The Advice We Need

Dear Abby: I have always wanted to have my family history traced, but I can’t afford to spend a lot of money to do it. Have you any suggestions? — M. J. B. in Oakland, Calif.

Dear M. J. B.: Yes. Run for a public office.

Dear Abby: My wife sleeps in the raw. Then she showers, brushes her teeth and fixes our breakfast — still in the buff. We’re newlyweds and there are just the two of us, so I suppose there’s really nothing wrong with it. What do you think? — Ed

Dear Ed: It’s O.K. with me. But tell her to put on an apron when she’s frying bacon.

The author of these replies was Abigail Van Buren, who wrote the popular “Dear Abby” advice column. Her recent passing prompted reflections on her craft, wisdom, and wit. You will find no science or grounded analytics in Abigail Van Buren’s advice. We read her work mostly for pleasure. But her cheeky, abrupt, and even snarky replies offered kernels of insight or advancement. Like Mark Twain, Finley Peter Dunne, and Will Rogers, she presumed to lift the reader through aphorisms and one-liners that were humorous and memorable. She showed an excellent instinct for who had what at stake. And she rarely gave advice without suggesting some kind of action—in her case, it was often impractical and hilarious; but she was trying to entertain readers, not fix a company. She was less an adviser Yet her writings serve as a foil for thinking about an important question: What kind of advice does a decision-maker need?

The world has no shortage of advice about giving advice—if you Google “the advice we need” you get some 17 million results. Deans get a lot of advice—much of it unsolicited. An awful lot of it. After eight years of deaning, I consider myself something of an expert in listening to advice. Through experience and years of engagement with decision-makers, I have concluded that good advising is a rare talent—and that it is learned, not inherited. This bestows a grave responsibility on all professional schools: it is not sufficient to train rising generations of professionals to diagnose problems; schools must also instill the grace and skill to convey advisory wisdom.

Advisory skill is based on tacit knowledge: “tacit” is drawn from a Latin word, meaning “touch.” Good advising is learned by touch, by human engagement, typically in close association with a mentor. For this reason, many professions required apprenticeships before granting full license to practice. There is a role for higher education in this. The measure of an excellent professional degree program should include the student’s growth in advisory skills.

There are few models on which to base such training. Perhaps we could look to iconic advisers in history; but rarely did they leave any expression of philosophy or tradecraft on which to base training. Marvin Bower was an important exception. He built McKinsey & Company into a leading consulting firm on the basis of principles about advising and left a legacy of writings on which to draw. In a eulogy of Bower, John Byrne wrote, “He [insisted] that values mattered more than money. He preached the notion that consulting was not a business but a profession, arguing that, like the best doctors and lawyers, consultants should put the interests of their clients first, conduct themselves ethically, and insist on telling clients the truth, not what they wanted to hear.” A colleague of Bower’s said, “He was plenty smart and plenty stylistic. But what I admired most was his absolutely compelling, unemotional logic, absolute disarming candor, a directness that was completely untainted by self-interest, and his unwillingness to mince words….The last thing you came away with was that Marvin was absolutely relentless in constantly thinking about how to make us better.” [1] Bower expressed key principles of management advisory work in a 1937 memo, which Fortune Magazine summarized this way: “A McKinsey consultant is supposed to put the interests of his client ahead of increasing The Firm’s revenues; he should keep his mouth shut about his client’s affairs; he should tell the truth and not be afraid to challenge a client’s opinion; and he should only agree to perform work that he feels is both necessary and something McKinsey can do well. Along with the professional code, Bower insisted on professional, as opposed to business, language, which is why McKinsey is always The Firm, never the company; jobs are engagements; and The Firm has a practice, not a business.” [2]

Bower’s example brings us closer to the elements of good advising. Quite possibly, such elements would comprise a very long list. Here are some points to spark the reflection of business practitioners.

  1. Are you “telling” or advising? Genuine advisory work begins with an attitude of wanting to help and an intention of contributing to substantive advancement. [3] Thus, as you approach the opportunity to give advice, ask yourself: what are you trying to accomplish? There is a difference between talking at someone and talking with someone. Three decades of teaching by the case method impresses me that significant and lasting change is better achieved by questions and conversation that bring the other person through a reflective process to a reasoned conclusion. What outcome are you trying to achieve? If it is to gratify yourself or vent some emotion, “telling” works fine. But if it is to achieve lasting change, then the advising exchange will truly be more conversational. A friend, a world-class defense attorney, says that the first and most important quality of an adviser is listening.
  2. Does your role warrant giving advice? Every customer and parent probably feels entitled to give advice. But in many situations giving advise might conflict with the important goals and relationship you have with the advisee. Consider, for instance, the role of psychotherapists for whom telling the patient what to do might undercut the patient’s ability to learn to work things out independently. One therapist wrote, “In my opinion, we should give out life advice very sparingly and typically help our patients figure out for themselves what’s best for their given situation. If we’re hesitant about saying something that sounds like advice, then we probably shouldn’t say it. Otherwise I fear that we risk convincing our patients (and ourselves) that we have the answers when we really don’t. The bottom line: no advice is better than bad advice.” Another therapist wrote, “we distinguished between two types of advice: process advice and substantive advice. Substantive advice is when therapists impose or give specific suggestions for specific solutions to problems. It’s essentially telling people the solutions to problems. We believe this type of advice is often counterproductive. The second type, process advice, is when therapists teach their clients strategies for how to solve problems. To say, “You might want to think about your commitments in terms of your own values and well-being,” for example, is different than saying, “I think you should dump the jerk!” First advice—process. Second advice—substantive (although a little extreme).”
  3. Is your assessment of the situation truly grounded in facts? A hallmark of useless advice is a foundation on opinion, not reality. I have learned to probe upon receiving advice: “how do you know that’s true?” I’ve learned not to put up with the “I say” kinds of justifications, bald opinions based on some narrow perspective. The largest and most frequent errors of assessment have to do with defining the problem for the decision-maker. As we see repeatedly in case discussions at Darden, the problem in any given situation may not be what the protagonist thinks it is. [4]
  4. Consider tradeoffs and values. A classic error is to cast advice in terms of a yes/no or go/no-go decision. Few problems come in this form. The biggest lesson of economics is the concept of opportunity cost, the notion that by taking one course of action, you forego an alternative that might be better. In this vein, most practical problems are not of the yes/no variety, but rather of the either/or variety. And once you get into thinking about either/or, you are likely to find that the alternative path could be structured in a host of ways that reveal tradeoffs among things you care about. And once you start talking about “care,” you are talking about values. The fastest way for a decision-maker to tune out is to suggest something contrary to his or her values.
  5. Recommend a solution. Academics are experts at problem-finding and analysis. MBA students are pretty good at this too. Very often, the unsolicited advice I receive simply amounts to, “You have a problem.” And just as often, my reply produces an awkward pause: “What do you think I should do?” Volunteer advisers generally don’t carry their assessments into recommending action, the very point at which the practicality of their thinking would be exposed.
  6. Be brief. Abigail Van Buren’s signature reply to a request for advice was a one-liner. Realistically, professional advice entails a much longer narrative. One adviser I had simply couldn’t reach a conclusion in the hour allotted, so we scheduled a second, then a third meeting to get closure. After three hours, I quit and bade her goodbye, wishing I had done so at the end of the first hour. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s advice to public speakers also applies to advisers: “Be sincere. Be brief. Be seated.” Long PowerPoint pitches in a darkened room are deadly. I’d really rather get to the point quickly and then have time for conversation and questions. When you come to the end, stop. Leave it to the listener to continue the conversation or consulting engagement.
  7. If you have a self-interest in the matter, say so. Some of the worst advice is thinly-veiled lobbying for a particular outcome. If you have a personal interest in the decision, it’s best to explain so at the outset. It’s deadly for an advisee to hear a pitch and then find out later that the supposedly objective adviser stood to gain from the recommendation. This breeds a sense of betrayal rather than enlightenment.
  8. Don’t assume indifference or deafness. It helps to motivate advice, but if you’re advising me on a worthy problem, I’m probably more motivated than you suspect. Advisers can make the classic mistake of rookie teachers: they start from the adviser’s point of view rather than from a reading of the listener. Judging an audience, adjusting to the context, sizing up group dynamics—all of these are attributes of social intelligence of which we teach a lot at Darden, both directly and indirectly.
  9. A touch of empathy, please. Are you wound-up? Angry? Overwrought? Arrogant? The odds are that you’ll project onto the decision-maker a set of attitudes that don’t exist—this is a classic lack of emotional intelligence. Scolding the listener is probably not the best way to reach a positive outcome. A sense of humor and affiliation with the advisee helps.
  10. If you get confused, see point #1.

Effective advising is one of the most challenging facets of professional work. A number of courses at Darden help to build such skills. Generally, I doubt that business schools do enough—for good reason: such learning grows only with serious investment. It takes time, low student/faculty ratios, special training for faculty, graduated experiential exercises, and field work. MOOCs and technology are unlikely to be of much help; there are few economies of scale when it comes to tacit learning. In an era of deepening austerity for higher education, schools can find it easier just to teach students technical analytics and leave them to develop advisory skills in the school of hard knocks—but in a world gasping for good advice, this seems like a dereliction of duty. What would Abigail Van Buren say? Here’s how I imagine it would go:

Dear Abby: Professional schools are criticized for irrelevance. It is said that they graduate good analysts who can’t deliver actionable recommendations to important problems in a way that has impact on the world. What should the schools do? – Higher Ed.

Dear Higher Ed: Mother never said it would be easy. And Mother always expected better: pull up your socks; straighten up and fly right. Don’t let her down.

  1. I commend the biography by Elizabeth Haas Edersheim, McKinsey’s Marvin Bower: Vision, Leadership, and the Creation of Management Consulting. []
  2. Huey, John (November 1, 1993). “How McKinsey Does It”. Fortune. []
  3. The book by Peter Block, Flawless Consulting, defines consulting as ““You are consulting any time you are trying to change or improve a situation, but have no direct control over the implementation”—that entails a range of activities such as giving advice, coaching, training, facilitating, asking generative questions, etc. []
  4. Gerald Weinberg’s book, The Secrets of Consulting, posits “The First Law of Consulting: In spite of what your client may tell you, there’s always a problem. The Second Law of Consulting: No matter how it looks at first, it’s always a people problem.” []
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One Response to The Advice We Need

  1. Michelle says:

    My favorite:”The best index to a person’s character is how he treats people who can’t do him any good.” ~ Abigail Van Buren

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