The Fine Art of Asking for Advice and Providing It

Published in UT San Diego, April 6, 2015

I need some advice.

OK, that’s what you say you need, but are you willing to listen, will you know good advice when you get it, will it be given by someone who actually knows what he is talking about, can that person deliver it in a way that is effective, and can it be absorbed? In other words, to paraphrase MasterCard and American Express — good advice is priceless, don’t leave home without it.

So once more into the breach we turn to Harvard professor David Garvin, who has written extensively on advice. I am fascinated by this topic. I know what you know you know, but do you know what I need to know?

The first challenge is to be willing to ask for advice. Many executives suffer from overconfidence-itis. In particular, men often find it hard to ask for directions when they are behind the wheel. “I know where I’m going. I just can’t find it yet.”

(Neil’s note: I frequently miss the exit off-ramp when Barbara is not in the car.)

Now we come to the nuances. Garvin points out that if you ask for too much advice too frequently, you are perceived poorly, but if you do not ask for advice, you are sometimes perceived as arrogant and aloof — a-know-it-all.

So here are the challenges. First, choosing the wrong advisers can be hazardous to your health (at least your business health). But if you choose well, then you need to define the problem clearly — you can’t just lament that you are unhappy.

Then after you get some advice, the first tendency is to discount it, especially if it was given for free. It’s “worth what you pay for it” often gets in the way of hearing. The egocentric bias can also obscure good advice. Do you really want advice or only validation?

My partner and I get pitched deals frequently. We listen, and then we try to offer constructive advice. What we find frustrating at times is that we know the entrepreneur did not listen. He repeats his mantra; he doesn’t answer the question.

Our obligation is to not just give advice, but also to provide our reasoning. For good advice to be considered, you cannot just jump to the answer or the conclusion — e.g., turn left — you need to explain that there is road construction over there, and if you turn right, you will fall into the canyon.

Now here is one of my favorites. Just because you are a famous Hollywood movie star does not mean that you have anything worthwhile to say about the budget deficit. Being really good at shooting baskets does not in and of itself qualify you to opine on subjects such as paleoanthropology. Famous is not the same as knowledgeable on the subject. Welcome to media land where just because you started a handbag company, you can give advice on venture term sheets. Stop the madness.

As an advice giver, beware of self-centered guidance. “I remember when I was a young CEO standing in your shoes …” Yikes, leave the room quickly. Shoes with buttons went out last century.

Listening well is difficult and complex. It requires you to suspend action; you can’t just pick up the phone and start dialing.

(Neil’s note: For those of us with ADD, reread the above paragraph.)

For the advice seeker, remember not to leave out key pieces of information, even if they are uncomfortable. This is the “do not lie to your lawyer syndrome,” especially if you actually robbed the bank.

Advice is a two-way street. It is a dialogue, not a monologue. It is critical for the entrepreneur to ask clarifying questions. Garvin says, “There’s a tendency to forget it’s not about you, how smart you are and how helpful you feel you can be, but it’s about being experienced by the advisee as helpful.” The goal is not to give answers or solutions — but rather options. Leave the door ajar so the entrepreneur can make the decision.

At the end of the day, I think the advice game is a lot like psychotherapy — gentle probing, looking to alleviate the misery of human existence. However, as Freud said, “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”


Rule No. 396

I know you know what you know. Can I get a second opinion?

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