Andrew (perspectivism) wrote,

How To Give Advice (1997)


Criticizing one's clients is, by definition, a part of every professional's job. Suggestions on how to improve always carry the implied critique that all is not being done well at the moment.

To understand some of the emotions surrounding the client's use of professionals, think of the personal risks (reputation, promotion opportunities, bonuses, perhaps even one�s career) that go along with the responsibility for choosing (and working with) any outside provider for a risky or expensive corporate matter. How would you like to be known by the Board as the person to blame if the corporate headquarters designed by the architect you chose didn�t work out? If the major lawsuit was lost? If the new marketing campaign failed to deliver the goods?

Viewed in this light, the client has every right to enter the process of using an outsider in a high state of anxiety. What�s worse, the client's inevitable caution and trepidation is reinforced by the fact that outside professionals often see complications in a project which the client doesn't see. In fact, it is an essential part of the professional�s craft to reveal nuances, problems, barriers and issues of which the client is unaware. If these are not conveyed with tact and skill, the client could easily believe (however unfairly) that, rather than relieving fears and being helpful, the professional is creating complications.

It is predictable that the average client experiences unwelcome feelings of dependency or loss of control.

What clients really want is someone who will take away their worries and absorb all their hassles. Yet all too often, they encounter professionals who add to their worries and create extra headaches, forcing them to confront things they would prefer to ignore. ("Doctor, I came to you about my sore feet, and you are giving me grief about my weight. Can't you just treat my feet and leave me alone about my weight?") Since clients are so anxious and uncertain, they are, above all, looking for someone who will provide reassurance, calm their fears and inspire confidence.

Maybe you don't know how to convey what you know and understand to a lay person. Of course I don't know your field, that's why I hired you! Explain it to me in language I can understand. Help me get it! Your job is not just to assert conclusions at me, but to help me understand why your recommended course of action makes sense. Give me reasons, not just instructions!

Although advising clients sometimes feels like explaining things to a child, the secret to becoming a good advisor is to do exactly the opposite: Act as if you were trying to advise your mother or father.

When talking to a family member or a client, a primary task is to diffuse defensiveness (which, it should be noted, is always present.) If you are to influence a parent, you must find a way to prove you are trying to help, not just to criticize.

The one thing I must not do is commit myself to a single consultative style and say "Well, that's my style, the clients can take it or leave it." Now, that really would be pompous, patronizing and arrogant...

(David Maister)


Elsewhere, there's a splendid interview with David M, "the world's leading authority" on leadership/mngt at professional service firms, hitting:

The central issue is to go from being a technical expert employee to being an advisor.

The true spirit of professionalism is to realize that it's about the client, it's not about you.

The simple business analysis is: You get hired or, more generally, you get listened to, to the extent that people think you care.

This is the secret of doing well: do stuff you care about for people you can care about, then you will do superbly well financially.

The point being is that behind it all has got to be a desire to accomplish something.

The one sin is not trying.

Strategy is the difference between expediency and long-run achievement. I'll give you one illustration, out of the courage article that's on my web site. I've got a long-term German client who, as a favor, asked me if I would do a three day sales and marketing skills course for their junior people. Now that's not normally what I do in my career, but it's a client, so you do a favor once, right? Unfortunately, the tragedy is that it went well, and the client now calls me and says, "David, we want to buy 70 days at your full rate". So I come rushing in to my wife, who is my coach, and I say, "Honey, good news, the Germans want 70 days," and she goes into coaching mode. She says, "David, I seem to remember you said that what you wanted to try to do with your career was become a senior advisor to global firms," and I said, "Yes?" And she said, "Well, maybe it's because I don't have formal business training, David, but tell me where 70 days of sales skills training for junior people fits with accomplishing that strategy." And of course, I have to say, it doesn't. She says, "Beloved, I'm your coach, not your boss, you can do whichever you choose, but here are your choices. You either make the expedient choice and have the least stressful year you've ever had, doing the same old stuff for non-challenging people, right? The only thing I ask, is that you admit you've given up on your goals. Or, David, you can act as if you believe your own bullshit, which is to say 'no' to stuff that's off strategy...

(David Maister as Cool Friend)
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