Whose Advice Should You Listen To?

Picture yourself with a significant, challenging question that you pose to three different people. The advice you get in return is conflicting, but seemingly logical and definitely heartfelt. There's no lack of confidence in their advice.

You should listen to each advisor, of course, but which should you weight most heavily?

Before we get into that, let me mention this really interesting phenomenon around the healthy mix between confidence and inquiry. You can't really move forward as an agency owner without some degree of confidence that the course of action you're choosing is the right one, but you also have to be slightly open to being wrong at every turn.

If I offer some advice to a client and face immediate and strong pushback, I'll often say something like this: "I've seen so much evidence that [what I've just stated] is true, but I always want to be open to learning some new twist. If [what client believes] is true, it seems like it would be an exception, and it would really surprise me. Can you explain further?"

So the point is to have the right mix of confidence and humility. I mean, goodness gracious, how else do we learn? Every new realization counters some deeply held belief we have been relying on. So think of your deeply held beliefs as this slowly growing collection of truisms with some high walls around the collection, but you regularly open the door to some new insight, against which you have to re-check the other beliefs that are already inside those walls. I started writing a book years ago called "A Recently Examined Life" and it's still under such constant examination that I'm not sure I'll ever finish it.

This brings up the question of who you should listen to. I made a note to myself back in August of last year to write about this, and I've been collecting various thoughts since then, but an article by an acquaintance of mine really prompted me to finish this. Be sure to read Josh Bernoff's article, too. It's really good.

Listen to Outsiders

They don't understand your world, but there are many things to learn from other worlds. You're at a neighborhood BBQ and some fellow opines about how he doesn't understand why an app dev firm doesn't act more like a real estate agent franchise, and your first instinct is to find someone else to talk to...but then you realize that maybe he has a point.

This advice is seldom useful, but when it provides that rare applicable insight, it'll be absolutely golden. It's one of the best ways to make more than incremental gains. Besides, you want to keep getting invited to those BBQs.

Listen to Peers

This value is exactly what drives peer groups, and especially ones that gather your industry peers and not groups that just gather entrepreneurs of various industries. In these industry peer groups, the draw is community, mainly, and especially when the pretense disappears and there's this generous spirit that works because of transparency. When they're pitching against each other, the gloves are off, but mainly they regularly make each other's lives better. The danger is that the freely-given advice is worth about what you pay for it. Like intermarriage in Kentucky (just north of me), things just descend into weirdness. In these discussion groups, there's a mix of fantastic advice and really lousy ideas. The mix includes fresh ideas...and some practices that are like poison ivy the industry can't get out of the flower garden.

Like what, you say? Dev shops don't need account managers, project management is a stepping stone to account management, we can effectively put a non-equity leader in charge of the firm while we collect checks doing something else somewhere, and a hundred others. These groups are fantastic places for community and valuable places for valuable advice, if you sort through it.

This advice is very kind, often useful, always free or inexpensive, seldom tested, and infrequently applied deeply and directly to you. You're safest here to be a giver of this advice, because this will require you to think more deeply about what you believe. That's almost a better way to find the truth: to defend it. And when you do listen to peers, listen to the ones who are actually successful and who have been consistently correct.

Listen to Experts

Where to start on this one? My most recent book includes this in the intro, so maybe I can get this off my chest and then calm down a little:

This book is different, though. In the wrong hands it’ll be misused. It’ll allow idiot consultants who have no business in the business to create a second life and extend their influence. It will reveal the secrets to attracting gullible followers who have more money than discernment. These fraudsters will show up all over the internet with “hacks” for this and “secrets” for that. Meanwhile, they will have done nothing of substance in their work lives except spread the word about how to build MRR spreadsheets on the way to some magical M/A exit. There will be the obligatory Instagram selfie in front of a fast car and a friendly invitation that “you could be me, too.” They are the modern snake oil salesmen.

The problem with experts (including myself) is that people tend to assign them too much automatic authority. This is where I really like Josh's advice, and particularly these elements:

  • Are they a success themselves? That seems like a basic requirement to me, but instead we see this all the time: "You can be just as successful as I have been. All you need to do is send me $1,199 and I'll give you the secret, and the fact that I need your money should not be a reflection on how successful I have been in the recent past."
  • Have they failed? Most of the things I know for sure are the things I learned from doing something the wrong way. You learn more from failure, but it also knocks the smirk right off your face.
  • Do they charge [a lot] for their expertise? Those market conditions mean that their advice will be subjected to harsher testing. Money for advice is a good purifier.
  • Can they answer questions? A pronouncement isn't nearly as useful as later supporting arguments that counter fantastic questions.
  • Are there boundaries to their expertise? The only way you can really know what you're talking about is to focus on some smaller subset of knowledge that will be explorable. My "I don't know" makes my "I'm pretty sure" a lot more credible.

In your advisory practice, something is wrong if your clients keep ignoring you...or if they admire everything you say. Neither is good.

On the listening side of things, just keep your mind running and evaluate things. And if the advisor is self-interested or doesn't know how to deliver difficult advice kindly, just move on. Life's too short to listen to cruel advice-givers. Whatever gems might be hiding in their meanness can be found elsewhere with less pain.

You and I probably need to listen to more people and ignore more people. The only way those two things can both be true is if we change the criteria to who we listen to, and that's my goal, here: to help us both think through this more carefully.

Now in a blatant effort to get back into the good graces of those Kentucky people, here's what Dakota Meyer, someone from there, (apparently) said: "Don't accept criticism from someone you wouldn't accept advice from, either." I don't really agree with that, since we ought to listen to all sources, but it'll definitely help you separate the noise from the signal.

Have a great week. See you in Atlanta? Or let me know if we should chat about a TBR or NBA.

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