“Entrepreneurs…they never listen. They just want to do things their own way. They think they can make anything happen within an unrealistic time frame.”
Have you heard these criticisms before? Ever heard them about yourself?
A common complaint among business advisers is that getting entrepreneurs to actually hear and act upon their advice can be incredibly challenging. Unlike mentors, advisers typically focus on how to best run a company, rather than on an entrepreneur’s personal growth as a professional. Advisers bring unique expertise to bear when they look at your business as a whole.
The problem lies in the fact that — and this should come as no shock — founders can be hard to get through to sometimes. As a rule, they are rightfully excited about their own ideas, understand the value of working autonomously, and, generally speaking, hate to appear vulnerable.
They can also be an overly optimistic bunch, often believing they can just do it all — all by themselves. For whatever reason, founders often struggle to heed advice — even from their trusted advisers.
When the Advice Works
Ben Horowitz, co-founder of Andreessen Horowitz, is now a well-known investor. Before he was the one advising, however, he was in the trenches, running companies like the rest of us.
As the co-founder and CEO of web-hosting company LoudCloud, Horowitz enlisted the help of a revered adviser: the late Bill Campbell. Known as “the Coach” in Silicon Valley, Campbell advised the likes of Steve Jobs, Eric Schmidt, Larry Page, and Jeff Bezos, among others.
With LoudCloud on the ropes, Horowitz called Campbell because he needed to make some tough decisions. After making a deal that saved the company but also forced him to lay off many of his employees, Horowitz planned to schmooze the press at a conference in New York City, but Campbell suggested otherwise.
He encouraged Horowitz to cancel the trip and spend all day with his employees. “Help them carry their stuff to the car” was the sound advice Horowitz took from Campbell.
Other founders might have wanted to bask in the glory of saving a company — and avoid the pain of actually being there to lay people off — thinking that focusing on the future instead of the past would be the better route. But Horowitz, knowing Campbell as the sage he was said to be, now says the move was “the foundation for everything we did after that.”
Such is the power of great advisers when they team up with founders who possess the humility and foresight to listen.
3 Secrets to Taking Advice
When you’re in the driver’s seat all the time, it’s hard to stop and listen to those around you. But there are some key things you can do to enhance your ability to take advice.
1. Remember, your advisers are on your side. Trust that they have hard-won, battle-tested wisdom, insights, and perspectives that can create the best outcome for you in a given situation.
When I find myself at a crossroads, I have a tendency to want to believe the best about my clients. And I’ve been burned over the years because I didn’t have signed agreements in place before we got started. My own adviser has made it painfully clear that it is not in my best interests to do that.
While it’s challenging to hold on to my boundaries on this issue, as my adviser knows, it gives me peace of mind to have those loose ends taken care of to ensure I’m protected upfront.
2. Ask questions until you’re clear. If an adviser’s suggestion doesn’t make sense at first, don’t be afraid to push back for further clarity.
When I worked on investor outreach with a startup client recently, we were very bullish about our chances at funding. We had lots of receptivity; we thought it should be a snap to raise the money. However, the industry adviser I’d brought in cautioned that, in his experience, it could take up to six months to close the round.
We sought and received more clarity on his rationale for that stance. Though we didn’t like hearing his thoughts on the projected timeline, once he shared more details, it made sense that our vision could be a bit skewed by our own enthusiasm.
3. Try it for a little while. When your adviser (or board of advisers) suggests you take a different approach in terms of where the business is headed, listen carefully. If the rationale makes sense, give it a shot for a little while — even if it’s outside your comfort zone.
A startup I was advising had developed a technology platform that could be adopted by many different industries, and (as is typical) it had limited resources. It was moving in the direction of taking the platform to several potential markets at once, with the team’s efforts scattered, its messages confusing, and its company getting nowhere fast.
They weren’t thrilled when I suggested we focus on one sector — on getting that one just right. But they agreed, and within four months, all of their important metrics were doing well. This made it much easier to expand into the other markets they wanted to hit, but we would never have known if they hadn’t been willing to try.
At the end of each day, you, as the founder, are in charge. But remember that you really can’t do it all. A great adviser (or board) and a dose of humility will expand your business in ways you literally cannot imagine.