Valuable advice

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Good advice is a most valuable commodity. Similar to many other aspects of management, advice has become institutionalised in recent years. Mentors, coaches and counsellors have always been found at the lower levels of business but paid providers are now advising at much higher levels.

Fortune magazine asked 29 career stars, most of whom were business people, to identify the best advice they had ever received.

Two of the 29 cited Peter Drucker, the greatest of mentors, including author Jim Collins. And church founder Rick Warren disclosed that he likes to 'go sit at the feet of Peter Drucker on a regular basis'. Lots of business leaders have found the advice of Drucker, now 95, just as inspiring.

Some of Drucker's wise anecdotes have arisen from these meetings. Drucker once asked a New York banker why their yearly sessions always lasted exactly an hour and a half and why there were never any interruptions. The banker explained that experience had taught him that meetings were never of use after an hour and a quarter and at that time he would ask the other party to sump, which took a quarter of an hour.

Explaining the lack of interruptions, he said his secretary was under orders only to put through a call if the President of the United States or his wife was to phone, adding, 'The President seldom rings and my wife knows better.'

It is interesting to note that the banker was turning the tables, giving advice to his advisor. A lot of advice is like that – the offer of one person's experience as a guide to the better performance of other people.

The source of the best advice ever received by Vivek Paul, the brilliant Indian businessman who turned Wipro Technologies into an international force, was an elephant trainer in the jungle. The elephants were massive but tethered to small stakes. How could this be?

We have to go for what we think we're fully capable of, not limit ourselves by what we've been in the past'we have to go for what we think we're fully capable of, not limit ourselves by what we've been in the past
The trainer explained that when the elephants are little, they attempt to pull out the stakes and fail, so when they are large they never try it again. Paul derived from this strategy a valuable lesson: that 'we have to go for what we think we're fully capable of, not limit ourselves by what we've been in the past'.

You can see that the power of the parable doesn't lie in the story itself, which isn't especially enlightening, but in Paul's interpretation, and still more in the ambition he turned into remarkable deeds. Put another way, to get really good advice, you must be a really good advisee. For this you need LLL, PPP, AAA:

1. LLL: Listen, Look and Learn.

2. PPP: Priority of Powerful Purpose.

3. AAA: Act, Advance and Achieve.

There are other wise and pragmatic counsels among the 29, though one of them seems to be in reverse. Warren Buffett started out on the road to becoming the world's most successful investment fortune by disobeying two mentors: his guru Ben Graham and his own father.

In 1951 both men told young Warren that the stock market was excessively high and he should stay clear. He disobeyed but in doing so followed their most important lesson, which most people find exceptionally difficult: 'You are right not because others agree with you, but because your facts are right'.

Graham is the source of the words but the thinking is fundamental. In management, as in everything else, there is at any particular moment an accurate description of events which can be discerned and described by logical analysis. The nearer you can get to that truth, and the closer your actions to what the truth demands, the more success you will have.

And what advice does Peter Drucker, mentor in chief, value most? That of his first editor, who advised him, in so many words, 'Get good or get out!' But it's not the advice that really matters – it's how you use it.

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