James Fulton, September 17, 2021
Giving professional advice is a big business. The global management consulting market is worth $160 billion and employs nearly a million people in the U.S. alone. But what’s the return on all that advice? That depends largely on who’s receiving it.
The most effective leaders with whom I’ve worked over 20 years in both my past roles as an external consultant and my current role as an internal leadership advisor are skilled at taking advice from two main sources. Internally, they solicit insights from their teams, peers, and managers. Externally, they commission experts and advisors to provide leadership guidance, often in the form of consulting or executive coaching. The least effective leaders I’ve worked with haven’t fully developed the skill of using the help of these internal and external advisors.
As an advisor, I’ve often reflected on the different returns leaders get for the same investment in our services. Some engage us on interesting problems and create a sense of team and joint mission. They benefit from our best thinking, innovative advice, and hard work. Yet others oversimplify the issues at hand or underestimate what it takes to create results and treat us as transactional vendors. While our work in those situations is high quality, these leaders not only pay the cost of a missed opportunity, they also run the risk of not addressing the issues they’re seeking to resolve.
Take Sandra, the COO of a large industrials company, who sought advice on how to drive productivity by shifting some entrenched and unhelpful cultural norms. She was among the most demanding leaders I’ve worked with, arguing, debating, and pushing for more at each turn. Yet she also brought fresh thinking, not shying away from the complexity of the problem we were solving. Although we were the external experts, she was the one who introduced some of the most important insights and ideas, and she convened company-wide forums for us to gain consensus for our recommendations and ensure effective implementation. The result was not only the achievement of near-term productivity goals, but also a renewed sense of purpose and commitment by the senior leadership group to drive further gains through a more agile culture.
Now take Philippe, the general manager of a division of a major pharmaceuticals company. A doctor by training, he treated business problems as he did illnesses: He would undertake a diagnosis, decide on the appropriate remedy, then seek help to execute it. Innovation had slowed in his business, due, he believed, to a lack of candor in the organization. His solution was to conduct workshops to improve skills at providing feedback. There hadn’t been recent investment in this area, and the workshops made sense. But, on its own, it was a simplistic solution to a more complex set of issues. People knew what to do but lacked the confidence to do it.
Philippe was unwilling to discuss what that might mean about his own leadership and maintained confidence in his own assessment. He feared that facing the underlying issue would lead to a more complex and time-consuming intervention. Although the workshops were effective at what they set out to do, they didn’t actually address the problem. As a frustrated team member put it, “We’re hitting the target but missing the point.”
The skill of using help has three main components. Once you’re faced with an issue and considering soliciting the help of an advisor, here’s what you need to have to get the most out of your engagement.
Ask yourself: What kind of help will make the biggest difference?
There are several ways to categorize problems — from simple to wicked— and wise executives will carefully consider which type of problem they’re faced with. This will inform the nature of the help you need. For example, maybe you need expert technical input (help solving the problem directly) or leadership consulting (help marshaling your team’s resources to solve the problem).
Executives make two common mistakes at this stage. First, a lack of time, curiosity, or even skill to adequately understand the problem at hand can lead to oversimplifying problems, as we saw with Philippe. Second, some leaders come to rely on a small number of trusted advisors. This can go awry when the problems are defined through the lens of those advisors’ strengths. As the old saying goes, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, you will treat all your problems like a nail.” I’ve seen leaders define operational problems in terms of, say, communications or strategy because those are the domains of expertise of their closest advisors.
A humble mindset
Sandra was a curious leader. To borrow a phrase from Karl Weick, she argued as if she was right and listened as if she was wrong. It sounds obvious, but using help well requires a willingness to be helped. That’s hard to achieve if you’re not open to learning. Philippe’s insistence on the accuracy of the problem definition caused him to deny himself the benefit of a wider range of insights and solutions.
I often coach executives on the distinction between being right and being effective. Like many leaders, Philippe liked to be right. It takes confidence to say “I don’t know” or “I might be wrong.” Those with power are prone to overconfidence, and leaders can feel vulnerable when asking for help. In fact, it’s a sign of strength to know your limitations and act accordingly — with humility. It’s a surer route to effectiveness and results.
The term “therapeutic alliance” is used in counseling and psychotherapy to describe the therapist’s and client’s collaboration to undertake important work in partnership with one another. This notion applies to executives and their advisors, too.
Skilled executives will join with those from whom they’ve solicited help to drive outcomes together. Sandra’s expectations were that she would co-own the issue resolution with the advisors. She adopted a mindset of responsibility. Philippe’s shortcoming was that he outsourced the solution of a thorny issue to outsiders — they alone would own the issue resolution. Yet their ability to drive change on their own was limited.
Drawing on terminology from transactional analysis, a type of psychotherapy, Sandra’s approach to working with the advising team was “adult-adult” — that is, a relationship of mutual respect. Philippe’s was “parent-child,” where one side treats the other as though they’re of higher or lower status.
Mastery and self-sufficiency are important attributes for performance and often key contributors to a leader’s success. Like any strength, however, they can be overused.
Using the help of others is a key leadership skill, since no leader, especially in demanding and volatile times, can do it alone. Leaders who excel in this area accelerate both their own growth and the results of the organizations they lead.