Expert advice only works if you listen

Doug Lighthouses | for editor and editor

Years ago, I took over a company that was in bad shape. And on my first day in this new role, I found something interesting in the top drawer of my new desk: reports. There were three detailed and in-depth reports from experts hired to assess areas of improvement for the business.

My predecessor was forced to bring in these experts by his superiors, and then he chose to stuff those reports in the drawer, close it, pay the bill, and stop there. Suffice it to say, I wasn’t surprised that his office was now my office.

It was my first taste of a fairly common practice in the business world: the timeless search for contract experts to provide new insights. And whether it’s a consultant, subject matter expert, or anyone else, it’s critical in these situations to think about why you brought in someone to look into the situation and give their assessment.

Maybe your boss said you needed to hire a consultant, or maybe you’re a go-getter and want a fresh look at the situation. Or, if we’re being honest, maybe you just wanted to pay someone to tell you you’re doing everything right.

Judging from where my predecessor left his reports, it seems safe to say that his motives were a combination of pressure from above and wanting someone to tell him he was doing a great job. But, of course, motivation doesn’t matter much unless you’re willing to listen to what they say.

That’s why I decided to re-read the reports and call the author of the one that intrigued me the most. It had been a while since they had come to audit the place, so I asked them to come back to see what, if anything, had changed since their last visit.

Dear reader, you will be shocked to learn that nothing has changed since they gave my predecessor this 40-page report. Eager to make positive changes but less eager to read news at work, I asked the consultant to summarize what I needed to know about these 40 pages of information. And after some back and forth, we narrowed that down to 15 clear, actionable items.

When I brought these 15 elements to my team, we explained why they didn’t want to do certain things, things they had already tried in the past, etc. We then looked at what items would do the most for our organization and then ranked them that way. Then we ranked them based on what they would cost us to implement.

We started doing it every week, and every week we discussed the progress of each item. And after a few months, some of the ideas hadn’t worked, but overall, these 15 things made a big difference in how we functioned. Our revenues have increased, and our margins with it.

We didn’t end up executing all 15 items, let alone 40 pages, but the items we accomplished brought significant and sweeping changes for the better throughout our organization. And while that was the start of my love affair with the outside expert, it was far from my only encounter.

In fact, I exist on both sides of that relationship now that I’m contracted as a management consultant for companies and also invite people to share their views on my own organizations. From living through both sides of this experience, I can safely say that I understand.

It’s not always fun to have someone come and tell you what you’re doing wrong. It’s easy to get upset and say you know what you’re doing. But none of us know what we’re doing 100% of the time. For the best of us, the 51% of what we do and understand is enough to get us through the 49% we only guess.

My advice is not to blindly trust anyone claiming to be an expert. Investigate them, check their history, and do whatever it takes to find someone you can trust. I recommend finding someone who doesn’t just tell you what to do – anyone can tell a business “you need to sell more” or “you need better publicity”. Go with someone who will tell you how to get there, not just where to go.

But once you have someone you know can help you, you have to listen to them. Don’t just put the reports in a drawer, or you might quickly find someone else sitting at your desk.

Doug Phares is the former CEO of Sandusky News Group. He is currently Managing Director of Silverwind Enterprises, which owns and provides management services to small businesses. He can be contacted at [email protected]