Commentary

The Racer’s Edge - By Greig Clark

"Winston has hundreds of ideas a day. The challenge is trying to figure out which of them are any good.” So said U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt to his chief military adviser, Gen. George C. Marshall, about British Prime Minister Winston Churchill during one of their wartime planning conferences.
And so it was. Winston’s military advice ran from the inspired (breaking the trench stalemate in the First World War by creating tank units to go "over them”) to the ridiculous (invading the Dardanelles and the "soft underbelly of Europe” to go "around them”). Like any good creative thinker, Sir Winston disliked doing things the same old way, especially if it wasn’t working. He probably knew well one popular definition of insanity — namely, trying for the 10th time that which didn’t succeed nine times before. Churchill wasn’t mad, but some of his advice was.

So, how do you systematically separate the wheat from the chaff, without taking too much time away from running the business?

In his book Taking Advice: How leaders get good counsel and use it wisely, former CEO Dan Ciampa writes that "to be most effective, especially during times of change, the people in charge must be shrewder and more discerning advice-takers”.  But in his business as an adviser to CEOs and boards, he has "met very few ‘smart clients’ who know how to make the best of the help available.”

That’s not good. So let me share my Five Steps to Taking Advice. The process is derived from my many years on both sides of the advisory table. I have tried to implement solicited and unsolicited advice as a lone-wolf entrepreneur (as I was building College Pro Painters) and as the CEO of companies that had boards (such as ARXX Building Products, now run by Second Cup founder Frank O’Dea). I have tried to give effective advice as a director of many companies I’ve invested in as a venture capitalist and now as an advisory-board member for seven entrepreneurial firms.

  1. Know what you want It is so hard to get us entrepreneurs to sit down and clarify the nature of the advice we’re looking for. Categorizing things helps. Ciampa lists four types of advice (strategic, operational, political, personal) and advisers (experts, experienced, partners, sounding board). Knowing which kind of advice you need and who might provide it can take you halfway to success, because it empowers the next four steps.

  2. Listen actively My favourite definition of "strategy” is the ability to "pay selective inattention to the irrelevant.” The two best techniques I know for separating the relevant from the irrelevant are asking questions and writing things down. Deliberately thinking of questions to ask keeps your mind active and your internal radar scanning for what’s relevant. Writing things down is better than mere listening but still allows for mental laziness, so I concentrate on finding the three key points to circle or write down.

  3. Filter, focus, commit At the end of a great time-management seminar I attended, my notes included 25 suggestions. Of these, I had circled 10. I filtered them down to three that: a) would work; and b) I might actually employ. Then I put those three on a sticky note and posted it at eye level beside my desk. (I see it now.) This can raise your commitment level by 25% versus just listening. However, you must write something actionable and specific, such as "raise my closing ratio by 10% by calling prospects about all outstanding proposals every Tuesday”.
    To take it up another 50%, state your commitment to another person. This gives you the racer’s edge. Asked how he was best able to help Michael Phelps win eight Olympic gold medals, swimming coach Bob Bowman said, "I helped him to dream and imagine, and then held him to those dreams and pushed him when he needed it”. Having someone to hold you accountable will substantially increase the probability that you will use the advice you have paid so much in time and money to acquire, consider and write down.

  4. Just do it!

  5. Review Did you do what you said you were going to do? Self-review works for some, but it’s better to commit to someone you’ve empowered to hold you accountable, as many of the entrepreneurs I advise have done with me.
While we all believe that other people’s advice can help us get better at what we do, it’s how we take it that makes all the difference to business leaders, athletes and, yes, military generals. Marshall went on to be what Roosevelt called the great "Organizer of Victory” in WWII and the architect of the highly successful Marshall Plan to rebuild a shattered Europe. He used some of Churchill’s advice to do both.


[Reprinted from ProfitXtra  (September 9-22)