The Gift of Advice

Famed football coach Lou Holtz once said the toughest part of his job was “teaching lessons that stay taught.”

Likewise, one of the most challenging parts of being a mentor is giving advice.

Advice-giving works only in the context of learning — when you’re offering advice because you believe the protégé’s performance will be improved as a result. But for advice giving to work, be ready for the protégé not to take it.

If the protégé has no choice, then you should give a directive instead. Couching your requirement as advice is manipulative and will only foster distrust.

There are four steps to making your advice-giving more productive.

State the Problem

Begin your advice by letting the protégé know the intent. Suppose you’re offering advice about improving the performance of a new skill.

You might say, “I wanted to talk about the fact that although your last quarter call rate was up, your sales were down 20 percent.” Be specific in your statement.

Stating the focus helps sort out the content of the advice. Is the occasion for the advice a skill deficiency (requiring mentoring) or a will deficiency (requiring coaching)?

Make Sure You Agree on the Focus

If what seems like a performance challenge is viewed by the protégé as something else, your advice will be viewed as overcontrolling. Make sure the protégé is as eager to improve as you are.

What do you do if there is something you think the protégé needs to learn but the protégé is unwilling?

Take a broader perspective. If a performance deficiency needs fixing, have available information that you both can examine. If all else fails, wait until the protégé shows more readiness to learn.

Ask Permission to Give Advice

Your goal at this point is to communicate advice without eliciting resistance, and to keep ownership of the challenge with the protégé.

This doesn’t mean asking, “May I have your permission?” Rather, say, “I have some ideas on how you might improve if that would be helpful.”

With this phrasing, most protégés will heed your advice, and many will be grateful. Still, what do you do if you sense protégé resistance?

Never resist resistance. Examine your tone and choice of words to see whether you might be inadvertently fueling resistance. Then name the issue and take the hit.

State Advice in First Person

Phrases like “you ought to” raise resistance. Keeping advice in first-person singular helps eliminate the “should” and “ought-tos.”

Now, let’s put the steps together, using a hypothetical example.

Billy is a new reservations clerk for Mayday Airlines; Kay is his manager. Mayday has just installed a new reservation system. Some features are similar to the old system on which Billy was an expert. Some steps can be done several ways.

Kay has observed Billy follows a mass-pull-sort approach on the new system. She believes his efficiency would improve if he used a pull-mass-spread-sort approach.

Kay: “I’ve been impressed with your work. I’ve also noticed your pace seems to slow when you use the mass-pull-sort approach.”

Billy: “Yes, I find doing it that way more comfortable. I guess using it for 10 years has something to do with it.”

Kay: “I know what you mean. It was tough for me to let go of some of the older approaches, especially when I was evaluated on speed. I’ve been watching how you do it, and I have a suggestion to help improve your speed.”

Billy: “I’m all ears if it helps me get faster.”

Kay: “I found that the pull-mass-spread-sort approach, while awkward at first, gave me more control over the reservation fields and was actually easier after a day or so than mass-pull-sort. You might want to try it.”

Billy: “I’ll give it a try.”

Effective mentors recognize the challenge of “teaching so it stays taught” and pairing wisdom with sensitivity. They keep the ball in play as long as they can by judicious application of pushes and pulls, building the protégé’s competence as a result.

Marshall Goldsmith is an authority in helping leaders achieve positive, lasting change in behavior. He is the author or co-editor of 32 books, including “Managers as Mentors,” with co-author Chip Bell. He can be reached at