When it comes to business, we all get advice from a variety of sources, solicited and unsolicited. Advice can be helpful in many ways, especially for business leaders who are facing major decisions for which there is no one easy answer. The kind of advice we receive is worth a close look.
Often business leaders and CEOs are reluctant to seek or listen to advice. They think they should have all the answers or that they should be like Superman: invincible. But CEOs do get advice, from any number of sources – business partners, employees, friends, spouses, and professionals. The advice may be relevant and useful, or it may be biased, misinformed, or non-constructive.
When was the last time you thought about the advice you receive and how well it is serving you? Who gives you advice? How do you distinguish useful advice and eliminate advice that is not useful or constructive? How can you be more deliberate and capitalize on good advice?
The following is a three-step process to access advice that can add real value to your business.
1. Take an advice inventory
Create an inventory of the kinds of advice that would be useful to you. First, list the issues of immediate concern in your business and those decisions critical to the future of your company. Smart business leaders focus on the big-ticket items that contribute to business sustainability. These include business leadership, strategy, staff, operations, client management, and the values that shape your business culture. Specific matters that are top of mind for business owners and CEOs include the following:
• Strategic planning and managing through different economic cycles;
• Risk management;
• Relationships among partners and owners, especially if they are also managers or employees;
• Human resources and people management;
• Client/customer procurement and retention;
• Business ethics and culture;
• Accountability and reporting;
• Quality and product management;
• Performance evaluation and compensation;
• Succession planning;
• Balancing personal and business life;
• Financial strategy and planning; and
• Anything else that keeps you up at night.
2. Find the best sources of advice
You can seek advice casually, occasionally, or on a more formal and regular basis.
First, look inside your company. You can source a wealth of insight and feedback from people at all levels of your organization using a variety of processes. Regular meetings of business partners and with the management team are essential. This is how you maintain relationships, keep the lines of communication open, and exchange important information.
Staff also welcome the opportunity for engagement. Well-designed regular evaluations and surveys of staff can yield input on any number of important matters. Also encourage informal opportunities to provide feedback. And by far the most effective means of getting advice from your employees is to be a “walk-around” CEO.
Business leaders regularly get advice from professional advisers, such as lawyers, accountants, financial advisers, and a range of specialized consultants. Ensure you are getting the service you need from wise, ethical advisers who resolutely act in your best interests. A young second-generation business leader asked recently whether he must “inherit” his dad’s lawyer or whether he could choose himself. It is a good question to ask.
Many networking groups, such as TEC Canada, the Young Entrepreneurs’ Organization (YEO), and the Family Enterprise Exchange (FEX, formerly the Canadian Association of Family Enterprise, CAFE), are keen to serve the interests of business leaders. These professional organizations give business peers a safe and confidential environment in which they can speak openly about matters of mutual interest.
Often business leaders and CEOs are reluctant to seek or listen to advice.
Another source of advice, often undertapped, is personal mentors. We all encounter people who are role models and who influence us, even inadvertently. Any of these people would likely be pleased to make themselves available to you for periodic exchanges. Make a plan to meet them and draw more deeply on their wisdom and insights.
Another rich source for feedback is your clients and customers. They are the best indicators of whether your business is on track for continued success or slipping in some undetected way. One very successful Saskatoon business owner calls customers every week for a chat. In doing so, he keeps a finger on the pulse of customer satisfaction and lets his customers know they are important to him.
A more formal approach to securing advice is through an advisory board or an active corporate board of directors. An advisory board consists of people you choose – trustworthy, thoughtful, experienced people who will provide you with honest feedback and support as you face the challenges of business from your solitary leadership seat. Avoid people pleasers or “yes-men” (yes-people) and people who already have a vested, and thus conflicted, interest, such as friends, relatives, and your professional advisers. Developing an advisory board or corporate board structure requires some upfront investment, but it can reap great rewards.
On the more spontaneous side, invite a variety of people for lunch or coffee to explore all kinds of ideas and opinions. People are generally quite happy to be asked to share their thoughts.
3. Develop a good process
You will still receive some spontaneous, unsolicited advice. Sift through this advice and draw on what is useful. Discourage negative advice and discontinue relationships that are not constructive and reinforcing.
For solicited advice, be particular and proactive about the what, the who, and the how.
Schedule regular meetings with your partners or shareholders, and with your management team. Ensure the meetings are well-planned, with a fixed agenda and timeline and a skilled chairperson or meeting facilitator. Also, the right atmosphere can open the door for useful input and for critical reporting on, as one CEO put it recently, “the good, the bad, and the ugly”.
Consider how best to connect with your customers and key stakeholders, individuals who are key to your long-term success. There are any number of ways to do this effectively.
Those people closest to you in your personal life have a vested and sincere interest in your success. Keep them sufficiently informed about your business and consider their views as a balance among others.
Your attitude toward advice-seeking matters. Advice is only useful and forthcoming if you are open to it. Be aware of cognitive bias – humans are instinctively averse to changing their views and opinions. You must have a good sense of self, an open mind, and a willingness to truly listen if you are to benefit from the advice of others. The first question potential advisory board members often ask is, “will the owner really listen to what I have to say?”
Your business, your priorities and your needs change over time. Review your advisory network periodically and make adjustments.
Finally, acknowledge the gift of advice. The final decisions will always be yours to make, but they will be better informed if you tap into the wisdom of others.
Smart people surround themselves with even smarter people. Smart, brave people also actively seek frank input and feedback. Start now to maximize on advice for your business.
First published in the June 2018 edition of The Business Advisor.