As a business owner or a senior leader in a growing company, asking for help can be hard. There’s a certain expectation and pressure you feel to have all the answers. Perhaps you launched your own business and are out to prove that your vision is a viable one. You want to show that you’re capable of making it a success.
What we’ve learned, though, is that vulnerability – even for the most esteemed professionals – is a part of life. It’s okay to not know everything and, importantly, it’s okay to ask questions (we wrote about this in our ABCs of What We’ve Learned So Far at &Marketing blog series under the letter “V”). If we don’t seek advice from others, we are limited to our own thoughts and perspectives, which hinders innovation. Without a trusted source of counsel, there is no growth.
One common challenge that many of our clients, partners, and friends in senior leadership positions struggle with is where they can find sound advice. As an entrepreneur and small business owner who founded a startup just a couple of years ago – and as someone who gives advice for a living – this is a challenge to which I can certainly relate. The good news is that if you’re actively seeking advice, you’re doing the right thing. The success we’ve seen at our company would not have been possible without the input from several trusted people. The question is though, where should you go for advice? And which advice should you take seriously, and which should you ignore? I’ve pulled together a few suggestions to help you be more thoughtful about where you source insight.
Free advice is worth the price
Besides being slightly humorous, the above quote is not always true. However, it sometimes is completely true, and it’s hard to tell the difference. Informally, we all get advice from those around us – our family, our employees, our customers, and the people we meet in less formal professional and personal settings. How many of us received unsolicited advice on our business at a social setting that was completely off the mark? This is the type of advice you may want to ignore.
Here are some questions to ask yourself:
Do they speak from experience? Do they know my industry or challenge?
Do they have a full understanding of my business?
Does their advice align with our company’s vision?
Do their suggestions reflect current trends and ways of working?
Are they biased in any way?
Do they have an agenda? Is there something in it for them?
“The Rule of Five”
This concept has been around for a while, but I heard it most recently from podcaster Lewis Howes, and I love his words:
“You are the mathematical average of the five people with whom you spend the most time. So, choose carefully.” – Lewis Howes
We are in control of the people from whom we receive input and who we allow into our mind-space. If people are giving you bad advice, why do you continue to listen to them, let alone allow them in your inner circle? Sometimes we all need to take a step back and assess the people with whom we share our time. Your “five” should share your values and vision. Don’t get me wrong, though – you shouldn’t always ignore critics. Facing a harsh reality, or learning to think about things from a new lens, is how we make progress – so allowing a counter-perspective can be extremely valuable. But ensure your confidants have your best interests in mind, and that they speak from a place of experience that is valuable to your situation.
How to find better advice
In helping clients with strategic guidance over the years, answering the following questions is a great first step:
What is your organization’s vision?
What are your goals for the year?
What challenges do you currently face, or what might you face in the future?
Upon whose advice should I rely?
Then, map out who might have the right insight for you:
Former colleagues, mentors, or managers. They tend to know you very well, including both strengths and weaknesses.
Subject matter experts. They may know your industry, a particular function, or important trends very well. They can help you ‘see around corners’ or identify blind spots in your thinking.
Other business owners (or people in similar roles at other companies). They can likely relate to the day to day struggle of your role and the unique associated pressures. I regularly speak to direct competitors about the challenges of managing and growing a team, working with difficult clients, and maintaining sanity.
Suppliers and vendors. Quite often, those who rely on you for their livelihoods have a wealth of knowledge.
Customers. By creating a mechanism to engage your customers as peers, you can learn quite a bit about how to better serve them. One way to ensure these customer interactions are outside of the day to day transactional nature of your relationship is by creating a customer advisory council. We have written extensively about how to go about launching a customer advisory council and the Dos and Don’ts of a Customer Advisory Council.
Team members. Don’t limit yourself by only looking externally. The big brains that are already at your fingertips may cherish the opportunity to think bigger about your business.
Mini Case Study
Recently, we helped a company looking to break out of stagnancy create an ‘advisory board.’ Their leadership team had grown the business from nothing over the past decades, but had no exit plan as their retirement drew nearer. We helped them create an advisory board to help them optimize their business processes, grow their top and bottom lines, and prepare for transition. Based on these needs, this group ended up being populated by:
a former customer, who had retired but had first-hand knowledge of the buying criteria in the industry (and a huge personal network);
a retired VP of sales who worked with our client and provides advisory services to others in the industry;
a former CFO who had relevant experience in optimizing similar companies’ product assortment by driving standardization;
an expert with experience in the private equity space who could help identify potential existing options.
Tips on finding the right mix
If you don’t already have people in your network to reach out to for advice and mentorship, here are some tips based on my experience:
Request referrals or introductions. If you already know someone in your prospective advisor or mentor’s network, ask if they’ll make an introduction. Many successful people in senior-level positions receive regular requests for advice. The name recognition may catch their eye in their inbox and up your chances of them reading the email. It may also establish credibility and build trust.
Listen first and ask questions. If you have been introduced to someone by a colleague or friend, make the effort to learn about the person and their business. Don’t dive head first into asking them for something. Ask questions about their thoughts and approach.
Make it a win-win. Don’t look self-serving. Figure out how you might be able to help this person in return. Often, formal advisory requires compensation.
Do your research. If you already have a specific person in mind that you’d like to connect with, don’t go into it blindly. Treat it like a job interview. Find as much background as you can on the individual’s experience and their business. Ask others. This will also help you determine if they’re the right fit for you.
Don’t discount “gut feel.” At first glance, those you believed would be your best potential advisors may not be the right personal fit. Personality and fit matters if you are going to rely on this person’s ongoing support and advice.
Make your message clear. While you don’t want to be too aggressive with your ask, be transparent about what your goals are the specific questions you have for them. This is especially important if you’re reaching out via email or LinkedIn. Make it easy for them to quickly understand what you’re seeking. If they have to “decode” your message, it may frustrate them, which makes a bad first impression.
In our tech-driven world, markets and customers are constantly changing. To help keep up, you need to think outside of your regular networks of suppliers, vendors, employees, friends, etc. You may not get the winning answer or solution you’re looking for right away, but an outside perspective will get your brain thinking in ways it wasn’t before, and could eventually help you come up with that next big idea.
About the Author
As the founder and Managing Director of &Marketing, Rajat “Raj” Kapur strives to provide growing businesses of all sizes unparalleled marketing strategy and execution services. Raj brings nearly two decades of professional experience in marketing, sales, and strategy development experience spanning B2B and B2C Fortune 50, mid-sized, and startups.
In today’s fast paced world, many growing businesses are struggling to modernize their marketing approaches because either they don’t have the expertise or the bandwidth to do it themselves.
&Marketing provides seasoned marketing strategy professionals and a nimble execution team to help our clients achieve their goals. Our unique partnership model allows us to augment our client’s existing teams or outsource the entire marketing function in an affordable, flexible, and transparent way.