5 Ways to Take Advice

“What do you do?”

When I was starting a consulting company called Rubicon back in 1999, my nephew wanted to know what I did for a living. Having just finished running a division of a company where I was responsible for setting and delivering on a specific measurable result, I noticed I was having a much harder time describing what “consulting” is/was.

I talked for a few minutes. More likely, I rambled. Given that he was 10 years old or so at the time, he probably heard about every 3rd word of what I’m sure was too-much corporate speak. And so, he repeated the question as if I hadn’t heard him right the first time:

“What do you do?”

I tried again: “I give advice.”

And it’s still what I do. Now, as an investor, a corporate board member, etc, my role is primarily that of achieving growth by asking (hopefully smart) questions, and giving advice.

After many years of giving advice, I can say people “take” advice in 5 ways. 4 waste the effort (time/money) and 1 works.

  1. You don’t know how hard it is. The people who start by justifying to me what they’ve already tried, and why that hasn’t worked, and why it’s so stinking hard amuse me to no end. This advice taker has a little bit of a martyr, whiner personality. They confuse effort with results. They assume I don’t know that it is hard, as if I haven’t sat in that chair at some point. They almost always assume I haven’t done my own research on the topic before hand. I want to say something like: “Yes, it’s hard. Now what?”  If they feel the need to justify why they are stuck where they are, they only affirming where they are now, and likely stay where they are. If someone spends time giving you advice and pushing you to your “A” game…. it means they care. Stop defending the “as is” if you want to move forward.
  2. I already tried all that / thought of that. After you give advice, they spend time telling you that it already fits into what they’ve been thinking about. Nothing is new. Nope, they know it all. Or they’ve tried it all. It embodies narcissism because, of course, it is all about what they already know. Sometimes, it embodies defensiveness because of they believe they should already know. Either way, this approach defeats learning. If someone spends time telling you they already know everything, just remember that most success is execution-related, and move on. They apparently know what they need to know and they have (for whatever reason) not yet gotten clear on what is stopping them from acting on all their own brilliance. If you feel this describes your approach, stop talking with anyone and, as Nike would suggest, just do it.
  3. I should be getting help. I’ll never forget a certain senior executive who invited us to run a collaboration session. The goal was to work on something that was “the most mission critical thing the company needed to work on in the next 2 years”. About 50 key people needed to be involved. So, after thinking of ways to design a transformative dialogue that would create buy-in through engagement and collaboration, I advised to do a 2-day session. But this got shot down. It was already planned to be a 2-hour meeting. The most important thing that the company would be working on for the next 2 years was allocated 2 hours to “collaborate together”. After pointing out the logic flaw: that 2-hours wasn’t even enough time for people to do each do an intro or to ask a question – and defied the word collaboration which is to co-labor together  – I found a way to run far, far away. This person gives all the appearance of asking for advice, but keeps their own counsel. And, just so I’m clear, keeping your own counsel is not a bad thing. But in this example, by seeking advice when you already have a set and unmovable plan, you are not asking for help. Nope. You are asking for air cover. If you’ve ever done this, just realize you’re wasting everyone’s time and people just go limp when you ask for help the next time.
  4. Nodding without Understanding. Do you ever get the sense that the person you’re giving advise to has no real idea what you’re talking about? They are simply nodding and taking notes and saying “hmm” and “ah-hah” at just the right moments. They are afraid to ask you what they don’t know. They think their gap areas are too “stupid” for you. And so they shut down that part of them that doesn’t get it, and secretly hope they never get asked to explain what you just said cause they only heard the buzzwords but have no idea what implication it holds for them. If you are the person nodding without understanding, just remember that any person who cares about you wants to know what you don’t get so they can help bridge the gap. Your nodding now only loses you credibility in the long run, because you can’t act on the advice, and ultimately kick some ass.
  5. What about this? The person who engages advice with “what does this mean, or how could that work, or that doesn’t jive with this other advice I’ve received”…this person is processing the advice and trying to make something shift and work. By challenging and questioning the pieces that don’t fit into their existing understanding or meta model, they are creating an opportunity for the advice to make sense for them, and the specific situation at hand. Every situation is different and figuring out what advice makes most sense in this circumstance is an issue of preciseness. Applying operational knowledge as well as an understanding of the humans involved … to give / get advice has to consider all of that. I mentioned in example #3, where someone challenged the advice by keeping their own counsel. To give the appearance of asking for advice when you have no intention of being influenced by your collaborator is to effectively (and I’ll mince no words here) lie. Challenging advice with specific questions, with the intent to create a real solution that’ll work… this is key. Then, challenging and questioning helps both the advisor and the advisee design a solution that will work for this situation, and actually make a difference to the outcome. If you have behaved as the example of #2, you might want share what you’ve tried, why you think it worked/didn’t work and ask for more grounded advice. Saying “I’d like to share what hasn’t worked for me before so you can help me troubleshoot” to move this dialogue forward.

The point of all advice is to make _______ (pick from: new / good / market-impacting / growth / life-affirming) stuff happen. To defend, or to explain, or to agree without really understanding…this keep things the status quo … which I’m thinking is not your goal or the point if you’re asking for advice in the first place.

It’s a skill to know how to give advice. However it is ALSO a skill to take advice. I believe this skill to know how to take (good) advice is a key differential between those that cross that finish line, and those that don’t.

So my young nephew characterized what I do back then as this: “You tell people what to do and they listen.” “Well, yes,” I answered back, “…on a good day.”

But I add to my understanding of many years ago:  To give advice is not enough. To be effective, advice must be connected to the situation at hand, and be received by people who can do something about it. And to do so, both the advisors and advise-getters have to working together, to co-create the solution that makes sense for this place and this time.

12 Replies

  1. Great post Nilofer – I have encountered all of those both in my own reactions, as well as others.

    I’ll add Number 6: “That’s a good point. I think I’ll take that into account next time.” While they may not have as many questions, they may have not seen this angle that you offer. It happens often, since we like to believe we are objective and can consider every angle, we can’t. It follows with Kathryn Schultz “On Being Wrong.” We have limitations. This person recognizes their limitations and sees that you have something of value to offer them. After hearing your advice, assuming it is given appropriately, they understand what you mean and mark it as a learning opportunity for next time. This person doesn’t consider failures if they came away learning something.. which is this case, could be the advice you offer.

    1. Todd – nice point that sometimes that best role we can take as an advice taker is that of being open to shifting.

    1. Very important point that ultimately no advice giver should just be “blindly” followed. That’s like the people who just say nice things instead of thoughtful things. We have our own ideas, and those are important but when we ask for advice (when we need it), we ought to know how to take advice in….

      I get a lot of people asking for advice but then it is as if they are running outta Dodge as if an idea might catch ’em and change ’em and it might hurt.

  2. Wow

    Wonderful post Nilofer

    I was about to have a nap but I choose not to and instead read this till the end

    I hope you don’t consider me type 1 about the advice you gave me 🙂

    God bless you sis


    1. Khalid –
      By writing on every post, you’re coming across very stalker like. 😉

      We exchanged an email about your personal situation (and let’s leave out specifics here) and your answer back was (to broadly sum it up) to say you did not have enough time/or money.

      And since you asked, I feel you deserve a really direct answer.

      Yes, of course, that exchange falls into scenario #1. Because the reality is EVERYONE has limitations on time and money. Yours might be different in some way but if something really were important to you, you’d find a way. You would. Each of us use our time and money as reflections of our **priorities**. So while any of us can say we can’t do such and such because we don’t have the time and/or the money, what is really being said: I don’t choose this; I choose other things.

      When I used to lead strategy sessions, every team used to start with “we can’t do that; we don’t have the resources”. And that’s never actually the actionable truth. The actionable truth is that we are choosing to put our resources over at X rather than Y because of something we’ll define as ____. After the specific _____ was shared, then we had more information to work with. Time and money are often foils that obscures the real problem and real choice the team and/or person is making.

      I think of the dynamic of #1 as this: If there’s a scale of 1-100, and the current situation would put the team or person on say the 80 yard line, then taking good advice is closing the gap between the 80 and 100. This is not to say getting to the 80 yard line was easy. Of course it took work. But the point of advice is to help you achieve (using the metaphor to its fullest) the touchdown. I see teams spending a lot of energy saying how hard it was to get to 80. And I’m not trying to be insensitive or anything … but… OF COURSE it was. The question that’s left is this: do you want the touchdown?

  3. Hmmm, I would rather call myself a fan of your posts 

    I promise you that I will take this more seriously

    Thanks Nilofer for your GREAT Advice


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