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Career Advice

Career Advice

Talk in Powerpoint not in Word!

It’s tough to listen when you just want someone to get to the point.

People talk too much for many reasons: nerves, wanting to be recognized or heard, wanting to look knowledgable or sometimes even because they enjoy talking, have lots of thoughts in their head and want to get them out. If you are with friends in a restaurant and they enjoy your style – who cares? But in the office talking too much will work against you because you’ll suck up other people’s time which they will, eventually, resent.

It’s very important to match your style to your audience – whether you are presenting to 1000 people or talking with 1. But it is much harder to be concise than to let your thoughts flow. It is much harder to make a 3 minute presentation that a 10 minute one. It takes discipline and a great deal more preparation.

Being concise is a skill you can learn, like any other skill or language. It takes work, and practice, but once you learn it it is very powerful.

First, consider Powerpoint and Word. In Powerpoint you write down bullets. Short, smart, impactful bullets. In Word you write many sentences, elaborating and expounding on your thoughts.

To teach yourself to present concise ideas start by preparing your bullet points before a discussion. You’re going into a one-on-one with your boss and you know you need to make some points, and discuss some issues. Prepare by making your bullet point list (preferably 3 or less, no more than 5). Then, when you are in the discussion stick to your points. Don’t run on about one or another, make yourself concisely state your issue/point of view and stop.

If you do this every time before you go into a meeting then the next step is to learn to do it on the fly. You’re in a discussion, you know you have a point you want to make, take a deep breath, count to 5, or 10, focus your mind to only the essential of what you want to say and state 1-3 short points, not an essay. Then be quiet and pause for clarifying questions – which gives you the opportunity to crisply expand your thoughts in response.

It is also important to watch your audience carefully. Are they truly with you or zoning out and politely nodding? If you talk more than a minute, pause and check in with the person you are talking with. Ask an open ended question like “what are the holes in what I’m saying” not a closed question like “make sense?” to which yes is the polite, but meaningless, answer.

With some people you may find having a piece of paper and drawing a picture of your idea, or your key points, may help. Many people are more visual than verbal. Sitting with a large pad and jotting down your points together can help you focus and not ramble on. This physical prop can also help you listen better. Writing down what the other person is saying will help you focus on their ideas instead of simply thinking about your response before they have finished.

Finally, always be aware of time. It amazes me when I meet with people and they talk for 10 or 15 minutes about themselves, what they want to tell me etc. without noticing how long they are talking, especially if we only have 30 minutes! If you need to catch up socially first then schedule that into your meeting time; if you simply need a focused conversation schedule 30 minutes and be disciplined about it. One prop is to wear a watch and put it on the table if you need to learn this. Most people will support you if you are straightforward about why you are watching the time. And if you are given 1.5 hours and your executives, or board, want a discussion don’t ramble on for an hour about generalities (as I recently experienced in a board meeting). Talk for 15 minutes max and then figure out how to make your discussion interactive.

The exception to this, of course, is if you are telling a story or you have been asked to make a speech on a topic. Whether that story is professional, or personal, if you have permission from your listeners to tell a story then take your time. Expound, embellish because that is part of the pleasure for the listener and part of your persuasive power to build the picture in your audience’s minds.

If you are naturally loquacious being concise is a hard change to make but it is an incredibly powerful skill for your career and it can be learned. If you want outside help join something like ToastMasters, or a competitive debate club. Nothing focuses the mind like competition.

Photo: Dante’s Barque, Venice © 2018 Penny Herscher

Career Advice

Startup or large corporate – which is best for you?

Everyone has an opinion of whether you should work for big companies or small, startup or corporate, but the answer is very personal. I was coaching a group earlier this week and the question came up as “I am working for a startup but everyone is telling me I should go work for a big corporate now for my resume – what do you think?”

I believe there is no right way, no right answer. But there are dimensions to consider as you map out your next step.

  • Are you working for good, experienced managers? Do you respect them, and will they invest in you? If so, stay with them as long as you are growing and learning – whether you are in a small or a large company. It is so much more efficient to learn from good managers than from bad. There are a thousand ways to do a job badly and a handful of ways to do it well so learn as much as you can from people you respect for as long as you can.
  • Are you working for a winning startup? I have found many employees are very loyal to their company, even when in their hearts they know it is failing, and yet if the company is not winning you may not grow. It could be that you get more experience because you get a battlefield promotion, but more likely if the company is not growing your responsibilities and span of control will not grow. Remember 9 out of 10 startups fail. So if you are early in your career and want to advance fast try to find a startup (if you chose to do one) that is growing.
  • Do you long for more formal training, If so then it’s probably time to go to a larger company and grow your large company skillsets. These may be larger team management, scale, working with international teams, and probably politics. Larger companies will typically either having training programs internally, or have the budget to send you out on courses. I was fortunate enough to be sent to the Stanford Executive MBA program, all expenses paid (while I was pregnant) because the company wanted to invest in me. It was a fantastic experience for me, a math major with no business training, to learn the basics of finance, marketing, management and organizational development in a crash course. A startup would not have been able to invest in me that way.
  • Do you want to manage lots of people? Again, a large company stint may make sense for you. It is certainly a great experience to manage a large team of people or a large P&L at some point in your career. But with that will come both good and bad politics. Good – the art of influencing people in a constructive way; Bad – the art of backroom lobbying and selfish decisions. So prepare yourself for both.
  • Do you need stability? There are times in all our lives when stability is very attractive, such as when we are caring for an ill family member, and times when it doesn’t seem important. Be aware of what you need right now.
  • Do you need to make a high end salary for the level/job you are in? Larger, established companies will typically pay more, especially if you are in a very competitive job category. Startups will typically want to conserve cash. Make sure you know what you are worth in the market at large and then consciously make the decision that works for you and your financial plans.
  • Do you enjoy risk and want to have fun? Well then, a startup is probably for you.

And when you are all done, looking back on your career from a beach or with grandchildren on your knee, what’s important is that you have lived to your highest potential (whatever that means to you) – and that you have worked for and with great people in fun companies. Life is too short to work in low quality companies, with and for bozos, when there are so many terrific companies and people to work with.

Photo:  Sheep in the Roman ruins of Baelo Claudia on the south coast of Spain. © 2018 Penny Herscher

Career Advice

So you want to raise money – chose your investor carefully

At least once a week I take a call, or a coffee, with an entrepreneur who wants advice on how to raise money. We talk about her product and market, the stage of her business, how good is her story and what her vision is. And then we talk about the tactics of raising money. How to get a warm intro to reputable investors, how to think about angel vs. seed vs. venture, how much to raise, what a strong pitch looks like – the usual tactical coaching.

Yesterday I was delighted that the entrepreneur I was coaching also brought up how to assess the quality of the investors. The quality of the firm and the individual. She’d had a bad experience in the past and simply did not want to have a poor quality individual in her deal.

Many entrepreneurs never realize how important this question is: all money is green but it is not all equally valuable. Investors, like human beings, come in all styles and since building a company is a marathon not a sprint you want to be running with someone who is enjoyable to be with and who will help you win the race.

First, pick someone who has the same vision and values as you. You are (hopefully) in your venture because you believe you can change the world (if you are doing it to get rich stop now because you don’t get rich in the startup world by trying to get rich, you get rich by building something) and it’s very important that your investors want you to change the world too. There are many, many tough moments of truth when building a company, and none more so than when you get an offer for your company before you think you are ready – before you have built the strategy and value that you believe is possible. That moment is when you find out whether your investor truly shared your vision on how to change the world or was just telling you he did.

It’s also important to pick a partner who can do heavy lifting for you when you need it. Great venture firms have a rich, deep network to help you recruit, develop partnerships, manage sticky HR issues and even find office space.

Avoid the money based VC (often a former investment banker) who’s motivated by running a portfolio, who wants to tell you what to do but has never done it himself. Find someone who walks the talk and builds great companies. Find a former entrepreneur who has really done it him or herself. If you can, find a VC who has been doing it for more than 10 years and has a great track record – and talk to their CEOs – or find one who’s been a CEO, built a good company and taken it public. All this is visible on their web bios.

And pick someone you enjoy being with. Most companies take many years to mature and if you are going to meet with your board a couple of times a quarter for 5 years it certainly makes the journey more fun if you enjoy interacting with them.

Sadly there are many entitled, think-their-shit-doesn’t-stink VCs in Silicon Valley. I could fill a book of stories of men who think they are rich because they are smart and that they don’t have to be courteous or helpful. Who are openly rude, dismissive and condescending. For comic relief – one of my most bizarre meetings was with a young VC whose firm had been in early at Google and he spent the whole meeting behind his desk checking the Google stock price and telling me how much money he had made. He was not the partner in the deal, just in the partnership, and yet he still thought it was all about him and I should be impressed!

But at the same time there are plenty of men, and women, who truly love working with entrepreneurs and have a very healthy respect for how hard building a company is. The challenge is you may have to kiss a lot of frogs to find your investing prince or princess. So manage your time and do your research up front.

Of course, in the end, you do need to get funded and you may need to take what you can get, but if you have the chance to be selective, the right investor is more important than the highest valuation because you’ll build a better company, have a stronger chance to change the world and make more money in the long run with the right partner.

Photo: Valetta, Malta © 2018 Penny Herscher

Career Advice

There’s no dishonor in being fired (most of the time)

So you “get fired” – what does that really mean? And should you feel bad, or is it an opportunity to review where you really belong.

Let’s start with the word. Fired. The web has a variety of etymologies for the word fired being applied to losing ones job but the version I grew up with is that when a craftsman was very bad at his job (say… working on a Medieval cathedral) and he was kicked off the crew his tools would be thrown into the fire (so he could not continue), as opposed to the craftsman who loses his job because times are slow in which case he is given the “sack” – he put his tools into his sack and left.

People get “fired” for a whole variety of reasons and in the majority of the cases it has little, if anything, to do with how good they actually are. They may lose their job because a company is downsizing, or reducing a group because a project is over, or the team/task is being moved to a cheaper location. I know a fantastic Bay Area VP who lost her job because the team was moved to Denver by the acquiring PE firm and she said no thank you (even though the severance was pathetically small).

A person may lose their job because they were in the wrong job in the first place: the job was simply not a good fit for their skills and it’s a shame they, and the hiring manager, did not figure that out up front. This is a great opportunity to get feedback, get coaching about where the fit would be better, maybe make an inventory of skills and satisfaction and figure out a slightly different career (see my blog post on this here).

I’ve seen great sales people fail, and get fired, because they switched industry and, without a deep knowledge of the product they are selling, they never quite grok the new sales process well enough to make quota, but they are still great sales people.

Sometimes people get fired because they challenge their boss to a point where the boss feels threatened. If you work for a weak manager this is always a risk, so find a strong person to work for. This happens to senior executives who go over their bosses heads to the CEO, or even to the board. If you find yourself in this situation don’t be naïve. Know that if you lose faith in your boss (or know they are doing something really wrong and won’t listen to you) and go over his or her head there is a 90% probability you’ll lose your job. Even bona fide whistle blowers lose their jobs in most cases.

You can even sometimes see executives lose their jobs because someone has to be sacrificed (to the SEC, or major investors) and the board is not willing to let the CEO take the fall. Yes, this happens.

And then we have the whole recent crop of media moguls, executives and CEOs who have been fired for breaching some part of the sexual harassment code of the company. What’s fascinating, and worrying, about this trend is we have the whole spectrum from the ghastly Harvey Weinstein to CEOs being fired for having a relationship which breaches the company’s rule for relationships within the company, to  “code of conduct” reasons where the company does not say why (but they say in their press release that it is unrelated to the business). My biggest worry about boards acting as judge and jury on sexual harassment cases (oversight of which is loooooong overdue, trust me) is that we could get a backlash and future serious cases of harassment will get ignored. If the #metoo movement sticks and creates permanent change that’s a good thing, but with most board members still being male (and too often not wanting to deal with harassment issues that come up) I do hope boards don’t get bored and stop paying attention because too many marginal cases come up.

So how to think about it if you have been let go? Unless you have done something really wrong like steal from the company or sexually harass a coworker or let a customer down through your own negligence or missed days of work and then shown up high as a kite (all of which I have fired people for) then your “firing” has little to do with your worth as a professional or a human being. It has to do with your fit in the job you found yourself in, or the circumstances of the company. So you are still great. Don’t let being fired cause you to doubt it.

Photo: Musée de Cluny, Paris © 2018 Penny Herscher

Career Advice

How does your investor make money?

So you want someone to give you $100,000? $1,000,000? How does that person or firm make money?

Too often I review business plans which have a great idea, a huge market, but no viable business plan that explains how the investor makes a return. I saw two this week like this (one in the US, one in Israel). Terrific technology ideas, potentially large markets, enthusiastic smart young teams but no P&L, no future financial plan and no discussion of current valuation, or even readiness to discuss it.

Before someone other than your friends and family will give you a useful amount of money they are going to want to know how much return they are going to make, and over what period of time. Unless you are a former founder with an amazing track record, or flat out lucky (and you can’t plan for luck) you will need to be able to explain the following:

  • what the size of the market is for your idea – who buys what/when/why
  • how you bring your idea to that market and how much money you make over time (your best stab at your P&L over the next 3-5 years)
  • what your idea/prototype/beta is worth now (i.e. if you want to raise $1M and you only want to give away 10% of your company then you have to justify why your current company is worth $10M today)
  • how the value of your company grows over time and possible exits – why is it IPOable at some future date or who might buy it?

You don’t necessarily have to have slides for all of this because the first thing you need to do is hook an investor on your idea but if they bite and start to ask how you see your revenue and value developing you’d better have enough of an answer to get into a good discussion. Don’t be intimidated. Remember the investor does not know more than you do about your idea (even if they act as if they do), and whatever you say will not be what happens (reality has a way of messing with even the very best of plans) but you need to have thought about how you’ll make money and be able to engage the potential investor in a discussion.

Eventually you’ll need to be able to make the argument for how revenue grows, how much cash you need to get to cash flow breakeven (i.e. self sustainable) and what the company will be worth in the future when you do. And the great VCs, if they are intrigued, will then dig in and help you figure out your first business plan and how to value your initial round.

Photo: Dante’s tomb, Ravenna Italy © 2018 Penny Herscher

Career Advice

Managing the switchbacks of your career

A successful career is rarely a straight line up the slope. It is so often a weaving up through experiences and it’s important to recognize how and when to weave.

I did a coaching session yesterday where just this question came up. This time the individual had years of engineering, both as a stellar software engineer and also as a manager and can feel he wants to do more – can do more – and knows he needs to broaden his skillset.

I have a handful of principles which can be helpful when you are wanting to grow and create more upward momentum in your career:

  1. Make sure you are in a critical path for the company (and this will vary by industry). For tech companies success hinges on sales (revenue and cash) and product. In, and in-between, these functions there will be a number of critical roles and projects. These could be supporting the top customers, could be developing a handful of critical new relationships, could be bringing a new product to market. Learn what these are and which would be i) new to you, ii) challenging for you and iii) valuable to the company.
  2. Make sure you advocate for a new position you can be successful at if you work hard and learn fast (which I assume you would!). It’s important that you succeed in each role you take on even if it’s a bit rocky as you come up the learning curve. It’s OK to make short term tactical mistakes in your career, it’s not OK to make strategic ones.
  3. Stay visible. In some companies a tour away from HQ is truly valued but in others it may be the kiss of death for future promotion because you are out of sight and out of mind. If you do decide to step away from HQ to stretch yourself – for example to China or DC – agree on a time frame with your management (e.g. 2 years) and be sure to discuss what you would be eligible for when you come back, but before you go.
  4. Be aggressive – that you are very focused on personal growth – but humble  – that you know you have a lot to learn. I’ve had too many engineers tell me they know they’d be good in sales while massively underestimating how truly skilled great sales people are, and too many sales people sure they can do marketing (better than marketing is doing it) with no comprehension of what it takes. If you have not worked in a job I guarantee you underestimate it, so be humble.
  5. Be direct. It’s rare, especially in small companies, that your executives are sitting around thinking about taking risk with you to broaden your career outside of what’s immediately expedient for them so don’t beat around the bush.

If you’ve been in the same role for 3 years look up, and across, and consider stretching yourself in to a new role – unless this is truly what you want to do for the rest of your working life.

Photo: From the garden of La Foce in Tuscany © 2012 Penny Herscher

Career Advice

Management screws up – what do you do?

Something is wrong and management has messed up again, how do you react?

One of the ways people react and hurt themselves in the process is by being immediately negative. Cynically: “well this is just the norm for this effed-up company” or “yet again we are going to screw our customers”. Maybe with resignation: “I’ll have to work more hours now to correct their mistakes”.  Maybe as a victim: “I have no power and I can’t take the risk of saying anything”. Maybe on the attack: “We need to get rid of our VP”. You’ve heard them all I am sure, standing around the water cooler discussing how, yet again, management is no good.

How is that helpful to anyone? It’s only helpful to you for 30 seconds as you feel better venting (but it’s better to save that for your dog). It’s not helpful to your team mates because while they might pile on for a moment they will be left feeling worse.

But most of all it is not helpful to your management. When there is a problem usually everyone knows it, including management who, though they may not show it, are probably worrying too.  Quality issues, high turnover, bad process – it’s probably a known issue that is languishing or not being solved for whatever reason. Or maybe you’ve identified a problem. Either way piling on to complain or roll your eyes does not contribute to the solution.

What most leaders long for is for the people on their team to describe the problem constructively and offer solutions. Pragmatic or harebrained, cheap or expensive, start the conversation and you become part of the solution.

If you are not sure how to do this maybe role-play with a friend. Practice describing what you see without being negative, cynical or frustrated. Don’t be a Pollyanna either. Focus on facts, process, unconscious culture – whatever is contributing but in a pragmatic tone. Make sure you are clear up front that your objective is to bring a new idea or solution so you don’t get derailed in the description of the problem before your audience knows your intent (so he can keep listening and not stop listening and start composing his response in his head before you get to your idea). For example, first sentence “I have been thinking about the quality issue on the latest release and I have an idea” or “I’m concerned about the turnover in our department and I have an idea as to how we could reduce it”.

There is a mind game you can play with yourself. Imagine you are the CEO listening to you. You are busy and burdened with the challenges of the job. You (the CEO you) may know the problem you (the employee you) is about to bring up, you may not. Either way, what is the best way to quickly describe the problem/your observation and your idea? Practice that – without being negative or sycophantic.

If you get skilled at this you will become part of the solution and you will be recognized and appreciated by your management. It will create opportunity for you. Early in my career I was not as skilled at this as I wish I could have been, but I was good at pointing out the problems and offering to fix them. Taking on broken programs, developing new programs from scratch to solve a problem or develop an untapped opportunity and this definitely accelerated my career.

Now you may say this would not work in your company. That’s not the culture. Management doesn’t want to hear, HR doesn’t listen etc. etc. To that I say get out. Find a better company that is worthy of your talent. And when you do, chalk it up to experience, or if you think it’s really egregious maybe write a blog like Susan Fowler did and bring down leadership. You are never powerless.

Photo: At the wall in Bethlehem, Palestine © 2018 Penny Herscher

Career Advice

Why being kind as a leader trumps yelling every time

Are you conscious of how you react as a leader when someone makes you angry? With an attack or with kindness?

I once worked with a head of sales who, when things were not going his way, would curse out anyone not on his team who he thought didn’t appreciate how hard his job was. Unkind, unnecessary accusations of incompetence or intentionally obstructing sales. Engineering, customer success, marketing – you name it – they all got yelled at instead of constructively engaged. But unpredictably so everyone walked on egg shells around him.

I recently saw a situation where an employee disappointed a startup CEO and the CEO chose to call her up and scream at her. Profanity laden, unfounded accusations of mal intent. The employee had resigned at an inopportune time and the CEOs reaction was to attack. Not give the employee the benefit of the doubt, or quietly share her disappointment.

And sometimes it even happens with customers. But in all cases shouting and bullying is not only poor leadership – it is harassment.

It’s so easy to react emotionally and react with anger. To raise your voice and attack. To clench your fists and shake with emotion. It is so much harder to react with kindness and yet being kind is often one of the characteristics of great executives. Not soft or weak; kind.

This is because it takes extra energy and thought to manage your reaction. It takes caring about the people you are leading or working with more than yourself. You have to step back and make the mental space to think through what’s behind the employee’s action. Have they made a mistake because they did not have enough information? Or because they didn’t think their action through? And if so how should you react to help them make a different decision next time?

I had the pleasure of working for a COO once who was a master at this. He never got angry, never raised his voice. He had a staff who were strong willed and opinionated – we must have been a nightmare to manage. Several of us went on to bigger jobs as CEOs, professors, GMs but at the time we were never satisfied, always pushing for more and for change. And we were definitely not always constructive. I learned, while working for Chi-Foon Chan at Synopsys, that you never need to attack to get your way. You can listen, respond with thought and patience and still exercise tremendous power. Very, very occasionally the chief would get angry but he would go quiet and still and wait us out and then quietly corner us with intellect. Impressive and something I aspired to once I was a CEO (although not always successfully).

The net result of having the self-control to think of your employee first and be kind is that people will remember you positively, will want to work for you, and will recommend other people work for you. You will make their lives better and they will be in the foxhole with you as you grow your company. And if their own careers are growing and they want to move onto a bigger job they will talk with you about it so a) you will not be surprised and b) you can help them find their next position – thereby earning their lifelong loyalty. I worked with a first-class CFO once who had three department heads: Accounting, FP&A and Treasury and he was clear that part of his job was to groom each one of these heads to be a CFO, knowing that when they were ready they would leave him. He succeeded and inspired deep loyalty in everyone who worked for him.

So if you find yourself reacting with anger and raising your voice, or worse yet yelling at an employee, step back and count to ten. Breathe deep and find another way. It’s simply not worth the destruction of relationship that occurs when you lose your temper.

Photo: Capital in Vézelay France © 2018 Penny Herscher

Career Advice

When to apologize and when not to

I recently got a question in email from a woman (who is early in her career) which I answered, but then as a few weeks passed, I began to think about all the times I wish my coworkers had apologized and when they did it too much.

The question was:

“Should I apologize when I make a mistake at work, and if so, how? If not, what should I do instead? I notice I am apologizing for mistakes that are mostly my responsibility, but not only, and that nobody else is apologizing.”

The hard thing about apology is some people do it, and some don’t. Some are comfortable making mistakes and being imperfect, others are not. But done thoughtfully apology is a powerful way to build trust.

So first – why not to apologize unless absolutely necessary

– Some men (and some women, although fewer) see it as a sign of weakness and will use it against you, bringing up your ownership of a mistake to weaken you in the future. Be conscious of when, where and to whom you apologize.

– If you are trying to manipulate or being insincere to achieve some other end then you will erode trust because most people can tell when you are insincere.

– If you are not the one who made the mistake. Again, not dealing in the truth erodes trust, even if you are trying to show you will own problems. Don’t throw someone else under the bus, but don’t step in and apologize if it is not your mistake because it may also be used to undermine you in the future as someone who can themselves be thrown under the bus.

The bottom line is mistakes are a normal part of learning. If you make a mistake admit it, see if you need to fix it, and move on. Don’t apologize unless someone else is hurt by your mistake. Don’t apologize unnecessarily, or profusely.

But then again, why apology is powerful

– Owning your mistakes openly builds trust, so if you have hurt or inconvenienced someone then take the time to apologize and try to do it one-on-one so you can be sincere and open.

– It takes courage to apologize which is why so many people don’t. You make yourself vulnerable when you do, but being strong enough to admit your imperfections (within reason) will make you a more compelling leader. Being authentic is a very powerful way to lead.

– The people who can’t admit their mistakes have a huge issue building trust as leaders. Too many times I have heard the comment “well s/he can’t admit when s/he’s wrong so s/he’ll make it someone else’s problem.”

These examples are all internal, but the one area where you need to be courageous and ready to take ownership is with customers. Your customers often need to hear from someone senior that you recognize a mistake has been made and you are going to fix it or make sure it gets fixed. If you are the senior person in the room and your company has made an error or let a customer down then own it, whether or not you are directly responsible.

In the end it is important to be thoughtful about how and when you apologize so your apology is both authentic and appropriate for your level of ownership of the issue. And make sure you do apologize when you own a problem and you don’t become one of those people who can never admit their mistakes.

 © 2011 Penny Herscher

Career Advice

Five practices you can learn so that “I told you so” is a gift

Does it irritate you when someone says “I told you so” to you?

You’d be quite normal if it does. There is nothing quite as annoying as having a know-it-all tell you that they knew better than you all along and you did not listen.

And yet, if you can check your ego, and if he did actually tell you so, then you’ve been missing a gift. Of course, this only makes sense if you are getting advice from someone who is often right, and who cares about you, otherwise it could be the blind leading the blind!

I have been fortunate enough to have two mentors who were not shy about telling me what they thought, and that I was an idiot when I didn’t listen. I saw one yesterday who, as we talked about the last couple of years, found not one, not two, but three times to say “I told you so”. By the last one he gave me a big grin and said “I think I told you that too!”

On the heels of the laughter, and the chagrin I feel that he was so often right, here are five practices that can help you milk your mentors for their wisdom and make sure you can hear it!

1. Learn to listen to business advice from people who have done it before. Whether it comes to building your engineering or service team, designing a big customer contract or hiring your first sales people if you are working with someone who has done it before, and who is respected, listen carefully. While their advice may not be perfect, and you may not like what they have to say, if they are willing to put the time in to work through an issue with you listen, take notes, and if you don’t follow the advice have a damn good reason. And frankly the argument of “you are not current” or “things are different now” is bs. While pace, technology and regulations changes, the fundamentals of what it takes to build a team and a thriving, profitable business are in common across a huge range of styles of company (as my mentor and I agreed yesterday comparing notes of the range of companies we are both working with now).

2. Pay attention to when someone is sharing a personal story with you. A story which is painful to tell probably has a strong lesson in it. If your advisor is sharing a major mistake they made dig in and try and understand what do they wish they had seen beforehand, or what did they see and ignored? Are there parallels for you today where you are avoiding something that is in front of your eyes but you don’t want to see it? This could be as far ranging as a personnel mistake, or a personal mistake!

3. When someone tells you something you don’t agree with, and your first reaction is to think in your head that you don’t agree – and so to argue – stop yourself and ask questions. I love the Covey habit “seek first to understand, then to be understood” and too few people use this habit. As someone who coaches every day now, I pick up very quickly whether an entrepreneur understands the power of questioning to figure out what they should know that they don’t know.

4. Pay attention when someone is angry with you. Either they are a jerk and have no business being angry with you, or they care enough that your reaction is upsetting them. Now you can’t take on everyone else’s issues, of course, but anger or intense emotion or stress is a guide that is often worth following. Don’t react with anger, take a deep breath, apologize that you have upset them, acknowledge that they care, and ask questions (see above) seeking to understand the source of their emotion. Maybe you’ve heard them but you are not being skilled in acknowledging that, or maybe you have not been listening. For myself, I have found the skill of active listening “I think you said xxxx, did I understand that correctly?” can be very powerful when an advisor is frustrated with me.

5. Follow the joy in business. Too often we spend time talking through what’s going wrong, and yet some of the best lessons I could have learned (and got an “I told you so” about later) were about where/how I was going to be happiest. Work can be terrific fun if you stay grounded and don’t get wrapped up in your ego so if someone who cares about you is trying to give you advice to “lighten up” (as one of my early mentors told me) do yourself a favor and find a way to ground yourself.

And if you can do all that you’ll be a better able to hear advice than most!

Photo: Villa Farnesina, Rome  © 2016 Penny Herscher