It’s very easy to give advice, but hard to do it well. So whether you’re advising a colleague or a student, here’s some tips on how to make sure it sticks.
Many years ago, as an undergraduate, I took a class in diplomacy from Madeleine Albright, long before she became secretary of state. I was a quiet student working my way through a big project – a mock political negotiation in which class members played various world leaders. It was an exercise requiring far more self-assurance than I had at the time. It was particularly hard given my natural reticence.
Partway through the class, all of that changed. Professor Albright spoke to me privately and said directly: “You should speak up; you have good things to say.” It was a revelation. This simple piece of advice gave me a new sense of confidence in myself and my voice.
The substance of the advice may seem unremarkable but the way she did it – the personal touch, the timing, and her obvious sincerity – gave it real power.
Now, whether working with a newly promoted member of our firm or advising a highly accomplished CEO through a series of interviews for a board seat, I am reminded almost daily that it’s easy to give advice but really hard to do it well.
At almost every point in your career, you will be called upon to offer advice – to peers, to students, to the people you manage, and sometimes to the people who manage you. Here are some things you can do in those professional settings to help make sure your advice sticks:
Know the difference between advice and criticism
Advice is meant to be helpful; criticism is often meant to wound. An arrogant, critical professor might have told me that I was too timid for diplomatic negotiations.
You know you’re being critical rather than helpful if you start the conversation this way: “Look, I hate to say this, but it’s for your own good…”
Hold the sandwich
Don’t put the advice between two slices of praise, opening with a compliment, slipping in some counsel, and wrapping it up with a final good word. I’ve seen that approach many times over the years and I think it blunts the message.
Keep advice short, to the point, and meaningful. And focus on how the person can leverage their strengths to deal with the issue—give him or her a tool and something really useful rather than just drop a “bomb” and walk away.
Give advice in real time
Offer your counsel as close as possible to the events that call for it, making it more contextual, powerful, and meaningful.
It’s better, for example, to talk to a young partner who was unprepared and distracted in a meeting just after the meeting wraps up—sharing your thoughts right away. Further, you will create the expectation of constant feedback, so that such coaching becomes part of the natural rhythm of your management style.
Make the advice actionable
Vague advice can be worse than no advice. Unless advice is accompanied by a suggestion of something the listener can actually do, it’s likely to cause anxiety.
If you tell someone that they need to “up their game” or “get with the program,” they will come away knowing only that their performance is lacking in some way. And having no idea what to do about it, they may spend many unproductive hours pursuing the wrong remedies or simply worrying.
Draw on what has worked for others
Coaching highly accomplished CEOs and other seasoned executives through interviews can be a delicate challenge. Many of them haven’t interviewed for anything in years and, understandably, they prefer to trust their own judgement.
To help make sure my advice is meaningful and helpful, I often describe what has made other candidates successful in similar situations, in that particular industry and with their particular skill sets, and I have shared specific interview strategies. Stories about best practices and the experience of others can be a powerful means of cutting through resistance to advice, offering narratives that the hearer can relate to.
Deliver the advice in person
If you genuinely wish what’s best for the recipient, that authenticity will come through powerfully in the nuances of your voice, your body language, and your responsiveness.
That’s what Madeleine Albright did so successfully. She found a moment to share some memorable advice with me – and later left me a personal note with my final grade complimenting me on my participation.
Ever since, I have followed her advice – to speak up. And I still have the note with my final grade and her gracious comments. I kept it not because she is famous – she wasn’t at that time – but because everything she did conveyed her care for her students and her desire to see them learn and improve. Who wouldn’t heed the advice of someone like that?