Advise Your Leaders: How to share ideas like an external advisor

By: Bart Egnal

Consultants: they charge you a fortune to look at your watch and tell you the time. As someone who’s been hired as a consultant on leadership, talent and communication, I always laugh at this joke…and take note that though true, companies seem to keep hiring consultants! And it’s not just the expertise these experts bring — it’s how they communicate their expertise that makes them valuable.

Now, if you’re an employee who has listened to consultants give advice you could have shared, I have some very good news for you: in my experience, leaders would prefer to hear ideas from you than from external hires. They know your knowledge of the business and long-term investment in its success are almost always deeper than those of external experts. 

But here’s the thing: your leaders also want you to communicate in a different way so they can hear, understand and act on your ideas. In short, if you want to be heard, you need to think and share ideas with the mindset and communication approach of an external adviser. 

Here’s how:

Adopt the external advisor mindset 

Getting beyond the power dynamic inherent in the workplace is fundamental to leading your leaders.  Avoid prematurely undermining yourself by thinking, “that person wouldn’t want to hear from me, since they must know these things already.” Or, “they haven’t asked for my opinion so I will wait to be asked.” But most common is, “there’s too much downside risk to sharing my view — what if it’s not accepted?”

Here’s Khalid Elhaj, VP Business Strategy at Alamost Gold, “It’s easy to stay quiet. It seems to carry the least risk. And sometimes your ideas get shot down hard. But over the long run it’s the willingness to send those ideas to get challenged that earns you the respect of the leaders you work with.”

So think like an advisor: assume your ideas, if worthwhile, will be explored. Assume that you may never be asked unless you can demonstrate that there is something worth asking you! And assume that the bigger risk of not having your ideas accepted is to never share ideas at all.

Set the stage for your audience

You can’t just show up and throw up your idea. You have to set the stage. Start by establishing that you’ve been listening and understand what your leaders are trying to achieve. “Over the last few months, I’ve heard you discuss how we can improve our conversion rate on marketing leads that come in. I have done some research and want to share my recommendations with you at a high level.” Link your context to what you know and have heard are important metrics or goals for your leaders.

Since leaving the Canadian Forces as a Captain, Robert Buckingham has been an advisor (at PwC) and is now an executive (EVP, Quest Window Systems). Here’s his insights into the importance of audience-centricity: “The best way to communicate recommendations is to understand the metrics and perspectives my audience want. For example, in operations — is it quality, quantity, safety… I really need to understand their need, and then confirm it BEFORE I make any suggestions. Otherwise it’s about me and not them.”

This audience-focused approach is doubly important If your idea will be contentious or surprising, lay the groundwork for that too. “I know we’ve been going down one path for the last six months, but let me suggest that there is an entirely different approach we should consider as well.” 

Use the language of leadership (and cut the mincing modifiers!)

I wrote a whole book on language and how to use it because small words can make a huge impact. And what I hear far too often when people are sharing ideas with senior people are “mincing modifiers” that undercut the strength of their idea. Avoid expressions like,

  • “I could be wrong”
  • “It’s just my opinion”
  • “Maybe this could be something to think about”

Instead, use language that conveys the level of confidence you have,

  • “This is a different way to look at the problem”
  • “While just one opinion, what I’ll share is based on several months of research”
  • “We should consider this option”

This kind of language will avoid undercutting your idea before it’s out of your mouth.

Read the room as you share 

Part of being a great advisor is knowing that you are there to provide advice — and this means recognizing when your advice isn’t coming at the right time, or if it’s not needed or wanted. 

You may have spent five weeks building your strategy, or met with countless customers to understand the market, or talked with your operations lead about process improvements… and then when you start talking it’s clear no one is ready to hear what you have to say. 

Don’t take it personally. It may not be the right time. Your idea may not be wanted or needed at that moment. Or it may never be. Part of being a great advisor is recognizing it’s not about you and detaching the work you did from the readiness and willingness of the client to adopt your recommendations. 

Be prepared to let it go, start again and bring a new idea forward. 

Advise, advise, advise
There’s never been a better time to become a trusted advisor to your leaders. They are listening and seeking out the best ideas from all parts of their organization. By embracing the advisor mindset and communication approach you can strengthen your ability to be heard and drive action.