Contrary to what every inspirational entrepreneur biopic might imply, entrepreneurship isn’t a solitary pursuit. How can it be, when the challenges of building a business are so complicated, and usually demand such complex solutions?
As someone who was once a rookie entrepreneur, I can tell you this: despite being acutely aware of how much they don’t know, new founders never fully understand everything they have yet to learn.
All entrepreneurs need help sometimes. When they feel overwhelmed by their leadership responsibilities, product development flaws, hiring challenges, or any of the million other concerns that new founders face in everyday life, they ask for outside advice. They turn to their mentors, investors, fellow entrepreneurs, and even family members for their insights — and feel relieved when those insights inspire a solution.
But what happens when this reliance on third-party advice turns into a habit? What happens when an entrepreneur begins to believe that they can’t make sound decisions without others’ input or that their limited experience makes their vision for the business less viable?
What happens when entrepreneurs lose trust in themselves?
“Sometimes, because of insecurities, we tend to do what others say even when it doesn’t align with our mission or vision,” founder and executive coach, Nadidah Coveney, told the Forbes Coaches Council in 2018. “[But] not being sure about something doesn’t mean you should accept every advice given.”
Amy Jen Su, an executive coach, puts Coveney’s point another way. “As a leader, you need to have a strong voice and you need to know when it’s time to listen.”
But for entrepreneurs who have fallen into a habit of prioritizing others’ opinions over their own, finding that balance can be a challenge. How, then, can new entrepreneurs welcome advice without sacrificing their vision — or authority?
First, founders need to understand why they make such a habit of seeking advice.
Look beyond the problem at hand; are you insecure in your skills? Do you already have an answer to your query on deck, but need validation? Are you honestly looking for a second opinion, rather than a solution?
If your tendency to search for advice stems from a lack of confidence, you need to address the problem’s root. Every entrepreneur needs confidence to succeed as a business leader, to know that their vision is viable and worthy of following. This doesn’t mean that their plans can’t be influenced or changed by outside advice or new data — but those external forces shouldn’t wholly govern them.
Moreover, research has established that a leader’s self-confidence (or lack thereof) relates directly not only to their personal success but also the success of their employees and organization.
As management researcher, Ruth H. Axelrod, notes in a chapter of a 2017 book on the matter, “self-confidence profoundly affects our thoughts, emotions, and behavior […] High levels of [self-confidence] are essential for effective leadership and enable the leader to influence his collaborators, or followers, to build task-specific self-confidences that can strengthen their job performance.”
The hard truth of the matter is that you won’t be able to independently resolve problems until you trust yourself. Or, to borrow Forbes writer Avery Blank’s pithy perspective on the matter: “If you see a problem, fix it. Don’t wait for someone else to do it because that person may never come along. Bet on yourself. It’s the safest risk.”
However, this isn’t to say that leaders should always prioritize their opinions over others’ — quite the opposite. Ample research has demonstrated that when leaders open themselves up to guidance (as opposed to validation), they tend to develop better solutions than they would have if they faced a given problem alone. Outside perspectives empower problem-solvers to overcome cognitive biases, eliminate flawed logic, and add nuance to their thinking.
Open communication is inherently valuable in a corporate setting. One 2009 study conducted by the insurance firm Willis Towers Watson found that companies who communicated effectively created a 47 percent higher return to shareholders over five years when compared to less-communicative organizations. Leaders of these organizations aren’t afraid to seek feedback from employees or update their plans based on new insights.
Of course, the crucial distinction is that these savvy leaders don’t take — and aren’t expected to take — every bit of feedback and advice as instruction.
“Not every idea is popular—and there is often a lot of debate that ensues. But generally people just want the opportunity to voice their opinion,” author and CEO Jim Whitehurst once wrote for the Harvard Business Review. “They expect to be heard—but not always to be heeded. Even if they didn’t like the decision that’s ultimately made, they will have had the chance to make peace with it now rather than six months, or six years down the road.”
Leaders should proactively encourage an open flow of communication in their organizations, empower employees to air their concerns and ideas, and ask for feedback — with the caveat, of course, that their decisions will always be respected at the end of the day.
This last point is perhaps the most critical. Even as entrepreneurs seek advice, they should always make sure that their position and authority are respected.
This necessity stems back to an odd quirk of human psychology. When we give advice, we subconsciously place our opinions above that of the person receiving our counsel — and assume that our authority supersedes theirs.
In May of 2018, the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin published a series of four studies on this trend. Researchers for these investigations collectively found that even when an advice-giver isn’t actively striving to control another person, they can, in certain circumstances, gain a sense of power over the person they advise. The researchers conclude that “in giving unsolicited advice, the advice-giver appears to presume that the advisee will accept his/her authority.”
Over time, an entrepreneur’s reliance on advice can prompt others to provide unsolicited counsel. In turn, this can undermine the entrepreneur’s confidence and provoke simmering feelings of resentment and frustration.
Dependence on outside advice can also stunt a new founder’s growth. As founder and business coach Bruce Eckfeldt explained for Inc., “Often our greatest learnings come in the crucible of our hardest and most important decisions. In these moments we are forced to define our goals, articulate our values, and determine our priorities. When we rely on external advice we skirt the hard work and just go with what’s presented as a short cut.”
So, what should entrepreneurs who are over-reliant on outside advice do to maintain their authority while still welcoming feedback?
Take a step back. Stop asking for insights as a default; instead, take some time to rebuild your confidence as a leader by building solutions based on the information you have at hand. Don’t be afraid to reach out to others when you need to — but instead of asking them to provide solutions, ask them to share their past experiences that can inform your perspective as you problem-solve. In the end, the only person who can achieve your vision for company success is you.