Advising with Influence and Resonance

Being an advisor is tough. It’s all about influence. None of the entrepreneurs I work with have to do anything I say and it’s all about convincing them that something I say is worth listening to and executing on.
I had breakfast with my life/executive coach yesterday to catch up and she mentioned she was working on how to be a more effective influencer. In doing some research on the topic, she found that it is actually more about personal charisma than just straight intelligence and knowledge. For example, she related to me that smiling a lot and charm have a great effect on whether you are successful at influencing somebody or not. So it’s a lot like what effective salespeople are good at, which is using their personality to charm you while you inadvertantly hand over your wallet!
Towards the end of my tenure at Yahoo, I managed to land into two roles that were all about influence. The first one involved getting all the product teams to revamp their site designs to implement larger more monetizable display ads. The second role involved implementing worldwide a more disciplined and quality oriented product development process. Both required me to become a salesman and evangelist, two things I was definitely not. But I learned about how to get things done via influence and how much I still had to learn.
If you’ve ever worked in a role where you had to get things done with influence, you will agree with me that it can be very frustrating. Nobody ever reports directly to you and so you can’t force people to do anything. They may even agree with you at a meeting but then when everyone walks away from the meeting they go back to doing their usual thing and not what you asked them to do. In fact, I had even vowed that if I were ever to take another permanent role, that I would only do it if I had direct control of the team and my destiny.
But here I am, thriving as an advisor to 20+ startups over the last 3.5 years and enjoying my work solely built on influence.
A lot of entrepreneurs look to me to give them the answer. In fact, in times past I have delivered an answer but I have found problems with this approach:
1. The answer is often “my” answer but not the entrepreneur’s answer. This is because, given my experiences and expertise, that I would tackle the problem in a certain way and because it was me executing, I could probably make something out of it. However, if an entrepreneur doesn’t have similar experiences, then they have a greater chance of failure.
2. The early stage world is incredibly random and I have often found answers that I would not have done but yet have been successful. So what exactly may seem an answer today may quite often not be where you end up.
3. There are often many answers to the same problem. Again, back to point 1, what may be the answer for me may not be the answer for you.
This is why I hesitate to throw an answer out there unless someone is smart enough (like yesterday!) to ask the right question, which is “if this were you, what would you do?” This is important to frame the answer correctly so that the questioner realizes that my answer to the question is more about me than him. If I were the entrepreneur, this is how I would do it – but you’re not me!
My approach has morphed to a more “throw ideas out until one sticks” method, basically putting so much out there until something resonates with the entrepreneur and team.
This resonance is very important. Everyone comes to the table with strengths and weaknesses and all the experiences they have. Thus, whatever idea they run with has to be something they are resonant with and can run with because they will be the ones living with it day and night to make something worthwhile out of it. I am only there intermittently but can’t direct them every minute; it’s their project so they have to own it through and through.
The unfortunate side effect of this is sometimes I can sound vague or perhaps even dodging their question of “what should I do next?” I have found over the last 3.5 years of advising that my biggest help to startups is to guide them like a teacher, teach them general concepts and help them translate them to whatever they are doing now, and to help expand their thinking as a lot of entrepreneurs tend to get very myopic in what they are doing and have a hard time keeping track of innovation outside their own project. So instead of providing them with “the answer”, I provide them with ways to look beyond themselves and perhaps find an answer for themselves within that process.