How NOT to Make Use of a Paid Advisor

I’ve discussed before how to filter advice on your business. Today I’d like to hone in on a pet peeve related to paying for expert advice. 

Let me start with an analogy.

In corporate America, when a senior executive wants an external consultant to coach one of her direct reports and does NOT obtain the direct report’s genuine buy-in, then here’s what happens. The direct report will often do their damnedest to narrow the scope of what they do with the external advisor. For this put-upon employee, the best-case scenario is to make the ‘coach’ focus on answering their questions as they arise. Crappy therapists operate this way as well. They never try to set the agenda. This approach to ‘using’ a consultant is an act of passive resistance. And, it makes sense, sadly, especially if you resent your boss for many other reasons. Since the employee in question isn’t paying for the advice herself, getting very little for the coach’s fee is of no concern to her. Preventing the added workload consultants generally impose is much more critical. 

If you ever hire a paid advisor to work with you on your business strategy, you will be severely tempted to hire someone to answer YOUR questions. Seems fine when you read it, right? Here’s the problem. Unless you have as much industry experience as the consultant, it’s super unlikely you know what the right questions to ask are. You may have questions, sure, but they may not be the critical ones. If you hire someone merely to answer your questions, you’ll get answers. But the question remains: what did you miss by not letting them do their independent diagnosis of your business, and generate the appropriate questions to answer? Perhaps you missed the critical thing to help your business accelerate growth.

Paying for business advice should never become a transactional exchange of cash for answers. Pretty soon, the internet itself will handle this kind of ‘consulting’ in most industries. Or you probably should be able to figure the answers out yourself, honestly. Stop looking for shortcuts.

If you’re paying for strategic business advice on a weak foundation of experience, it’s critical to let still your advisor determine the questions to be asked. If you don’t give them this authority, you are wasting the money. Often, I encounter founders who know they should grant advisors this authority but are terrified to learn something they don’t want to learn: a fundamental problem with their product or their marketing strategy or route-to-market. This terror is based on inexperience with pivoting rapidly in a startup environment. With so much chaos already, having an advisor pile on one more major error to fix appears overwhelming. Your mind wants you to avoid the advisor’s critique, like the put-upon corporate employee in my analogy above.

If this is genuinely your mental state, then I would urge you to save your money and don’t hire a consultant at all. Don’t seek out or listen to anyone’s advice when in this state of mind. It’s tough to coach and advise clients in a state of emotional duress, however temporary. You should push forward and come back later when you and your team are psychologically ready. 

Just say no to putting straightjackets on your advisors. FYI: I screen out upfront any folks who try to do this with me or show signs of not being open to a complete diagnosis of their business. Happy to reduce my revenue for better client impact.

Dr. James Richardson

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