How to give advice that sticks

Written by
Bonnie Gwin
Heidrick & Struggles

06 Nov 2017

06 Nov 2017 • by Bonnie Gwin

It's very easy to give advice, but hard to do it well. Bonnie Gwin gives her top tips for delivering advice effectively.

This article is provided to Changeboard by our Future Talent 2018 partners, Heidrick & Struggles. You can see Heidricks' Managing Partner Colin Price in conversation with Aviva's CEO, Mark Wilson, at Changeboard's Future Talent Conference 2018.

Many years ago, as an undergraduate, I took a class in diplomacy from Madeleine Albright, long before she became secretary of state. I was a quiet student working my way through a big project - a mock political negotiation in which class members played various world leaders. It was an exercise requiring far more self-assurance than I had at the time. It was particularly hard given my natural reticence.

Partway through the class, all of that changed. Professor Albright spoke to me privately and said directly: “You should speak up; you have good things to say.” It was a revelation. This simple piece of advice gave me a new sense of confidence in myself and my voice.

The substance of the advice may seem unremarkable but the way she did it - the personal touch, the timing, and her obvious sincerity - gave it real power.

Now, whether working with a newly promoted member of our firm or advising a highly accomplished CEO through a series of interviews for a board seat, I am reminded almost daily that it’s easy to give advice but really hard to do it well.

At almost every point in your career, you will be called upon to offer advice - to peers, to the people you manage, and sometimes to the people who manage you. Here are some things you can do in those professional settings to help make sure your advice sticks:

Know the difference between advice and criticism

Advice is meant to be helpful; criticism is often meant to wound. An arrogant, critical professor might have told me that I was too timid for diplomatic negotiations.

You know you’re being critical rather than helpful if you start the conversation this way: “Look, I hate to say this, but it’s for your own good...”

Keep it professional

Resist the impulse to make it personal, no matter how well-meaning you may be. Stick to matters of professional behavior and outcomes, not matters of the psyche.

For example, you may have a colleague whose long-winded digressions sabotage client presentations, and you may rightly perceive that she loves the sound of her own voice. But don’t talk to her about reining in her ego; talk to her about focus, about using client time more efficiently and sticking to the script. For example, point out that clients’ time is short and that you both need to be on target or you’ll risk losing their attention.

Hold the sandwich

Don’t put the advice between two slices of praise, opening with a compliment, slipping in some counsel, and wrapping it up with a final good word. I’ve seen that approach many times over the years and I think it blunts the message.

Keep advice short, to the point, and meaningful. And focus on how the person can leverage their strengths to deal with the issue—give him or her a tool and something really useful rather than just drop a “bomb” and walk away.

Give advice in real time

Don’t restrict your advice-giving to the annual performance review. Offer your counsel as close as possible to the events that call for it, making it more contextual, powerful, and meaningful.

It’s better, for example, to talk to a young partner who was unprepared and distracted in a meeting just after the meeting wraps up—sharing your thoughts right away. Further, you will create the expectation of constant feedback, so that such coaching becomes part of the natural rhythm of your management style.

Make the advice actionable

Vague advice can be worse than no advice. Unless advice is accompanied by a suggestion of something the listener can actually do, it’s likely to cause anxiety.

If you tell someone that they need to “up their game” or “get with the program,” they will come away knowing only that their performance is lacking in some way. And having no idea what to do about it, they may spend many unproductive hours pursuing the wrong remedies or simply worrying.

Draw on what has worked for others

Coaching highly accomplished CEOs and other seasoned executives through interviews can be a delicate challenge. Many of them haven’t interviewed for anything in years and, understandably, they prefer to trust their own judgement.

To help make sure my advice is meaningful and helpful, I often describe what has made other candidates successful in similar situations, in that particular industry and with their particular skill sets, and I have shared specific interview strategies. Stories about best practices and the experience of others can be a powerful means of cutting through resistance to advice, offering narratives that the hearer can relate to.

Welcome advice in return

When I first joined Heidrick & Struggles, I was privileged to go along on a very important client meeting with one of the most senior members of our firm. After the meeting, he completely surprised me by asking me to tell him what he could have done better. I expected it to be the other way around - that he would critique me.

But his question spoke volumes to me about his values, and in the ensuing years when he offered me advice, I was more than ready to listen because I knew that his only agenda was for everyone to be at their best. It was powerful to hear someone I deeply respected tell me that he still wanted to improve and that I, a new member of the team, might have something meaningful to add.

Deliver the advice in person

If you genuinely wish what’s best for the recipient, that authenticity will come through powerfully in the nuances of your voice, your body language, and your responsiveness.

That’s what Madeleine Albright did so successfully. She found a moment to share some memorable advice with me - and later left me a personal note with my final grade complimenting me on my participation.

Ever since, I have followed her advice - to speak up. And I still have the note with my final grade and her gracious comments. I kept it not because she is famous - she wasn’t at that time - but because everything she did conveyed her care for her students and her desire to see them learn and improve. Who wouldn’t heed the advice of someone like that?


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About the author 


Bonnie W. Gwin is vice chairman and co-managing partner of Heidrick & Struggles’ CEO & Board Practice. She is based in New York.

A version of this article originally appeared on LinkedIn as part of Bonnie Gwin's “LinkedIn Influencers” series. For more articles by this author, follow her on LinkedIn by clicking here.

Heidrick & Struggles