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  • Writer's pictureChris Burand

Asking for Professional Advice

The first thing you need when requesting professional advice is to have some self-awareness. Too often I have treated and seen others presume that a person requesting professional advice wants to improve their situation, but this is often not the case. A fully self-aware person requests advice on this basis, but few humans are fully self-aware.

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The lack of self-awareness is especially acute in certain types of small businesses. The reason self-awareness is lacking among so many small business owners is because they are not really in business to build a business. They do not really know why they are in business. For example, a large percentage of agency owners are in business for pretty much no other reason other than that they don't want a boss. Why they do not want a boss varies and based upon some of the psychological studies I have read, they do not want a boss because they absolutely, sometimes viscerally, cannot handle criticism -- not even constructive criticism.

When they ask for professional advice, they are not asking for constructive advice, even though they think that is what they are requesting. What they are asking for is confirmation of how well they are doing. Even if their situation is dire, they are not asking for assistance in fixing the problem. I have been with agency owners who had mis-spent millions of dollars and were potentially going bankrupt, losing their agencies, and once even on the verge of going to jail. I have been with agency owners who were losing their E&O coverage because they had mismanaged their agencies so severely. These owners called in desperation for assistance, but they really did not want advice on how to climb out of the deep holes they had dug. First and foremost, they wanted affirmation they were good agency owners. Any constructive advice was interpreted, emotionally, as criticism and they could not deal with it. Their emotional barriers were too significant.

If this is your situation, when you request professional advice, be sure to hire a cheerleader. Many professional advisors are nothing but very, very expensive cheerleaders. I was reviewing a situation recently in which the professional advisor, an attorney, cheered his client on to file a lawsuit. His client was the guilty party in the partnership. The attorney did not provide legal advice but cheering advice. Why would the attorney do anything else? He tells the client what the client wants to hear, and he gets paid, win or lose.

I recently worked with an accountant who cheered his client on to taking shortcuts relative to the agency's accounting. The accountant charged the same but did not have to learn how to properly do agency accounting. The agency's profit was higher and the owner was happy -- until the repercussions arrived, and even then he was blaming the other side instead of his accountant.

Where I see this situation most often is in consulting where I spend most of my time. I see on the financials how much money many agencies spend on consulting that is really nothing but cheerleading. The advice they get is usually damaging to the business, but it is cheery advice. My favorite example currently involves sales advice that categorically, unquestionably increases agencies' E&O exposures exponentially. The cheery advice is awesome because it is exactly what many owners want to hear -- until the E&O suits arrive, although they may not be filed for several years.

Know yourself and why you are asking for professional advice. Are you most interested in obtaining cheery advice that telepathically communicates what you want to hear? Or do you truly want advice that will advance your organization? Hire appropriately.

A relatively new, and in many ways far more dangerous, medium has arisen that is even more prone to sharing advice that is categorically wrong but enhances receptivity involves free advice boards. These social media advice boards have become ubiquitous on every subject about which more than three people might inquire.

I have used these boards personally when trying to learn about others' experiences with specific products, especially during the pandemic when I have not been able to see the actual product at a store or because once purchased, the products are not returnable. I use these boards when I cannot find satisfactory professional product reviews. Rarely is the information provided of any use. Everyone has their own preferences and needs. Yet few commentators have the space and/or ability to communicate their own preferences and needs and predilections adequately so one can determine how the commentator's analysis compares to their own. These are relatively risk-free situations. If I make a mistake, I end up with a backpack I dislike.

What scares me are the advisory boards agency owners are using rather than hiring true professional advisors. Just from the E&O perspective, some of the advice I've seen given is horrendous. The lack of knowledge provided by others, in good faith but complete ignorance, will lead to nothing good. Not only will anyone who takes the advice increase their chances of losing a suit, but the person giving the advice is creating documentation of their bad advice if their own agency is sued.

Not all advice given is bad, but the majority of the advice I have seen is really terrible advice. An agency owner told me how much she appreciated such advice because it was coming from peers who had the same experience as she had. The interpretation then is that the situation is the same and therefore the advice is more applicable. However, with such boards, the ability to describe a situation (much less whether one should put such details in writing) is limited by space and skill and often legal purposes. It is limited too because the responders' knowledge and experience is limited to their own situation. Furthermore, sometimes, and maybe because they do not handle constructive criticism so well, they can turn a situation around so well that no one even recognizes reality.

I saw this happen with a specific piece of E&O advice. The responder had made a mistake themselves but instead of providing advice from that perspective and what they learned (which would have been beneficial to the online community), they twisted the story so far that the way they told it, they had done nothing wrong and their advice was how to protect oneself against dishonest clients.

These social advice boards are just flat out dangerous whether the subject is E&O, agency valuations, carrier relationship advice, and unquestionably dangerous relative to employment practices. Some contributors who I have seen should simply be banned from the boards because their bad advice so far outweighs any good advice they may contribute. However, if what you want is affirmation, simplicity and free advice, social community boards are one of your best solutions.

Most of the time, nothing bad happens so most of the time people think they do not need true professional advice because nothing changes anyway.

The next level of professional advice is hiring a professional listener. Such an advisor is not a cheerleader. They are simply excellent at listening and letting you talk through your situation. This is a proactive listening role. The cheerleader types often seem like they are listening, but they steer people toward the affirmation that they are great and good. A truly good, proactive listener steers a more neutral course. Finding such people is difficult and community boards are not the solution. Some professional coaches are good at this as are some professional advisors such as attorneys, accountants, and consultants, but not all. Also, if you want one of these people to be a listener rather than an advisor, be sure to tell them upfront what you are seeking. Otherwise, they are almost certainly going to offer advice because they'll think that is what you want.

If you truly want to create a paradigm change and you are self-aware enough about your ability to handle constructive criticism, hire a professional advisor who is not a cheerleader. You will advance your organization so much faster than with any other solution. It can be a rough go to hear the advice given but you'll be a better manager and stronger leader because of it and your strategy going forward is far more likely to succeed.


NOTE: The information provided herein is intended for educational and informational purposes only and it represents only the views of the authors. It is not a recommendation that a particular course of action be followed. Burand & Associates, LLC and Chris Burand assume, and will have, no responsibility for liability or damage which may result from the use of any of this information.

None of the materials in this article should be construed as offering legal advice, and the specific advice of legal counsel is recommended before acting on any matter discussed in this article. Regulated individuals/entities should also ensure that they comply with all applicable laws, rules, and regulations.

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