What's the best advice you ever got in business?
IT CAN be hard to ask for advice in business. We are all busy and under pressure to act quickly and often the important reflection process happens long after a decision is made, when it’s too late.
Asking for advice can also be intimidating, particularly for junior people on their way up – even gaining access to those at the top can be a challenge, never mind picking their brains.
Take Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg for example. “Don’t Ask Anyone to be Your Mentor” is actually the title of a chapter in her book ‘Lean In’, where Sandberg talks about how strange she finds it when young women she doesn’t know ask her to be their mentor – a “total mood-killer”, she calls it, like asking someone during a pause in conversation on a first date: “What are you thinking?”
She complains about young women who want “excessive hand holding” – that’s a therapist, she warns, not a mentor.
That’s fair enough – but avoiding asking for help, advice and mentoring means you miss out on the huge bank of experience that those who have gone before us have accumulated.
This is particularly true in Ireland, whose small and easily accessible business community is ripe for the picking and rich with people at the top who remember what it was like at the bottom.
A bit of selective guidance and constructive criticism is always preferable to learning life’s lessons the hard way.
So we’ve done the hard work for you – we asked some of the chief executives and leaders of the country’s biggest organisations what the best advice they ever had was and the results were surprisingly thematic.
Those at the start of their careers shouldn’t get complacent, says Nationwide Ireland managing director Brendan Synnott (pictured below). “After finishing a research project in UCC in the mid-1980s I got the proverbial ‘good solid job’ in Bank of Ireland,” he explains.
“The banking industry was a very different place to work at that time and having been selected for the 1989 Irish Admirals Cup sailing team, the bank provided me with an extra six weeks’ paid leave to go sailing.
I had a total of 10 weeks away that year, going to events or competing in events, and I thought I had made a fantastic career choice.
“But at one of these events I met a senior trader who told me that to maximise your career in banking you need to be prepared to change jobs at least three times by the time you are 25. I just about managed it, and have no regrets to this day.”
Serial investor John Teeling, who was recently voted by UCD alumni as their favourite university lecturer ever, says much the same – keep your options open. (Though he concedes that he is not good at taking advice himself.)
“Two pieces of advice were good to me,” says Teeling. “The first was from Kieron Flynn, a former financial director of the Gallagher Group.
“It was during the early 1980s, when I was embroiled in tussles on three separate companies, Glen Abbey, Seafield Gentex and Dublin Gas. ‘Life is not a continuous battle’ was his advice.
“I did not listen then and I only half hear it now.
“The second, from my wife Deirdre, was not given in a business context but it has great relevance – ‘Keep your options open’. This was her annual mantra as a guidance counsellor to the sixth years in Mercy College in Coolock.
“There are 11 choices on the CAO form and she made the girls fill out every option. Was she right? Absolutely!
“In the ventures I follow uncertainty is rampant. We don’t know what we don’t know, so keep your options open.”
PUT YOURSELF IN THEIR SHOES
For those seeking advice on getting complex negotiations over the line, lawyers are the ones to speak to. “Probably the best (and very simple) advice I
ever received was that when trying to resolve particularly difficult issues, you must put yourself in
the position of the person on the other side of the
table,” says Gerry Halpenny (pictured left), a partner in law firm LK Shields.
“In the vast majority of cases, it is not reasonable to ask somebody else to agree to something that you would not agree yourself. Lawyers have a tendency to think of themselves as the centre of the deal, whereas we should in fact be the facilitators.
“Often a transaction is the most important thing that the clients will ever do in their lives, or at least their business lives. So while the legal bases must all be covered, any deal must make commercial sense for all parties involved if it is to happen.”
DON’T SWEAT THE SMALL STUFF
Lots of business leaders most remember advice handed down by their dads. “The best piece of advice I received was early in my career from my father,” says Eason’s managing director Conor Whelan (pictured left).
“He said that in business and particularly in general management, you shouldn’t strive for perfection. For two reasons: firstly you’ll never achieve it, and secondly it isn’t about perfection, it’s about keeping everything moving in the right direction towards the overall goals. Some parts will always be better than others and that’s natural and you have to accept it.”
Dorothea Dowling, chairperson of the Motor Insurance Advisory Board, keeps it even simpler – just KISS, she says. “Keep it simple, sunshine. Just keep asking questions, particularly of advisers who are charging you for a service. Even the most complex concepts should be intelligible to the majority of people. Guard against what George Bernard Shaw
termed conspiracies against the laity.”
GET OFF THE PHONE AND TALK IN PERSON
James Brogan, who runs sports consultancy Legacy Consultants with his cousin, Dublin footballer Bernard Brogan (both pictured right), says the best advice he ever got was about the importance of meeting face-to-face.
“Modern technology obviously provides massive benefits and has made global communication virtually instantaneous – but there is a lot to be said for removing yourself from behind a computer, and physically spending time with clients.
“It may be a bit old school but it makes you feel more comfortable with one another, which leads to more open and honest communication levels and better results for everyone in the long run.”
Again and again, the business people we spoke to focused on building up people skills.
“Be a good listener – it is as important to hear as it is to be heard,” says Mark Ryan, Accenture Ireland’s managing director (pictured right). “When I became a senior executive with Accenture I can recall my mentor at the time telling me to “seek first to understand” or – in other words – be a good listener.”
HIRE THE RIGHT PEOPLE
‘The best piece of advice I was given early on in my career was to employ really smart people,” says Margaret Lyons (right), who, as chief executive of sales outsourcing company Field Management, looks after the livelihoods of 800 employees.
“We employ people who fit with the ambitious culture of this company. Every individual employee working here is clear about what their own personal targets are and clear about what success looks like.”
IF IN DOUBT, REMEMBER WHAT BILL SAID
When all else fails, think of Bill Gates (above). The advice he gave to a crowd of teenagers at a California high school in 2003 was both searingly honest and startlingly true, if not slightly depressing.
It might be targeted at young people, but has meaning for all ages.
Here’s his 11 simple steps for making a success of business and life:
1 Life is not fair – get used to it!
2 The world won't care about your self-esteem. The world will expect you to accomplish something before you feel good about yourself.
3 You will not make $60,000 a year right out of high school. You won't be a vice-president with a car phone until you earn both.
4 If you think your teacher is tough, wait till you get a boss.
5 Flipping burgers is not beneath your dignity. Your grandparents had a different word for burger flipping – they called it opportunity.
6 If you mess up, it's not your parents' fault. So don't whine about your mistakes, learn from them.
7 Before you were born, your parents weren't as boring as they are now. They got that way from paying your bills, cleaning your clothes and listening to you talk about how cool you thought you are. So before you save the rain forest from the parasites of your parent's generation, try delousing the closet in your own room.
8 Your school may have done away with winners and losers, but life has not. In some schools they have abolished failing grades and they'll give you as many times as you want to get the right answer. This doesn't bear the slightest resemblance to anything in real life.
9 Life is not divided into semesters. You don't get summers off and very few employers are interested in helping you find yourself. Do that on your own time.
10 Television is not real life. In real life people actually have to leave the coffee shop and go to jobs.
11 Be nice to nerds. Chances are you'll end up working for one.