Steve Blank: Why You Need to Listen to Unsolicited Advice
When someone gives you advice, you don’t have to follow it — but you should take it seriously.
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
There's no handbook on how to evaluate and process "suggestions" and "advice" from a boss or a mentor. But how you choose to act on these recommendations can speed up your learning and make or break your career. Here's what to keep in mind:
I had a team of students working on an arcane customer problem. While they were quickly coming up to speed, I suggested that they talk to someone who I knew was an expert in the area and could help them learn much faster. In fact, starting in the second week of the class, I suggested the same person several times -- one-on-one, in class and in writing. Each time the various team members smiled, nodded and said, "Yes, we'll get right on it." Finally, eight weeks later when they were about to fly across the country to meet the customer, I reminded them again.
When they returned from the trip, I asked if the advisor I suggested was helpful.
I was a bit surprised when they replied, "Oh, we've been trying to connect with him for a while and he never responded." So, I asked:
As per our conversation about the lack of response from your advisor John Doe -- please forward me copies of the emails you have sent to him.
The reply I received was disappointing -- but not totally surprising.
Unfortunately, I believe our team has painted the wrong picture due to miscommunication on our part. It was our responsibility to reach out to John Doe, but we failed to do so.
We did not attempt to reach out to him up until Week 8 before our flight, but the email bounced. We got caught up in work on the trip and did not follow-up. What we should have done was to clarify the email address with our Teaching Assistant and attempt to contact him again.
Extra credit for finally owning that they screwed up -- but there was more to it.
1. Combine outside advice with your own insights.
Upon reflection I realized that this student team was missing a learning opportunity. They were soon heading for the real world, and they had no idea how to evaluate and process "suggestions" and "advice." Ironically, given they were really smart and in a world-class university, they were confusing "smart" with "I can figure it all out by myself."
Throughout my entrepreneurial career I was constantly bombarded by advice -- from bosses, mentors, friends, investors, et al. I was lucky enough to have mentors who took an interest in my career, and as a young entrepreneur, I tried to pay attention to what they were trying to tell me. (Coming into my first startup from four years in the military I didn't have the advantage of thinking I knew it all.) It made me better -- I learned faster than having to acquire every bit of knowledge from scratch and I could combine the data coming from others with the insights I had.
2. Have a process to evaluate suggestions and advice.
Here was my response to my student team:
Throughout your work career you'll be getting tons of suggestions and advice; from mentors -- people you don't work for but who care about your career and from your direct boss and others up your reporting chain.
Treat advice and suggestions as a gift, not a distraction.
- Assume someone has just given you a package wrapped in a bow with your name on it.
- Then think of how they'll feel when you ignore it and toss it aside.
When you're working at full speed just trying to get your job done, it's pretty easy to assume that advice/suggestions from others are just diversions. That's a mistake. At times following up on them may make or break a career and/or a relationship.
- The first time, your boss or mentor will assume you were too busy to follow up.
- The second time, your boss will begin to question your judgment. Your mentor is going to question your willingness to be coached.
- The third time you ignore suggestions/advice from your boss is a career-limiting move. And if from a mentor, you've likely damaged or ended the relationship.
Everyone likes to offer "suggestions" and "advice." Think of these as falling into four categories:
- Some bosses/mentors offer "suggestions" and "advice" because it makes them feel important.
- Others have a set of contacts or insights they are willing to share with you because they believe these might be useful to you.
- A few bosses/mentors have pattern-recognition skills. They've recognized the project you're working on or problem you're trying to solve could be helped by connecting with a specific person/group or by listening to how it was solved previously.
- A very small subset of bosses/mentors has extracted some best practices and/or wisdom from those patterns. These can give you shortcuts to the insights they've taken years to learn.
Early in your career it's hard to know whether a suggestion/advice is valuable enough to spend time following up. Here's what I suggest:
- Start with "Thanks for the suggestion."
- Next, it's OK to ask, "Help me understand why is this important? Why should I talk to them? What should I learn?" This will help you figure out which category of advice you're getting.If it's a direct boss and others up your reporting chain, ask, "How should I prioritize this? Does it require immediate action?" (And it most cases it doesn't matter what category it's in, just do it.)
- Always report back to whoever offered you the advice/suggestion to share what you learned. Thank them.
If you open yourself to outside advice, you'll find people interested in the long-term development of your career -- these are your career mentors. Unlike coaching, there's no specific agenda or goal but mentor relationships can result in a decades-long dialog of continual learning. What makes these relationships a mentorship is this: you have to give as good as you are getting. While you'll be learning from them -- and their years of experience and expertise - what you need to give back is equally important -- offering fresh insights to their data.
If your goal is to be a founder, having a network of mentors/advisors means that not only will you be up to date on current technology, markets or trends, you'll be able to recognize patterns and bring new perspectives that might be basis for your next startup.
- Suggestions/advice at work are not distractions that can be ignored
- Understand the type of suggestions/advice you're getting (noise, contacts, patterns, insights)
- Understand why the advice is being given
- Agree on the priority in following it up
- Not understanding how to respond to advice/suggestions can limit your career
- Advice is a kickstarter for your own insights and a gateway for mentorship
- Treat advice and suggestions as a gift, not a distraction