I have been formally leading corporate teams for more than twenty years now. I’ve usually worked for mid-large sized corporations. During this time I’ve taken countless leadership workshops, read an untold number of leadership books, and participated in who-knows how many coaching and mentoring sessions. 

Guess what the best advice I’ve received during my career.

Lots of advice

I once worked for a smaller company and was promoted to a management position with a Director level title. I worked hard for this promotion, and I was proud of the acknowledgement of my efforts.

After being promoted my boss showed up in my office, sat down and said “I know this is your first senior leadership position so I want to give you a little advice. As a leader, you will earn their loyalty if you are the one who turns the lights on in the morning, and turn them off in the evening.” In other words, he was telling me being a leader means working harder and more hours than anyone else.

Hmmm.

Then there was the time I received some leadership advice about emotions in the workplace. I was in a Project Management position, and as a part of this was expected to provide leadership for the team & project. It was a challenging time as we were working on a project that would result in some people losing their job due to the efficiencies being created.

For obvious reasons, there were plenty of emotions involved with this period of time. At one point, the VP of the department pulled me aside and told me good leaders know how to leave emotions outside of the workplace. She even told me good leaders know how to get their teams to do the same.

I thought that was interesting, and I tried to follow the advice. After all, she’s a VP and should know what it means to be a good leader, right? What I will say is in following this advice we only created more stress for me and the team.

Hmmm.

Perhaps it’s the advice I received that leaders dress for success. If I remember right, I think I was told leaders want to be the best-dressed person in the room. If everyone is in jeans, then dress with business casual. If everyone is in business casual, then wear a tie. If everyone is wearing a tie, then wear a suit. I’m not sure what I’d wear if everyone is in suits.

The advice was suggesting I’m going to be successful if I give the illusion of success through a mask I’m wearing. Put on your best image, and they will respect you for that.

From where I am today, I know none of these things constitutes good leadership advice. To be fair, I think in every case the person giving me the advice intended to help me become a better leader. However, they are examples of how organizations struggle to shift their leadership culture because they keep reinforcing old and unproductive beliefs.

So, what is the best advice I’ve received about leadership or anything else in life for that matter? I would summarize it into one word:

Nothing

That’s right, the best advice I received was the advice I didn’t receive.

In our world, you can find advice everywhere. Sometimes the intention of the sender is different, but if you’re receiving it in the spirit of advice … it’s advice. The problem with advice is it’s often used to calm an anxiety, rather than fix problems. We take the words and implement them keeping ownership for the outcome with the other person. We all do this and the good news is it only proves your normal.

If I feel bad or uncertain about how things are going, I may be holding some type of anxiety which can manifest itself in any number of ways. My anxiety can show itself as nervousness, uncertainty, procrastination, anger or any number of other behaviours brought on by my anxiety. If you give me advice, often times I receive it in the spirit of feeling better. That doesn’t mean we’re going to truly solve any problems or grow from the experience.

In the case of the leader who gave me advice around emotions, it’s possible their advice was rooted in wanting to get rid of an uncomfortable feeling for themselves. It’s not that they didn’t care about people’s emotions, it’s just that emotions are difficult to deal with. Therefore, by giving the advice of leaving the emotions at the door we can feel better … for now.

I don’t want to discount a mental health issue in which someone is our could be diagnosed with anxiety. However, that is not the degree of anxiety I’m talking about. I’m talking about the forms in which you have butterflies in the stomach, sweaty plams, withdrawl or some other behaviour.

The advice I didn’t receive

You might be thinking “Are you saying I shouldn’t share my experiences and knowledge with others?” My answer is always the same: “No that’s not what I’m saying at all.” This is about when I get a puzzled look, so let me explain.

When people receive our words from a mindset of receiving advice, it becomes all about feeling better. In feeling better, if they take our advice they also give us ownership of the outcome. If someone is focused on feeling better, then it’s unlikely they’re going to improve the situation they find ourselves in.

How much improvement do you think happened when I asked people to leave their emotions at the door? Or when I dressed in my best suit. I looked sharp, but that doesn’t mean I’m having an impact.

You have lots of experience and knowledge and I want you to share it with the world. However, there’s a short distance between sharing to provide options and sharing to give advice. Here’s what works for me:

  • I first ask powerful questions so the other person gets clear on the problem they’re confronting. Anxiety is a sign of the existence of a problem, rather than being the problem itself. This is a time in which I find coaching skills to be most powerful. To draw out the problem, and help the other person get clear despite the anxiety they are feeling
  • I then ask permission to share my experience or knowledge. I will usually say something like “I have some experience with this topic, would you like to hear my thoughts?” Then with their permission, I quickly share what’s coming up for me. I try not to give too much information, as I know they’ll ask for more if they want it
  • Then, to prevent this turning into advice I’ll ask another powerful question like “what changes in your situation when you think about my experience?” My goal is to get them looking at their problem from a different perspective
  • To move even further from advice I provide a couple more perspectives followed with powerful questions. In providing multiple perspectives and ideas, you are putting the choice of direction with the other person. In other words, it helps them take ownership for their direction
  • Finally, I ask them “Forget what I’ve told you. What are you going to do?”

I don’t want to give advice as that gives me ownership for the outcomes. What I’m describing is a mentoring process, which far more powerful as it helps people confront and grow from their experiences.

Mentoring and coaching people can be uncomfortable for a leader. If the person is feeling anxious, there’s a good chance I’m going to feel the anxiety too. However, when I can be with the anxiety and move through it to the real problem we’re both going to grow as a result.