A NEW MANAGEMENT is always presumed to need help to navigate unknown waters. There is the corporate culture to worry about (Sir, you must talk to the staff), unwritten protocols on seating arrangements, and even the appropriate type of reception for foreign investors.
Leaders, especially newly installed ones, are wary of being offered unsolicited advice from newly met strangers or self-proclaimed experts, even those that are referred by trusted aides. Pronouncements on being receptive to suggestions from all quarters need to be taken with a grain of salt. (My door is open to everyone.) Those taking this “open door” policy too literally are stopped by the secretary — Do you have an appointment?
A new leader tries to project an image of control.
The CEO does not want to look like a puppet whose strings are being pulled by self-proclaimed advisers, especially those who brag about the connection of their hand movements to the leader’s jiggling of shoulders and mouth. Always at a leader’s side, a pesky adviser can project his clout by often leaning to whisper — Sir, your fly is open.
Things that turn out well are claimed to have benefited from the adviser’s counsel. Disasters are explained as advice not heeded, being out of town when the decision was taken.
Leaders put bragging advisers off-balance by simply replacing them. (We have a new communications consultant on board.) Certain “whisperers” can be publicly ignored, just to make the point that they are not really part of the package. Too often, these false prophets claim to be behind any significant move by the leader, even if they only find out about this in the online news afterwards. (I told her to wear white for a change.)
It is important for an adviser to know his place. Here are some tips for the tippers.
When asked for an opinion, there is no need to give a quick reply. This can be viewed as not well thought out. Repeat the question, nod, and say something enigmatic — yes, migration patterns of swallows can be changed. If there is a group around the leader, the eager beaver is likely to jump in with a silly remark. With the debate raging, someone else is bound to give an idea worth stealing… or synthesizing.
In a one-on-one situation, idea poaching is not possible. Here, it is best to give anecdotes and try to see what idea strikes the leader as interesting and pick it up from there. There is seldom a need to give an immediate answer to a question posed, unless it is to ask for one’s e-mail address.
Do not limit yourself to one course of action like sacking somebody, even if it is a person at the top of your hate list. (Yes, ma’am, he is indeed a moron.) It is always good to present an analysis of the situation and the implications of certain options — Is he still part of our team?
What about a controversial suggestion your leader is going to be upset about, like casting suspicions on someone closely related to another adviser? It is best to test the waters by presenting the accusation as probably fake news, somebody else’s suggestion, or something that is ridiculously out of the question. Checking reactions to the offensive idea at least leads one to the right path, which is sometimes to change the topic.
Should one give unsolicited advice at all? No, but he can create the situation for it — I don’t really want to comment on those skipped interviews. This surfacing of a topic which is not on the radar can elicit a question — what are you talking about? This is the cue to bring in the touchy subject.
Never put advice on the record. E-mails and text messages are too easy to forward to the object of scorn — what do you say to this, Cassius? Also, e-mails can’t really be deleted. They reside in the cloud and can be fished out by cyber-detectives to nail you later.
Unsolicited advice can easily be confused as nagging and being a pain in the neck or somewhere farther south of the body. Of course, a cautious adviser may not even be heard… until it’s time for damage control.
Tony Samson is chairman and CEO of TOUCH xda