Dear Abby: About four months ago, the house across the street was sold to a “father and son” — or so we thought. We later learned it was an older man about 50 and a young fellow about 24. This was a respectable neighborhood before this “odd couple” moved in. They have all sorts of strange-looking company. Men who look like women, women who look like men, blacks, whites, Indians. Yesterday I even saw two nuns go in there! They must be running some sort of business, or a club. There are motorcycles, expensive sports cars and even bicycles parked in front and on the lawn. They keep their shades drawn so you can’t see what’s going on inside but they must be up to no good, or why the secrecy? We called the police department and they asked if we wanted to press charges! They said unless the neighbors were breaking some law there was nothing they could do. Abby, these weirdos are wrecking our property values! How can we improve the quality of this once-respectable neighborhood? — Up in Arms
Dear Up: You could move
The author of that reply 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. But her cheeky, abrupt and even snarky replies offered kernels of insight or advancement. 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. After eight years of being an academic dean, 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 that is learned.
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 & Co. 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.”
Bower’s example brings us closer to the elements of good advising. Here are some points to spark reflection:.
1Are you “telling” or advising? 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.
2Does your role warrant giving advice? In many situations, giving advice 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.
3Is 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 bald opinions based on some narrow perspective.
4Consider trade-offs 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 way that reveal trade-offs among things you care about.
5Recommend a solution. Academics and MBA students are experts at problem-finding and analysis. Very often, the unsolicited advice I receive simply amounts to, “You have a problem.” And just as often, my reply is: “What do you think I should do?”
6Be brief. 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.
7If 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.
8Don’t assume indifference or deafness. If you’re advising me on a worthy problem, I’m probably more motivated than you suspect. Advisers often make the mistake of starting from the adviser’s point of view rather than from a reading of the listener.
9A touch of empathy, please. Are you wound-up? Angry? Overwrought? Arrogant? Scolding the listener is probably not the best way to reach a positive outcome. A sense of humor and affiliation with the advisee helps.
10If you get confused, see
point No. 1.
Effective advising is one of the most challenging facets of professional work. In an era of cuts 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.
Robert F. Bruner is dean of the University of Virginia Darden School of Business. This column was adapted from his blog.