Beware how you advise

Beware how you advise

Politicians almost always clash with strong-willed advisors who threaten to become the story at the expense of their masters. So the departure of Dom Cummings from Downing Street was hardly a surprise – except, perhaps, for the method of his leaving. To carry your own box of desk detritus out through the front door of No 10 Downing Street in full view of the press was certainly a gesture as powerful as that conveyed by the soldiers at Agincourt. In order to show their foe that they could still pull their bow strings to fire arrows they created the deliciously rude gesture of waving two fingers at the enemy. I think Mr Cummings did that, rather successfully

Tony Blair had the same sort of problem with his Press Secretary, Alastair Campbell. The saying is that power corrupts and there is plenty of evidence to confirm that it does. But before doing so, it disrupts. Good advisors know that what they need are the ear and the mind of the person they are advising. But they also need the humility to accept that their advice, if taken, will emerge as that of the person they are advising. Bernard Ingham managed to do that very successfully as Press Secretary to Margaret Thatcher for eleven years. Mrs T, of course, was not one for being overtaken by others, however clever they were.

The Past Master of this must be Henry Kissinger. He served under several Presidents, some good, others not so good, and managed to keep a level head throughout. At 97 he can still conduct a stunning interview with wisdom that is rare today – and advice about China as sound as I have heard so far. Seek out on YouTube his interview with John Micklethwaite, Chief Editor of Bloomberg. Fourteen minutes of sheer delight. Of course Kissinger was Secretary of State, in charge of Foreign Relations, so not strictly an advisor. But the role in the USA is a key one for the President. Without a top class person in the job foreign affairs can get into a mess.

Giving advice requires a particular form of communication skill. The knowledge of what can be achieved is the first requirement. As McKinsey put it “changing a big company’s frontline operating environment might take two or three years.”  I’d have said five to ten, myself, though it depends on the industry and, even more, on the company size. The final judgment of what can and cannot be done is up to the boss. But helping to bring a company up to date starts with the CEO. If he ignores the new systems that are being invented or fails to understand the scope of analytics and big data, the business will be in trouble.

Advice has one fundamental component without which it will not succeed. That is the willingness of the CEO to look at new ideas. That requires something quite special and extremely rare. It needs a person who can say “I wasn’t wrong but I may be able to be even better in the future”. Because all advice implies a lack of ability on the part of the person receiving it. This works both ways, of course, and a healthy debate about new proposals is always good, provided it doesn’t become a defence by the CEO of his existing position.

And that’s the trouble we are having with leadership at present. A good leader is fully conscious of his limitations. They in no way diminish his stature as a leader, and acknowledging them positively enhances it. And best of all is a leader who doesn’t spend his / her time looking in the Mirror of Approval but devotes it to the enhancement of those around them. I think perhaps the days of public relations being the making of great leaders are coming to an end. There is still a need for good publicity, but what that good publicity is, is changing.

We cannot resist giving advice. Ask anyone to advise you and you will need a good comfortable sofa to snooze on while they drone on and on. The advice may be brilliant. It will probably be long. We all know only too well how the other half should live. And we’re not going to ration our opinion. The implied criticism of advice in these words is not to say that advice shouldn’t be given, merely to suggest that there are ways and ways of giving it. All mentoring and coaching courses rightly teach the importance of questions rather than answers. When someone reaches their own conclusion they believe it; when they reach yours they may only half believe it.

So what do you think about the suggestion that advice should be mainly good questions?