7 April, 2020

“A Prince who is not wise himself will never take good advice”

(Il Principe, Niccolò Machiavelli, 1513)

I could never ask for help.

For the longest time I was convinced that life in business was something you had to figure out by yourself. Any admission of weakness was the first step on the road to disaster and an unravelling of the great fraud that I have generally felt I was perpetrating on humanity. I took (and still take, but am getting better at this) every defeat, set-back and rejection personally (and there have been many) and didn’t really stop long enough to celebrate the wins. When advice did present itself, I often just burned past it, only realising its significance and wisdom when it was too late and the words came back like a lost echo to haunt me, reverberating in my head when I was feeling distressed and distraught. There have been enough of those times too.

I have no idea where this paradigm originated: The idea that business and creating a life of independence was by default and always a brutally individual experience. I never really thought about it much, I just set off on that path (I was going to write “chose”, but that would have implied a conscious recognition and weighing of options, which definitely never happened), because I couldn’t imagine any other life other than that of an independent creator. I could just as easily have become a writer, I suppose, by which I mean chosen and labelled my life as one of creating my independence and income from the craft of writing rather than of business. From my perspective – certainly then, maybe still now – they were both creative processes that depended entirely on me showing up, putting my shoulder to the wheel and suffering. I suppose I thought that the pay would be better in business and that, perhaps, I might be better at it than writing. Or maybe I assumed it was what was expected of me. Whatever the reason, my conviction was and is that I am chronically unemployable: I always hated constraints and wanted to work at my pace, in my manner at projects of my choosing. At my most idiotically stubborn, I even rejoiced in rebelling against my own precepts, as if there was something liberating about breaking your own rules. Ha! look how independent I am. I have little good experience of “us” and “team” and “partnership” in business and have been disappointed so often that I took that to be the truth, not recognising until recently that the failure of my partnerships was entirely on me – my choices, my commitment, my vision of success (or lack of it), my inability to articulate clearly my own values and non-negotiables. You’re on your own, son, the burden to be shared with my wife and those closest to me only when it became impossible to hide and the threat of failure or embarrassment overwhelming.

But it doesn’t have to be that way, ever and under any circumstances. In fact the opposite of what I thought was true, is closer to the truth, namely that the prosperous path for an entrepreneur, business owner, call it what you will, is only possible with a strong support team of advisors, mentors, specialists, managers, and partners and that creating that support team and then learning to rely and draw on their strengths is THE key to escaping what Mike Michalowicz refers to as “entrepreneurial poverty”, what countless practitioners have labelled in some form or another being “hostage” to your business and the misery of solitary confinement in a cage of your own creation. Too complicated to give up, but too weak to do much more than survive.

The logo of our business has the words “With the well-advised is wisdom” worked into it. The phrase is a direct quote from King Solomon’s Proverbs, one of the best collections of aphorisms and life-instructions ever written and a constant source of inspiration and guidance. I felt that it was a fitting motto for a business whose primary purpose is to dispense advice and package knowledge for the enlightenment and support of those foolhardy souls on the entrepreneurial path. It is also there as a reminder to me to ensure that I myself surround myself permanently with people who I trust, find inspiring, have integrity, wisdom, experience, humour, and clarity of thought and expression. People who make me think, change my perspective, care deeply and will not hesitate to call out bullshit, error, arrogance and mission drift.

Surrounding yourself with such people is step one and is a deliberate and continuous act. It starts with your advisors – your lawyer, your CPA, your accountant, even your choice of banker, your M&A expert or business broker, your financial advisor, even (especially) your doctor -, continues with your choice of coach (or coaches), your mentors, and evolves into the groups that you deliberately join such as formal mastermind or leadership development organisations (i.e. Small Giants, EO, Network Ireland, IoD, YPO, 3to5 etc) or an informal group of friends who meet to share experiences, triumphs and challenge and ends with the people you deliberately set out to weave into the operational and governance structure of your enterprise: your senior managers and your employees, your trainees and freelancers as well as your board members and even your investors, if you have any.

It is a deliberate and continual process of adjustment, calibration, investment and refinement. It never stops and it is there in some form or another from the start. The only question is whether the process is intentional or just random. The more intentional, the stronger. They say, and I really have no idea where this quotation originates, that you are the product (I am unsure whether that is an average, a sum or the square root of the product) of the five people with whom you spend most time. If this is true, then take a look at the five people with whom you spend the most time in business and ask yourself how you might describe those relationships, the qualities, values and outlooks that they bring. How do they advance you or hold you back? What advice do they give? How well do you listen? How much do you ask? What purpose do they serve on your journey?

On the subject of advisors, the great 16th Century management and leadership thinker, Niccolo Machiavelli (who has had 300 years of undeservedly bad press) had this to say about advisors in his treatise “The Prince”:

Therefore a wise prince ought to hold a third course by choosing the wise men in his state, and giving to them only the liberty of speaking the truth to him, and then only of those things of which he inquires, and of none others, but he ought to question them upon everything, and listen to their opinions, and afterwards form his own conclusions.

With these councillors, separately and collectively, he ought to carry himself in such a way that each of them should know that, the more freely he shall speak, the more he shall be preferred; outside of these he should listen to no-one, pursue the thing resolved on and be steadfast in his resolutions.

He who does otherwise is either overthrown by flatterers, or so often changes by varying opinions that he falls into contempt.

He goes on to give this leadership advice:

A prince, therefore, ought always to take counsel, but only when he wishes and not when others wish, but, however, he ought to be a constant inquirer, and afterwards a patient listener concerning the things of which he has inquired; also on learning that any one, on any consideration, has not told him the truth, he should let his anger be felt.

and finally (and critically for those who think that taking advice will make them look weak and incompetent) Machiavelli states:

And if there are some who think that a Prince who conveys an impression of his wisdom is not so through his own ability, but through the good advisors that he has around him, beyond doubt they are deceived, because this is an axiom which never fails: that a Prince who is not wise himself will never take good advice….Therefore it must be inferred that good counsels, whencesoever they come, are born of the wisdom of the Prince and not the wisdom of the Prince from good counsels.” (Il Principe — N. Machiavelli, XXIII)

A wise business owner will first and foremost recognise the fundamental need to surround themselves with a vibrant thriving community of competence. They will not let that community of advisors, experts and trusted leaders around them evolve by accident and without deliberation. They will design the structure and be quite specific in defining roles and filling them. They will be thoughtful and careful in filling posts and positions – be it to their board or to their slate of expert advisors – and quick to release those who do not perform, betray trust or think of themselves before they think of him or her, whilst honing their ability to spot talent and excellence and not hesitating to bind it to themselves when they encounter it.

This work is at the heart and foundation of a strong enterprise, a “fortress business” and, as with all foundational work is never urgent but always important. Schedule time today to take stock of all the characters in your community of competence: which roles have been filled, which are empty or non-existent? Which of them would you fill with the same people today if you had the choice (which you do)? How actively have you sought their advice – individually or collectively? How appreciative have you been of their honesty and forthrightness with you? How well do you bind them into your decision-making? How well do you provide them with the information and time to understand your challenges and dilemma? Asking these and many other related questions is the hallmark of a great leader and a process whose power I have -slowly at first and then rapidly – learned to appreciate.