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  • Writer's pictureKara Holm

Forest & Trees or Mountain & Valley

Every business person reaches a moment when the next steps, or the solution to a vexing problem are elusive. From start-ups to mature businesses – and all points in between – every day involves a series of decisions, big and small. From crisis communications, to operational issues such as expense management, from recruiting and retention, to customer engagement, the number of decisions can be overwhelming. Of course, having a plan and clearly understood business objectives help by providing a framework for making decisions. But sometimes you need to ask for help.

I had an amazing experience recently: a 45-minute meeting that helped me see things more clearly and understand how to proceed from a place I felt that I had become stuck. The person I was meeting with offered me a clear insight into something I was too close to see… Like gravity, Machiavelli is always there…  (See more on this below.)

Now with hindsight, I realize there had been signs leading us to the position that my advisor was able to parse in under an hour. The path forward evident, but I had not been able to see the forest for the trees!

The whole experience left me wondering: what constitutes really good advice and how can we know when we’re getting it?

So today we offer three questions to help readers identify really good advice:

What is my state of mind? The first thing we have to be aware of is our state of mind. Sometimes we are so invested in a perspective or an approach that we have inadvertently closed ourselves off to possibility. In this state, we might not even know there is a problem, or be aware of other opportunities. In order to receive advice, we have to be open-minded. After years of working as a consultant, I have learned first-hand that the best clients are clients that know they would benefit from an outside perspective. The most difficult clients are those who hire consultants to validate their current perceptions or beliefs.

Does the advice reflect an understanding of your business and the market(s) in which you operate? Good advice can’t be just any advice. It has to be advice that reflects the realities of the operating environment and the issues and opportunities your business is faced with. It’s great to understand best practices and industry standards and trends, but how those are applied to your business will be influenced by your unique situation. If the advice you are receiving is not specific to your situation, it’s not good advice.

Is the advice actionable? Really good advice should be actionable, not theoretical. What can you do differently today, so as to generate different outcomes or results? Are you getting advice at all? Maybe you have been offered a list of issues to be corrected or opportunities to be activated. In my consulting practice I have spent a lot of time looking at information to identify both issues and opportunities for our clients. At the end of the project, I always endeavour to offer clear, actionable next steps to make sure the clients understand how the advice applies to their businesses or individual situations.

In summary: good advice is particular to your circumstances and it is actionable. The most difficult thing about advice is being able to identify it or hear it when it comes to you. It can be very challenging to be open to different ideas and perspectives, but when you are, you may find yourself moving in a positive direction forward, to a place that was perhaps dimly apparent to you. In effect, the best advice tells you what you already know on some level, but are sometimes too close to see.


What does Machiavelli have to do with it?

Tom Curran's essay “A Two-Legged Stance” (February 2016) provides us with the following insight. 

In his most famous work, The Prince (1513), Machiavelli explains to the Florentine head of state, that even though he, Machiavelli, is only a low-level functionary, he does, indeed, have the genuine capacity to advise princes as rulers.  Machiavelli’s reasoning, I believe, is sound. As he explains (in his Dedication) to the dominant member of the de’ Medici family of his day: if you want to produce a painting of a mountain, you need to adopt the perspective provided by standing in a valley.  And, if you want to comprehend a valley, artistically, it is best to seek the elevation of a mountain.  Machiavelli may be standing at the bottom of the valley, politically speaking, but that is all the more reason that, from this vantage point, he is able to advise princes; and conversely, as Machiavelli says: “to know the nature of the [common] people well: one must be a prince” (tr. By Peter Bondanella).

It is therefore important to endeavour always to have these two points of view simultaneously: one in the valley looking up towards the peak, and the other from the summit looking down into the valley below. Both perspectives are vital.  In the same way as we need to grasp the whole to understand the details, we also need to immerse ourselves in the details, so as not completely to misrepresent the whole. The loss of either side of this “delicate balance” means that one’s clientele are left with an incomplete picture, where strategic opportunities cannot be grasped, and the stubborn impediments of the nitty-gritty are never properly tackled.


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