What’s the best advice you ever received? Fortune magazine asked this question to several business leaders recently. They identified the people who gave them their best advice, who helped them become successful, to realize their potential more fully, and kept them from making life altering mistakes.
Here are a few of the lessons they learned.
Ask Questions, And More Questions
Mellody Hobson, President of Ariel Investments and nonexecutive chairman of DreamWorks Animation helped Jeff Katzenberg, DreamWorks’ CEO, think through the pros and cons of a major acquisition. He describes her as “the Picasso of questions” for her ability to ask powerful questions that helped him consider the details and come to the right conclusion for the business.
Similarly, former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin learned that “the best answer to almost any question is another question”. He credits current White House budget director Sylvia Mathews Burwell, his former chief of staff, with the ability to frame and probe discussions with key parties during the 1995 budget crisis, in a way that enabled them to develop a new and different alternative. This required patience, and the willingness to look at the situation from many different perspectives. I call it don’t just do, think first.
Admit it. Sometimes when we have what we think is a great idea, we want someone to validate it, not poke holes in it. So if someone starts asking meaningful questions that we can’t answer, or the answer doesn’t support our great idea, it can be frustrating. We can blame that person, or recognize the value of their input and thank that person. When we’re emotionally involved in an issue, it’s important to have a rational mind to paint the picture in front of us that vividly shows the pros and cons of that decision, to help us prioritize what we want to achieve. Leaders select the people on their team very carefully, because it’s important that they have individuals whom they can trust to provide the right insights.
While every octogenarian may not be a fount of wisdom, I’ll take advice from Warren Buffett any day. Warren at 83, along with Charlie Munger, his 89 year old Vice Chairman, have dished lots of advice to each other during their 54 year friendship. They’ve made mistakes but have learned from their lifelong experiences and observed “what works, what doesn’t and why”. Their shared evaluated experience has benefited their business.
This means you must be willing to listen to someone who’s been through what you’re going through, and learned from it, instead of dismissing their advice as no longer relevant to today’s challenges. Seek out experienced people and carefully consider their counsel. What you’re attempting is probably not uniquely different from what anyone else has done.
Find a Truth Teller
Who do you have in your inner circle who won’t hesitate to tell you the truth, even when it hurts? They’re not sticking a knife in you; they’re holding a protective shield in front of you so that you see your decisions closely reflected in the hardened metal of reality. Carefully surround yourself with people who care about you enough to give you candid and constructive feedback. This is advicethat will help you grow, and push you to continual improvement and different approaches. Munger helped Buffett to see the wisdom of a different investment strategy that has obviously paid off handsomely for both of them. Katzenberg reports that Hobson’s communication style is like a knockout punch, but so smooth that it feels like you got hit by a feather.
A trio of entrepreneurial friends, Alexa Von Tobel, Daniella Yakobovsky, and Lucy Grayson Deland shared valuable information and advice as they were founding their respective companies. They were a sounding board for one another in a way that entrepreneurs don’t typically communicate. Having a trusting relationship like this with someone who will demonstrate transparency and openness is critical to gaining honest insight into how to improve your behavior, and your business.
Take Smart Risks
Peter Salovey, President of Yale University and Judith Rodin, President of the Rockefeller Foundation have been collaborators and friends for over 30 years. They bounce ideas off of one another, distilling them to understand which ones would have the greatest impact on the real world. In other words, there’s a lot of great information out there, but they think about what’s really important to know and understand in order to positively leave a mark on their environment.
Leaders who play it safe and fail to take risks, fail to make progress. Playing it safe means staying with what you know, instead of learning something new. Can you imagine not taking the risk of learning to do something new, whether pursuing a new career, learning new technology, or launching a new business initiative? Rather than back away from it, gather advice from smarter experienced people about how to be successful at it, and take the plunge.
Smart people take smart risks based on information, evaluation and education. And while every action won’t achieve the desired result, smart risks create the best learning opportunities, which lead to better longer term results.
My Best Advice
To position yourself to receive valuable advice, you need good relationships. During his 20s, Jim Collins, author of Good to Great and other best-selling business books, formed a personal board of directors to provide him with life shaping advice. Some of the most meaningful tips were from Peter Drucker, who advised him not to worry about trying to survive, but to focus instead on trying to be useful. Bill Lazier, his co-author of Beyond Entrepreneurship, told him that people view life either as a series of transactions or a series of relationships. Only those who view it as relationships will have a great life. And John Gardner, former Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare under President Lyndon Johnson told him to spend more time being interested, not interesting.
A trusted mentor recently encouraged me to pay it forward; to commit a portion of my time and talents to help others become successful, without expecting anything from them in return. I had done this in other areas of my work, but he was challenging me in a new area. I’m going to accept his challenge and consider it a seed sown to build stronger relationships, that in time will produce a harvest of benefits in others’ lives as well as my own.
Read Jim Collins info here.
All other stories from The Best Advice I Ever Got, Fortune, November 18, 2013, p. 117-130
Copyright 2013 Priscilla Archangel
Failure is typically considered a bad experience. We don’t perform as expected. We’re unsuccessful at attaining a goal. Our health or wealth deteriorates. We’re unfairly blamed for something we didn’t do. We lose someone or something that we love. But the reality is that all of us experience inadequacy, frustration, defeat and botch things up, multiple times in our lives. The question is, what do we learn from our failures, particularly the significant ones? Do we pick ourselves up and push forward, or does it paralyze us? Do we blame others and look for someone to save us, or do we use it as a tool to shape our future?
Failure is a hot topic this month with the launch of 2 new books. Sometimes You Win, Sometimes You Learn by leadership guru John Maxwell explores the question of “What do we learn when we fail?” Experiencing failure is a given in everyone’s life, but we often don’t want to talk about it, we just try to endure it. Maxwell believes that the common saying “experience is the best teacher” is more accurately phrased as “evaluated experience is the best teacher”. His book shares lessons on humility, hope, reality, responsibility, improvement, problems, bad experiences, change, teachability, adversity and maturity, as key traits of learners who succeed in the face of problems, failure, and losses.
Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams wrote How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life. In an interview with Gary Rosen in the Wall Street Journal Weekend Review, Adams advises readers not to follow their passion because it may not be very rational. For instance, a sports enthusiast who decides to open a sports paraphernalia store because he’s passionate about it, may not have a good business plan. So don’t get passionate beyond the initial stage with something that isn’t working. Instead, try lots of things that won’t kill you, bankrupt you, etc. until something works. Adams failed at inventions, computer programs, and other initiatives, but every time he did something he learned from it, and that skill came in handy. Everything he did was all designed to give him experience that would become a stronger base.
While we all experience failure, we generally want to experience it in private with minimal publicity. After all, it’s embarrassing, especially when it looks like so many others around us are winning. Because it impacts our self-image, it can leave us in fear of greater failure if we see ourselves as losers, thus becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Or, we can decide to focus on avoiding that same mistake in the future. We can convert failure to a positive experience, using focus and faith. Focus on what you learned and what you did right. Have faith in God and yourself to change as a result of what you’ve learned.
The bigger the failure the greater effort it takes to get out of it, and the more we learn. Failure is all relative. What we perceive to be failure may simply require us to redefine success. The most successful people are those who learn from their (and others’) mistakes, refuse to let those mistakes define them (don’t wallow in them), use them as stepping stones, and share them with others.
Failure isn’t always your fault, but it may be your responsibility. For example, if you hire someone who later steals from you, it’s not your fault that this person is a thief, but it is your responsibility to hire people who seem to be trustworthy. So you can learn to screen candidates more thoroughly, and put more security measures in place in hopes that it won’t happen again. Or maybe you were responsible for a project, and someone on your team lied and failed to perform their assignment as part of that project. Because you’re the leader, you bear the responsibility for that failure, even though you didn’t personally do something wrong. Things may happen that are unfair. There may be a horrible miscarriage of justice, a failure that’s pinned on you. But the situation is now out of your control, and you are carrying the blame. You still have a choice to deal with sour lemons, or to make lemonade. You can’t control the decisions others have made, but you can control how you respond.
Benefits of Failure
So as you reflect on your failures, reflect on these accomplishments.
- Failure is a badge of courage. If we’ve never failed, we’ve never attempted anything worthwhile.
- Failure informs us on our weaknesses and directs us to our strengths.
- Failure gives us something to laugh about so that we can have fun with ourselves.
- Failure gives us something to cry about so that we can appreciate the happy times.
- Failure closes doors that don’t fit our purpose and helps point us to opportunities best suited for us.
- Failure keeps us humble, recognizing that we’re not infallible.
- Failure helps us appreciate success.
- Failure highlights our wrong decisions so that we can learn how to make right ones.
- Failure helps us identify what we need to learn.
- Failure helps us identify what we can teach others.
- Failure helps us avoid more failure.
So the next time you experience failure…(maybe later today?)…don’t kick yourself, curse others, or spiral into depression. Instead, find a quiet spot and spend time meditating on what exactly went wrong, how you would handle it differently next time, what you’re learning from it, and how you can recover from the negative impact of it. Write that lesson down, then move forward, resolved not to repeat it.
Copyright 2013 Priscilla Archangel
Purchase John Maxwell’s book here and select Products.
Watch Scott Adams’ interview here.
David Kelley’s goal is to build world class designers. He’s the founder of IDEO, a Silicon Valley global design firm whose objective is to create impact through design; and the Stanford “D” school which trains students from various disciplines to incorporate design thinking into their work. Kelley’s firm is known for designing some of the most intriguing ideas, such as the first computer mouse for Apple, the defibrillator that talks to you during an emergency, and the stand-up toothpaste tube. They have expertise and capabilities in brand building, health and wellness, medical products, digital experiences, and business design, to name just a few.
His underlying premise is that everyone is creative. We simply stop displaying our creativity as we grow up and are encouraged to conform to established norms around us, and therefore it ebbs away. Kelley works with his students to develop and release this creative confidence again; to help them learn to try new things. According to an interview with Charlie Rose in a January 6, 2013, 60 Minutes feature story on IDEO, one of the ways he gains new design ideas is by watching people. Kelley is empathetic to understand what they really value and how they operate in their environment, and his team interviews people to see what they think and feel. Kelley builds world-class designers who in turn design break-through inventions. He builds teams of individuals from vastly different backgrounds and leverages their differences to create new solutions, even in areas where they have no natural expertise.
David Kelley’s work is fascinating, but everyone won’t have the benefit of working with someone of his caliber. So how can you develop a team with a greater creative self-confidence? Consider these tips.
· Thinking environment – Most of us operate in a “doing” environment. We establish processes and routines around what we do and how we handle situations. This creates efficient systems but robs us of the possibilities of improvement and creativity, because we fail to stop and “think” about how we could operate differently. In a “thinking” environment, people are encouraged to reflect on what’s happening, why it’s happening, and alternatives to the current state that will help us reach the desired outcomes. When one person in the team does this, he or she may be considered difficult to work with. But when an entire team or organization takes time to think through certain situations, they can stimulate break through ideas. Collective ideas make progress.
· Spirit of curiosity – Accepting the status quo limits our thinking. What if the Wright brothers had simply accepted that no one had been successful in building a flying machine, and therefore stopped trying? There’s always pressure to keep doing things the way they’ve always been done, thus conformity becomes the enemy of creativity. All of the inventions we depend on today (like my iPhone, iPad, laptop, etc.) are the result of someone having a spirit of curiosity about how things might work if we just kept trying different alternatives.
· Emphasis on quality, not quantity – Ultimately, one is always sacrificed for the other. It’s impossible to have an equal balance of both. But at some point, in the development of every new idea or plan, a decision must be made on which one is more important. The appropriate emphasis on quality has the potential to yield a more creative outcome when you consider broader alternatives.
· Nurturing new ideas – Some companies pay lip service to programs soliciting suggestions from employees. They fail however to commit sufficient resources to evaluating these ideas, and to fully engage the organization in valuing different perspectives and approaches. Though only a small percentage of ideas may be workable, the process of getting creative juices flowing and nurturing ideas, creates a stimulating environment where employees are more likely to explore alternatives. In the 60 Minutes piece, Kelley described growing up in an environment where when something broke, he was expected to take it apart and find a way to fix it. This environment nurtured the creative genius in him. Similarly, Hackathons, first popular in Silicon Valley, provide a nurturing environment when groups of people come together to solve a problem, or develop new solutions or technology.
· Interact with different people – You’ve heard that Einstein’s definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results. So it stands to reason that if you hang around with the same people, or people just like you, then you’ll probably keep thinking the same thoughts. This is natural for most of us because we’re attracted to people who share similar interests. But if you want to stimulate creativity, find people to talk with who have different perspectives. Find people who have different expertise, interests and ways of doing things. Throw a problem into the discussion and open your mind to learn from their different approaches to solving it. You can bring together a cross disciplinary team at work to solve a problem (yes, ask a finance person to help you solve an engineering problem), or give you new ideas on how to approach it.
Most of all, to build creative self-confidence in their teams, leaders must look for opportunities to identify and reward creativity in the behaviors of those around them. Even when the results aren’t as practical or useful, recognize the effort and encourage others to replicate it.
Think again about the computer mouse. Nothing like it existed before. Consumers weren’t used to this type of device. The design had to be simple and intuitive, and they had to consider eye-hand coordination with the visual screen, along with the look and feel of it. That’s creating something out of nothing.
So how have you exercised your creativity lately? What are you inspired to do differently? Have you placed yourself in a different environment so that you can see things from a different perspective? Developing creative self-confidence begins with you, and then you can spread it to others. So hurry up and start now so that you can nurture others around you.
Watch the 60 Minutes video here.