Published on Apr 10, 2022
Essays

The number one rule of advice

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When asked for advice, I have one important rule. Don’t listen to me. Don’t take any of this seriously. I have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about.

This sounds like an obvious disclaimer yet, I’ve seen many situations where smart leaders are taking advice from their board or advisors too literally, sometimes with disastrous consequences.

This is particularly present in the startup world. There are many well meaning mentors and advisors coaching startups and sharing lessons from their hard earned experience. To be clear, founders should be asking for advice. Startups are malleable and their trajectory highly uncertain. Advice should be considered as one important data point among many, not as sacred scripture.

This isn’t only true in the startup world of course. I’ve seen larger organizations receive well meaning advice that has caused a shift in strategy without the intended results.

Survivorship bias

When people obtain an extraordinary level of success, they become magnets for others seeking to learn from their experience. The only issue is that their hard learned lessons are molded in the context of what worked for them. This can often be super tactical like SEO or PPC were great channels for the business. Sounds like great advice but a channel’s effectiveness changes over time and is highly dependent on the business model.

Someone that has succeeded is of course highly valuable. I would just add one additional persona. Leaders should seek out not just people that succeeded but people who tried and failed.

Collecting data

Founders / leaders should be constantly asking their network for advice. They should be challenging their mental model and existing assumptions. This can be useful when making a difficult decision or simply reinforce an existing one. There is a limit though. Too much advice can lead to indigestion.

What to keep in mind

This begs the question; is there a way to make a decision based on the situation and the advice being received? I don’t have a great answer here nor do I believe that one exists. Advice is too context specific. It all depends on the person giving it, receiving it and the type of advice.

There is one type of advice that is more sensitive than others in my book. An organization should not change its strategy or value proposition very often. When there is this type of decision on the table, it needs to be very carefully considered.

If you’ve read so far, I’d love your feedback. I do have one favor though, don’t listen to anything I say.

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