Van Praag: Base your business decisions on 'sage' advice

Fitzroy Communications' Lucas van Praag, the former comms chief for Goldman Sachs, weighs in on the three types of advisers. Be a Sage, not a Cicero.

Many of the most effective business leaders I work with are assiduous about soliciting advice. Others prefer a command-and-control environment where, rather like Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny, their word is law and heaven help anyone who tries to interfere.

Being a leader is not easy. The most recent Gallup poll of views on honesty and ethics in various professions ranks business executives near the bottom of the list. A crumb of comfort can be taken from the fact that they rank higher than telemarketers, members of Congress, and lobbyists. But the picture is depressing, and the trend shows no sign of improvement. It is easy to dismiss poll results, but it might not necessarily be the smartest response.

The challenges of running an organization successfully are considerable, and seeking advice is not a sign of weakness. In my experience, the most effective leaders invariably ask for it and encourage people to challenge them on important issues. But they don’t allow themselves to be hijacked; they solicit points of view, encourage debate, and consider the pros and cons and the motivations of those who have offered advice.

I have worked with leaders who always ask a broad range of colleagues for their opinions, carefully consider the feedback, discuss it with others, and then make their decision. I have also worked with people who only ask for input from those they know will agree with them, going through what looks like a collaborative process but, in fact, running a system that is the polar opposite. Not surprisingly, the truly collaborative leaders are generally more successful.

Only asking for reactions from those who are going to agree with you is, ultimately, a recipe for disaster. We all know people who seek out those who, because they are nervous about disagreeing with the boss or simply lack the intellectual rigor or ability, will invariably agree with the person asking the question. And leaders should always be cautious of those with more Machiavellian motivations; they may actually want their boss to make the wrong decision to make themselves look better, prove a point, or take the boss’s job!

So why don’t or won’t some people engage constructively? A friend once shared this with me: our world is made up of three types of people: those who are simply not interested in asking for, or taking, advice; those who recognize that the advice they’re given is good but do nothing with it; and those rare individuals who seek advice, consider it carefully and, if they think it is good, act on it.

The people in the first group I call "Heroic Ciceros." Cicero was a Roman statesman who neatly summed up his thoughts about advice this way, "No one can give you wiser advice than yourself." HCs often find themselves in trouble. Thinking you are the smartest person all the time may work in a limited number of fields, but in any area of endeavor where outcomes can be influenced by multiple factors, the odds of analyzing all of them correctly are not good. Decision-making in business has become increasingly complex, and the consequences of making mistakes have grown immensely.

Most people who either do not or will not take advice fall into the second group – "Pathological Ostriches." The PO approach is, sadly, a common phenomenon. Not being interested in taking advice is a deeply complex issue, and dealing with it is usually well beyond the expertise of most corporate advisors. Recognizing good advice and doing nothing with it also has its roots deeply embedded in brain function issues. Suffice to say, POs are very difficult, if not impossible, to help. Boards of directors need to be alive to the syndrome and be prepared to act appropriately.

Third is "The Sages." People in this group generally appreciate that asking for advice is valuable from a practical point of view, and also enhances the perception of their competence among those with whom they work. They surround themselves with a diverse group of people they can trust, whose judgment is sound, and call on them frequently.

Sometimes, however, the perspective of senior colleagues is not enough, and being able to draw on someone who has a wide range of experience, but is not conflicted or biased by the inner workings of the company, can be invaluable. The most effective leaders work with advisers who they know have their best interests at heart, and with whom there is effective chemistry.

Communication advisers must possess not just a keen understanding of the key elements of their craft, but also a thorough appreciation of their clients’ business and the environment in which they operate. Often, detailed technical knowledge can be less important than common sense, a clear understanding of strategy and tactics and a thorough appreciation of the internal undercurrents.  First-class advice should be the bedrock on which all sound decisions are based.

Lucas van Praag is managing partner at Fitzroy Communications. Previously, he was global head of corporate communications at Goldman Sachs. In November, PRWeek is debuting a strategic counsel advice column called 'Ask Lucas…', in which readers submit questions to the resident expert at our in-house Reputation Clinic. If you have any questions you'd like Lucas to address, submit them here.

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