconnected from the situation given their life or career journey. That was the “aha” moment for I was able to relate to the career choice where I would potentially be the best fit, I am not sure if I was able to find my passion and follow it but certainly it did help draw a line in the sand about a future career option.

Scenario 3: Finally, the third kind of situation where one seeks advice is on topics where we are usually seeking validation for situations where the person has made up his or her mind.

In these situations, all you need from your advisors is that final assurance often found in conversations with parents, grandparents, and priests which range from “it will all be well” and “it always works out in the end”. This is the tricky one although it is most common occurring situation, do not confuse this with the earlier two sections because here you really do not want anyone questioning your decision or providing alternatives, because you have already made up your mind and you really do not want to introduce new decision points.

Seek advice from close friends and family on such topics, they will provide you the necessary moral support and confidence along with the obvious checks on whether what you are going to be is not fatal or obviously stupid.

So there you have it – my advice on seeking advice. Hopefully this helps you as you seek advisors, and more importantly assists in weeding out those who supply generic suggestions. Finally, never confuse advice with an opinion.

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Rohit Tripathi

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