I want to talk about getting business advice. Actually it could even be considered getting advice for life, life advice. Before I get into the episode I want to remind everybody that I’ve always said over and over again how you can learn from anybody and everything.
I’ve given examples of how birds and other animals sometimes know how to raise their young better than we do. Why? Because they raise them to survive.
Taken that little intro in light, ignore the person, but I want to talk about how I am always asking: “Why?” I’m always wondering why something exists. “Why does it happen? Why did somebody do that?” Of course I saw everybody’s criticism in the comments when Trump’s cabinet went up and said they disagree with some of the things he says. A lot of people seem to be surprised. I don’t care whether you like him or not, this episode is not about politics, nor about anything Trump says or does. As a matter of fact that is the last time I need to mention him.
The idea was being surrounded by people that are going to tell you what they think and will be very happy to disagree with you, but you trust, like them, and have a good, strong feeling that they know what they’re talking about. It reminds me how important this is. Do you find yourself around people that agree with you? Stop for a minute. How are you ever going to learn? Add people to your circle that disagree, people with whom you can have reason discussions to better understand the cause and effect, the why something works or happens, why it should be done a different way than you thought. Then you can run your company better, perform better at work, or create a better company.
Just recently I explained to somebody what underlies the unemployment number. That understanding is in part crucial to your confidence in the future for your own investments and how the economy is going. The note I got back was a ridiculous rant telling me something political. I’m not interested in discussing politics, so if I recognize it as political, I stay away. Why? It’s a waste of my time.
Don’t get confused with what you do day to day. For example, Facebook posts, no matter what is said almost everybody seems to agree. Somebody can say the most outlandish things and everybody tells them how wonderful it is and they’re given compliments. If a friend is suffering, okay, maybe say all those lofty, nice, wonderful things. You’re going to visit somebody in the hospital, tell them how wonderful they look. But if somebody is about to open a crochet store in a major mall, do them a favor: Get them to evaluate the feasibility of that. Inside a company this is probably in general not a safe thing to do, so you may have to do the political thing and all the other things, but I’m going to relay a couple of stories that show you how important it is.
When I was at General Motors we’re all at a coffee machine one day and my executive director a couple levels above me asked a question by giving an opinion. One of those: “What do you think? Where I believe such and such.” Everybody there was agreeing, shaking their head: “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” I disagreed. Everyone looked at me like I was about to be executed. He said: “Wow. I’ve been here 32 years at General Motors before somebody would tell me what they really thought.” From that moment on we had a great relationship and almost daily he had me in his office discussing or asking for opinions, ideas. He became a great mentor for me in business as well as analysis. I will certainly never forget Gene Steininger. He was a strong individual seeking the best business advice he could obtain rather than ego satisfying agreement. After all, he would be either taking action or recommending to superiors based on the business advice he received.
When I was leaving GM, Gene asked me, he said: “You’re already targeted and slated to be very high up in the company. The only reason you wouldn’t be president or chairman is just because you came at too late an age. But you’re tagged to go very high. Why leave?” I explained to him that my thought there, and this is where it happens inside a company, that sooner or later I would run into somebody above me that I’d be working for and that person would be more interested in just not making waves, not causing anything to be stirred up rather than success overall. Yes, that happens and I think we all know it happens.
Those other people were not really wrong for just agreeing with him, and yessing, etc. They did what normally is done inside a company, but you can guide your company to be different, your experience. Most of all, wherever you are, you want to make sure that it’s not just other people. For your own sake you want to make sure that there are people around you that will disagree with you because actually we are not talking about you doing better inside and getting promoted inside a company. We’re talking about how you can become a better analyst, a better accountant, whatever you do. They were reacting to corporate life.
As an example of how this worked badly, there was a lady who opened China for General Motors. She was a relatively new employee, only a few years there. What happened was she was from Taiwan. Her Chinese and English were perfect. She had been trained by her family to know all of the famous historical songs and sayings and everything, and because of the Cultural Revolution in China, mainly in China, when she went there education now is so overly treasured that she was well, well-respected. She actually got contact within the Central Committee of China. Obviously a tremendous benefit for General Motors. What happens? The guy who was above her eventually leaves and somebody else comes into play. That person who comes in immediately told her she’s no longer going to travel with him or anybody else to China, she’s going to stay here in the United States, and he starts bringing some nice lady friend to China with him. That’s unfortunately corporate politics, but it has nothing to do with how you learn, how you benefit, and how you grow yourself in your own company.
Yes, inside a corporation it can be like the professors that we hear about in colleges today that you better agree with them, but you don’t have to do the same. Make sure you get to mingle with smart people who can politely disagree with logic or information that helps you. If you really want to truly get along with and in contact with some great leaders, that’s what you want to do. You want to make sure that you’re not insulting, you’re not disagreeing without support, you’ve thought through everything you’re doing or about to say very, very thoroughly.
That was the situation when I first met Lee Iacocca. Greeting him, telling him what I would say and how I would say it, and what I think he might get out of it, and if he didn’t he could kick me out. He turned around and said: “About time to have somebody tell me what they think rather than what they think I want to hear.” He wanted strong business advice not compliments. I would say one of the things that I treasure most are those people. I’ve had people who disagree with me vehemently, but I listen to them and I want to hear them. I also want them to be intelligent, and have well-founded backup for what they’re saying.
Take these and use them. Remember, your ego is not important, but rather the quality of the business advice you get. Try to find it, expand your comfort zone. That’s right, when you’re going to be going outside of your comfort zone you’re going to need to gain access to other people and to people who don’t agree with you. After all, by nature by expanding your comfort zone you are absolutely being not only uncomfortable but you’re mingling with people who think a little differently and have new and different ideas. Good luck. Let me know what your thoughts are or how you get unbiased business advice.