Stop Taking So Much Advice

Before I start, let me be clear that I realise the irony of an entrepreneurship-advice column which advocates taking less-advice.  However, wrapped in that paradox is an important element of truth.

The Plague of Uncertainty

In the past few years, I’ve seen a disturbing trend amongst CEOs and start-up-founders that I work with.  Many very competent and very driven people who have built businesses based on their instinct are coming to me with very similar questions:

  • I was going to do X, but my accountant has said ‘this,’ my lawyer has said ‘that,’ my mentor said ‘something else,’ I also saw a TED talk which said ‘this,’ but my investor then said ‘that’ and I don’t know what to do…
  • “I keep hearing conflicting advice about ‘X’ and I’m confused about what to do next…
  • “I’m finding it difficult to trust my instincts about ‘X’”

The Cult of the Advisor

In the same period as this ‘plague of uncertainty,’ there’s also been an explosive growth in advisors, mentors, NED’s, consultants and resources- all geared towards providing advice and support for business owners.    Many of the individuals in these sectors are, by necessity, astonishingly good marketers and it’s no surprise therefore when people start to take their advice very seriously.  Three key learnings to take-away from this are:

  • Wealth and intellect are not correlated:
    Aust because someone is rich, doesn’t mean they’re clever… and vice-versa…
  • Hype and intellect are not correlated:
    An individuals social-media or marketing presence is not an indication of their intellectual capacity…
  • Number of opinions and Outcomes are not correlated:
    The number of opinions you receive is rarely linked to the actual outcome of your decision!

Being a business-owner isn’t easy, and even at the best of times it’s hard to feel total certainty about decisions and strategies.   Business is also not a science (in a whole sense) meaning that there is never a right answer at any given time.

Given that we humans are not objective-creatures at the best of times, there is a fairly high chance that the advice you receive at any given time is not just subjective, but based on circumstances that often don’t reflect the reality of your situation.   The higher we (in our minds) elevate the giver of said advice however, the more likely we are to place more value on it than our own thoughts, and that’s dangerous.   As the adage goes, “forecasters assume everything, except responsibility.”

Finding Your Circle

Nobody has all the answers, and whether it’s billionaires, world-leaders, great artists, thinkers or musicians – the individuals in our world with astonishing success or responsibility have a small, trusted, experienced circle of individuals around them who are their key advisors.  It’s rare, if not impossible for anyone to even come close to entering this circle unless the individual receiving the advice can satisfy a few questions about the advisor:

What’s their motivation?

Why does this individual want to advise you? Are they motivated by a consulting income? Do they stand to gain profile by working with you? Are they passionate about your industry or your world?

What do they know that I don’t?

Have you had a deep-look at the background and experience of this individual? Have you given their ‘cv’ the depth of enquiry that you would give to someone joining your company board? Do they have the experience and the gravitas to be able to advise you?

What have they done?

What experience does this individual have? If it isn’t in your industry, how are they applying their experience to what you do, or to your journey? Who have they worked with before, and can they introduce you to independent people who are happy to act as referees for them?

What’s their payoff?

There is no such thing as true-altruism (even philanthropists get something out of giving!).  What is this individuals’ payoff from working with you? Are they looking for a retainer? Equity in your business or project? Are they looking to get closer to you and your network for their own business or project? Are they doing it simply because they enjoy it?

What’s their attitude?

Are they willing to challenge and provoke? Are they simply a sycophant? Are they at the same intellectual and creative level that you are?

Do I trust them?

This is the unmeasurable quantity.   The sensation of trust is highly subjective.  You cannot have anyone in your inner circle that you don’t feel a deep sense of trust with… and this isn’t built over email or the occasional phone call, its very rarely (if ever) that you can form that bond with someone close enough to be a key-advisor without spending some real face-to-face time with them.

In my own career, I’ve found it necessary to build a circle like this myself as an invaluable group of peers and advisors who I can turn to on a regular basis as co-pilots in my enterprises.  Similarly, I feel proud and humbled to have been asked to play a role in the circles of others in this regard. 

Trust Your Gut

Advice only takes you so far in life.  Had the first astronauts or explorers listened to advice, chances are they would never have embarked on those world-changing adventures.  The same is true of entrepreneurs.   First and foremost, entrepreneurs are entrepreneurs because their gut had an insight or an idea that’s driven them.  This same gut is one of the most potent and powerful advisors for anyone’s career.

In my experience, great advisors are the ones who give you the scaffolding to observe your gut-instinct from every angle and arrive at decisions which allow you to flourish.

Much like whiskey, advice is best when it’s of a high-quality, with provenance, and in short amounts.  Have too much? And you’re likely to be on the floor unable to make any good decisions.

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.