Why How You Take Advice Matters as a Leader

Leaders may ask for input or advice or say that they are open to it. They may have an open-door policy, telling people that whenever they want to talk about something or let them know something the door is open. But is it really?

Have you ever known a leader who says that they want your input or advice but doesn’t let you share it? Or one that lets you share your thoughts only to shoot them down, giving reasons why it won’t work seemingly without even considering the ideas? That can be particularly frustrating, especially when you are trying to help.

Conversely, have you ever had the type of leader who listens to your input and ideas and that even if they don’t ultimately take your advice is still grateful that you provided it?

I have worked with both types of leaders. Those who are willing to listen to advice given by others and those who aren’t. I would much rather work with the leaders who are willing to listen. One specific example comes readily to mind. I was working for a vice president (VP) that was just assigned a new boss – one I was familiar with. The new boss had a reputation as a “take no prisoners” type of leader. He was tough but fair and had high expectations of the leaders in his organization. He expected them to be on top of everything in their area of responsibility. I had worked with my VP’s new boss in a previous role and knew something about his expectations. Because I wanted my VP to show up well, I scheduled time with him to help him prepare for his initial meeting with his new boss.

During the meeting, I shared what I knew about the new boss’ leadership style and gave my opinion about how my VP should prepare for the initial meeting with his new boss. My VP politely pretended to listen but had a look on his face that said he had already made up his mind. After I had shared my inputs, he thanked me for taking the time to give him advice and then explained that I didn’t get the culture of this organization and he was going to do things the way he had always been successful doing them in the past, regardless of the new boss’ style. He shared that he felt the new boss would fall in line with the existing culture soon enough.


Listening is vital to communicating

Being a good listener is vitally important to good communication and an excellent leader does both well. Listening doesn’t cost a leader anything except time and attention, and listening may pay huge dividends. None of us knows everything nor are we good at everything. We rely on others’ input to help us get a complete picture of a situation and our options when facing a decision. If we think that we have the best ideas, the best information, and will make the best decisions without others input then we are setting ourselves up for failure.

Being a good listener as a leader doesn’t mean that you will act on every piece of information or advice that you receive. It simply means that you have more information with which to take appropriate action. Good listening means that you listen to what the other person is saying and ask questions to test that you are receiving and understanding the message they are trying to convey.


Do you accept input or shoot it down?

I want to share a different example of a leader who listened and was willing to consider others’ input and advice. A senior vice president (SVP)that I worked for at a different point in my career would hold an annual strategy meeting for all the executives in the organization. This was a forum to review the previous year’s performance and get everyone on the same page about the strategies and goals of the organization for the coming year. This meeting was a big production that took months of planning and preparation. The Friday before this annual meeting, I was reviewing the meeting agenda and presentations. I realized that there was an important topic missing from the agenda and if it wasn’t included in the meeting my SVP would miss an important opportunity to endorse the effort for that year.

I was nervous about how my input would be received. Especially since we were only a few hours from the meeting kickoff. Still, I felt strongly enough about the subject to contact my SVP and tell him that I thought we should find a way to add the missing topic to the meeting agenda.  

He listened to what I had to say and asked me a few questions. Then he said, “Good idea. You will be the one presenting the idea and I needyour presentation in the next 90 minutes so we can dry-run everything before the meeting starts.”

Two key things went right in this scenario: 1) I had the courage to give my SVP advice on a situation I felt strongly about, and 2) he listened to my advice and decided the path forward. These two key things enabled a strategic initiative to gain momentum rather than stalling out until next year’s meeting.

Conversely, the VP that I tried to help get off on the right foot with his new boss didn’t really listen to any of my advice. He went with his initial plan to do things how he had always done them. He didn’t get along well with the new boss and that caused him to have a much harder job because he was constantly trying to get back into the new boss’ good graces.

For which type of leader would you rather work? Which type of leader would you rather be?

Intention matters

Whether a leader is willing to take advice and input from others may depend on the intention of the person providing the input or advice. Is that person a trusted advisor? Is their intention to help the leader and/or the organization or do they just want attention? Do they have a track record of providing good advice? The leader is ultimately responsible for the choices they make, and it is smart to consider the source of the advice they are receiving.


Excellent leaders don’t go it alone

One of the most excellent leaders I know always kept a group of key trusted advisors close so that he could get their thoughts whenever he needed input. These trusted advisors were very different people, didn’t necessarily have the same leadership style, and weren’t afraid to disagree with him. He welcomed that disagreement to help him see multiple viewpoints and enable better outcomes.

Being an excellent leader includes taking responsibility for the direction of the organization and the choices you make. When you are faced with challenges, decisions, or even day-to-day business it can help you to get advice from others. Seeking out, listening to, and considering input and advice from others can provide you with a richer set of options in any leadership scenario you face.

Debbie Collard has 30+ years of leadership experience. She served on the National Baldrige Foundation Board of Directors for 15 years, including as the first female Chair of the Board. She is an iPEC- and ICF-Certified Professional Coach and co-author of The Making of a World- Class Organization, a practical guide for leaders to engage employees and increase profitability. debbiecollard.com

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