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Put Advice to the Test

“Put Advice to the Test”

Learn how to recognize wise counsel from your peers, mentors, partners and board — and reject everything else.

As the owner of a fast-growing business, you probably get plenty of advice — whether you ask for it or not. Mentors and board members make suggestions. Your peers or partners may share their knowledge. Then there’s the steady stream of commentary from your employees and customers.

Your challenge is deciding whether to accept or reject that advice.

"The toughest part of getting advice is listening to others, as opposed to thinking you know," says Tom Caldwell, co-founder of TDI Products, an engineering and manufacturing firm in Jacksonville Beach, Fla. "If you’re like most entrepreneurs — confident and aggressive — that can be a shortfall when it comes to weighing advice properly."

Read between the lines

Your preconceptions can influence how you digest advice. If you want others to second your decisions or urge you to do what you’re already leaning toward, then you’ll latch onto pleasing advice and disregard everything else. But if you’re genuinely unsure what to do, you might follow an expert’s counsel blindly — especially if you’re paying top dollar for it.

Yet some of the best advice comes when you least expect it. A colleague may share a customer-service anecdote. An employee may complain about your company’s benefits. A member of your advisory board may ask you a series of fact-finding questions.

By listening, you may discover that the speaker is offering thinly disguised advice. Your colleague may want you to upgrade delivery. Your employee may be warning you to enhance your benefit package to keep your best people.

Once you realize that the best feedback doesn’t necessarily occur when someone puts an arm around you and says, "Let me give you some advice," you can appreciate the subtle hints and indirect guidance that less-attentive business owners miss.

Above all, set up checkpoints to test the validity of advice before acting on it. Create tracking systems that help quantify your progress — or lack of it — and tweak your plan as necessary to improve your results.

Recognize wisdom

Trust yourself always, trust others sometimes.

That’s a favorite expression of leaders who get lots of advice. They rely on their own common sense to separate wise counsel from misguided recommendations.

Plumb the motives of advice-givers. Determine if they share your goals and put your interests first. Question what they might gain or lose by your actions. Other tips:

  • Withhold judgment. Realize that you’re not supposed to like the sound of advice from the get-go. It might even sound crazy or terrible at first. Mull it over for a day or two before you render a judgment.
  • Assess the bottom-line payoff. When you hear advice, evaluate the speed with which you can translate the feedback into improved cash flow. If you’re told to implement tighter bookkeeping procedures, for instance, the bottom-line benefit should be straightforward and somewhat easy to measure. But if you’re advised to "think about how communication works within the company," it’s harder to know what to do to produce a payoff.
  • Separate the message from the messenger. Some of the best advice can come from surprising sources, such as vendors or part-time employees. Weigh all feedback fairly, whether it’s from experts or rookies. Examine advice on its own terms.
  • Engage your gut. Whether you’re inclined to accept or reject input, give your intuition a chance to chime in. Ask, "Does this sound right to me?" Beware of seemingly sensible advice that raises concerns you can’t articulate. If your gut sounds an alert, forget about the advice for a few days. Then revisit the issue, and see if you still feel queasy about it.

Writer: Morey Stettner, a management writer and trainer in Portsmouth, N.H., is the author of "Skills for New Managers" (McGraw-Hill, 2000). stettner@attbi.com

CEOs Making it Happen:

Smarts from an unlikely sage

John Metzger John Metzger gets some of his best business advice from the building owner who leases office space to Metzger Associates Inc., a public relations firm in Boulder, Colo. Metzger’s landlord is an Iranian Jew with a penchant for using parables and riddles.

Metzger, CEO and founder, recalls a discussion about how to weather an economic downturn. His landlord asked, "What’s the first thing you do when you find out your well is poisoned?" Metzger’s answer: "You stop drinking the water."

"He nodded and said the first thing you do in a down economy is to stop spending money where you don’t have to," Metzger says. "If you have to make cuts, do it now. Don’t wait. Don’t try to analyze the poison. Don’t start digging another well. Stop spending!"

Metzger has achieved sales growth of 677% between 1996 and 2000.

Advice that’s tough to swallow

For Tom Caldwell, some of the best advice hurts the most. Caldwell co-founded TDI Products, an engineering and manufacturing firm, in March 2000. The Jacksonville Beach, Fla.-based company has already hit $1 million in sales.

One of TDI’s board members often advises Caldwell. But that doesn’t mean Caldwell accepts what he hears with a smile.

After Caldwell outsourced some stages of the manufacturing process, high payroll costs posed a problem. As Caldwell struggled with whether to cut staff, his board member said, "If you can’t keep every employee busy, you have to get rid of them. You’re not there just to keep people employed. The business exists to make money."

"I hated to think that way," Caldwell confesses. "But the more I looked at the numbers, and the more I thought that here’s a board member who’s in business 40 years and knows what he’s talking about, I came around."

A question of leadership

Steven Lassig Before Steven Lassig launched Technology Professionals Corp. (TPC) in 1996, he was project manager for a pharmaceutical firm. His boss once asked him, "What do you think a leader should be?" Before Lassig could answer, his manager added, "Think about it first. Come back when you have it worked out."

Lassig realized he was creating a blueprint for the kind of executive he wanted to become. He concluded that a leader "treats people the way you want to be treated."

When Lassig founded TPC, a technology staffing and consulting firm in Grand Rapids, Mich., he sought to build trust among his staff, challenge them and give them control of their destiny. That’s all part of how he defined leadership — with his old boss’s guidance.

"My manager let me figure things out for myself," Lassig says. "You can tell people what to do, but if you find a way for them to figure it out for themselves, it becomes much more meaningful advice."

Lassig’s leadership has propelled TPC’s 2,000% growth rate over five years. With 100 employees, TPC’s turnover rate of 6% stands out in an industry with average turnover of 30%-50%.