12 Guiding Principles for Business Success – No.7 – Know when to ask for help

It’s a fact of life that we cannot possibly know everything, and equally it’s logically true that (to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld’s famous quote) generally ‘we don’t know what we don’t know’.  There is strength in acknowledging and dealing with this harsh reality of business life, so principle number 7 is very simple and straightforward;

Know when to ask for help

  • Understand that asking for help is not a sign of weakness
  • Build a ‘help’ network around you, e.g. set up an Advisory Board

Attitudes towards seeking help

The very fact that you are reading this almost certainly indicates that you are probably someone who already has an understanding that seeking out help and support in your business endeavours is a wise and sensible thing to do. Yet from time to time I still come across those who appear to believe that seeking out help and assistance is in some way a sign of weakness. This attitude often seems to go hand in hand with a ‘nobody can tell me how to run my business’ way of thinking.

But this is missing the point, seeking out help, advice and assistance is not about getting somebody else to tell you what to do, nor is it about abdicating responsibility for your own business decision making.  It is about expanding your own thinking, challenging assumptions, and learning from the experience of others.  No advisor worth their salt is ever going to tell you what to do, they may present their ideas about what they think you should be doing, but the bottom line is that if you are running a business then the final decision about what to do and how to do it should be yours.  The objective of taking advice is to inform your decisions and, ultimately, improve the quality your decision making.

Knowing when to ask for help

There is only one general rule of thumb here, it’s usually better to ask for help/advice/assistance earlier rather than later. Why? Well because asking early generally means that any negative issues or consequences can be headed off at the pass and dealt with before real damage is done. Asking early avoids the much bigger risk associated with asking too late.

I well remember one particular occasion where a good friend of mine asked me to visit him at his office to discuss a business problem that he had. I turned up to find him all alone in his suite of offices that had until recently been a thriving hub of activity.  He was alone because he had let all the staff go. Things were not good, the promised ‘big deal’ they had relied on had not eventuated.  Could I take a look at the books and maybe help him to see what could be rescued? It did not take very long to establish that nothing could be rescued, it was too late. If he had called me just a few weeks, or better still a few months earlier, it might have been a different story. The reality is we will never really know.

Generally speaking, there is rarely a downside to reaching out for help, advice or assistance sooner rather than later.

Building your help network

How you get that external input very much depends on the individual circumstances and level of advice or assistance required. Some can manage with simply having a good and relevant social network they can turn to from time to time. More often though it’s something that needs to be consciously worked on and put together. Attending business networking events can lead to building a useful network of connections that you may be able to reach out to from time to time.

Sometimes though, especially if you have a growing or rapidly expanding business, it can make more sense to have a small group that you can discuss things with on a regular basis, that’s where there is merit to putting an Advisory Board in place.

Having an Advisory Board

You can think about the value that an Advisory Board can add under a number of headings;

  • Mentoring – getting trusted advice and guidance from others who have been there, seen it and done it.
  • Devil’s Advocate Role – having ideas tested and challenged in a safe environment before you commit to them. Stress testing the strategy before putting it on the road.
  • Rigour – holding you and/or the key members of the team to account.
  • Learning from other’s mistakes – it’s a lot cheaper to learn from the mistakes others have made and are prepared to share. Are there risks that you are not aware of that more experienced players can spot?
  • Reporting – the discipline of having to deliver a regular set of reports, especially financial reports, can be daunting, but done properly it can be amazingly beneficial.
  • Wider networks – well connected people tend to know well connected people! Access a broader network via your Advisory Board.

In contrast to a full board, the key thing to understand is that an Advisory Board does not have the power or authority to direct the company and (assuming it’s all been put together the right way) they act purely to advise the Founder/CEO/Board/Owner of the business. The other main benefit is that unlike a full board, if an Advisory Board isn’t working you can simply cease to retain the services of the Advisory Board members. It’s a lot easier and cheaper to change Advisory Board members than full board Directors, in fact changing full board Directors can be a very fraught and complex process.

Of course, if you have an Advisory Board then you need to listen to their advice, and remember that it’s purely that – advice. You can heed the advice or you can choose to disregard it, it’s your call. Keep in mind though that while Advisory Board members understand this, if none of their advice is ever heeded, they may eventually decide that there is little point in them giving it!

Overall, there is a lot to be said for having an Advisory Board, especially in the earlier stages of growing a business. Later it may make sense to transition the Advisory Board to a full Board, so in a way you can think of an Advisory Board as a ‘try before you buy’ for a full Board. If you have cut your teeth with a properly run Advisory Board first, you will already have the required disciplines in place to operate a formal Board.

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