Right questions, wrong ears?

The message that resounded with many who listened to the IB Expo keynote address by Fox News’ “Voice of Small Business” Amilya Antonetti was the sage advice she gave to stop asking all the right questions of the wrong people.

“Don’t ask a best friend with a [crappy] marriage for relationship advice, and likewise, don’t ask a consultant who has never had to make a payroll for his or her business management advice,” she said. “Find a mentor who is doing what you aspire to do, who is successful at what you want to be successful at, and then listen to them.”

My own change agent mentor, Robert Ian, advises that “results are always the best credentials” when it comes to hiring staff or outside experts. Ian also often quotes his mentor, Joe Charbonneau: “If you want to be a master at anything, study the masters who have gone before you. Learn to do what they have done, have the guts to do it, and you will be a master just like them.”

I’d amend, “Or at least a close facsimile.”

I mention that Robert Ian is a change agent because most business managers, during a recession, are in the business of managing change. And that, alone, would imply that we aren’t doing the same things the same way if the goal is a different outcome.

Recently I interviewed a radio guest (a business consultant) and I begged to differ with her, and did. Her advice wasn’t the pea under my mattress; it was her bias. She laid out a fact and we both agreed to its validity: CEOs are hiring fewer consultants in the past few years. But we attribute different motives to those CEOs. She labels the pullback a “fear factor”: CEOs are running businesses from a fearful perspective and so are missing the expert advice (hers) that might move their companies forward.

I think, to play devil’s advocate, that many of these same CEOs are not afraid, they are strategic. They know when to hold assets closer to the vest – when it makes sense to hire a consultant and when it doesn’t. And of the consultants I know who are still getting hired, they are the ones with street credentials, known for getting results.

Right now isn’t the right time for some managers to pay an outside adviser (versus mentor) to tell them what they already know at the moment: that company resources might best be spent on R&D, shoring up existing relationships with clients, adding more value-added perks, or guaranteeing payroll cash flow despite a cutback of credit in the banking industry.

Joan Gillman asked a recent In Business with Jody & Joan radio guest – David Fink, a founder of Settlers Bank – if he thought CEOs are now largely running businesses from a position of fear (Joan putting forth the other woman’s theory). I was happy to know how strongly he agreed with me: No.

Management is more cash reserved, Fink said, but he also thinks that is due to making the best strategic decisions for company resources in challenging times. He pointed out that experienced managers realize there is opportunity in times of crisis and pullbacks, and they try to position their companies to make the most of it.

This points to the importance, again, of keeping your focus on opportunity vs. fear in 2012, and your mind open to learning what successful people know, and sharing your lessons learned. Toward that end, IB will be presenting more seminars led by industry experts, and we’ll again offer our “Icons in Business” breakfast series, featuring some of the most successful companies and managers in the state of Wisconsin.

Charles Darwin said, “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” So here we are, on the brink of what we all know will be another “change year,” trying to identify the best practices and paths to follow or forge.

What about you, professionally and personally? Are you ready to seize the opportunities that will present themselves this year? If so, who is your best mentor?

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