Good intentions. Sage advice. Clever insights. All good and worthy goals of a conversation with a smart person, a successful person, an influential person. The problem lies in the clarity of what you want out of it and your perspective on the situation or issue. Smart people want (desperately) to add value, show their intellect, solve a problem, and have you come away better for having spent time with them. Its human nature to want to be liked and smartness is a likeable asset.
1. Career advice
Who hasn’t asked someone for career advice? We’ve all done it, and given the field I’ve chosen to work in, likely I’ll be seeking it again at some point. The filter I learned early on was that most people give the advice to do what they did to get them where they are. Caveat: I typically don’t seek advice from people that haven’t been successful in one way shape or form.
The advice goes like this: If you want to be a fill in the blank. The advice you get is that the best way to get there is through sales, or marketing, or engineering, or being a ‘generalist’, or goofing off in Europe, or going to grad school, or whatever the background of the person giving the advice is/was that got them to their success. Its not an intentional ratfuck, but its all too common and is nearly useless to the individual getting the advice. Unless you too believe that dropping out of Harvard and starting a social networking site is the path to greatness.
In my mind great career advice starts with an understanding of what the advice getter’s background is, where they’ve had real success and real failure, and what their ultimate goal and desires are.
2. Board of Directors
I’ve been on both sides of this one a bunch. You get a group of (by definition) smart people around a table to “direct” and advise, and keep on the straight and narrow a bunch of (hopefully) smart executives. The board folks some to meetings and spend quality time with their peers (other investors, former executives, industry experts) once a month and, being human, they want to be seen as smart value-adding participants.
The potential to ratf*ck you starts here with the well intentioned, but picks up speed with the their individual level of under-informededness, and achieves escape velocity if their ego is sensitive. Unless one is plugged in to the market, major business happenings, and other near day-to-day operations then the value you’re adding could be the wrong value to the directees. The trick on both sides is to gauge the level of direction needed and appropriate as weighed against the width of understanding the situation – of both the director as well as the directees. Not an easy thing to do!
Some of the best board members I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with don’t talk a lot, but when they do its usually a question that seems to split atoms with its simplicity and directness to the essences of a particular issue.
3. Advisor or Mentor
This is the toughest to spot and the one most likely to really ratfuck you if you’re not careful. Why? Because more often than not a close advisor or mentor develops a personal or emotional relationship with the advisee. The ratfucking is unintentional, but no less wrong. It comes from giving advice that has too much defense for the advisee and too little perspective of the bigger picture. I’ve experienced this one and the only thing I can reflect on in retrospect is that the advice was too much exactly what I wanted to hear. Bad decisions result, started in motion by the best intentions.
Great advice is really had to come by. Most smart people aren’t sage advice givers. If you find one that likes you, takes the time to really understand you, and tells you things that you don’t like or want to hear – but in retrospect were the right things you needed to hear – hold onto that advisor like gold.