When starting a company, a common situation among most founders is having more questions than answers. There is a central business idea you believe in and a path you’ve set up in your mind, but as you start your journey, you realize you need to overcome all sorts of obstacles. Some are expected, and some come out of nowhere.
It’s human nature to seek out other people when we are faced with challenges. Sometimes it’s for validation; other times it’s to feel like we’re not walking the path alone. However, in my experience, the most common reason that founders of all ages and levels of experience look to others is to ask for advice on how to move forward in a given situation. I’ve had the opportunity to be on both sides of the interaction—founder and advisor—and I’ve come to realize that so many of them end unsatisfactorily for at least one of the parties involved because there isn’t a conscious effort to understand what the person across from you can give and receive.
The founder’s perspective has, in my opinion, been covered more completely over the past few years, but there are some key points that bear reminding. Requests for advice should always be precise, with concise and self-contained context as well as a clear question to be answered. The age-old maxim of quality over quantity is very appropriate in these cases; founders should aim to receive effective advice on a specific area of their company instead of broad suggestions on the general idea of their business. This way of approaching requests not only increases the chance of receiving advice that is genuinely helpful but also leaves an excellent impression. In cases where the advisor has to get back to you at a later date, being sharp and professional at the moment of the interaction contributes to getting a more valuable answer down the road.
The advisor’s perspective, however, is completely different, and it’s where I think many of us fail at accomplishing the goal. When founders ask for advice, even when they approach the request with precision, I’ve found that the receivers tend to do one of two things. Based on experience, the advisor either suggests a broad tactic that has worked for their business in the past, or they pivot from the question itself and instead offer words of encouragement. Sometimes, when the advisor has been in the position many times before, they already have an outline of what they will answer, regardless of the specific request of the founders. While it’s understandable that advisors generally lack the time to go into specifics with a founder, I still can’t help asking myself: Are we really providing tools with these interactions, or are we just a kind of moral support?
While it might be considered idealistic, I believe anyone who has the opportunity to advise founders should make a consistent effort to avoid it becoming an automatic and general process. Take a few minutes to ask at least a couple of follow-up questions so you can have a better understanding of the business and the request. Also, it’s important to focus on always providing tools that the founders can apply in their daily experiences, even if the tools are not tailor-made for their industry or business. This will have a more lasting effect on them versus a few general words of motivation. While I can’t think of any founder who wouldn’t appreciate some encouragement, once they get back to the office, they won’t necessarily be better positioned to face the challenges of their business.
In the end, when you’re in the advisor role, you have to remember that founders are usually very motivated with their ideas, but they are searching for solutions to their challenges, just like you.
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