The Value of Friendly Advice


I’d like to offer an idea that a very smart colleague once shared with me. I’ve taken some liberties and given it my own personal spin, so here goes: Each of us, she said, should appoint our own personal board of advisers to help us navigate the shoals and depths of our careers.

You don’t have to tell them that they’re on your list; you don’t have to convene any meetings (because we all certainly have enough of those); you don’t even necessarily have to talk to them about specific decisions you might be trying to make.

Of course, you can talk to them, and absolutely should do so when the need arises.

You do have to know them well enough to know what they would tell you in any given situation. And they have to be people who will offer you unflinching advice that you either accept and enact, or know that you’re ignoring at your peril.

I would also argue that they should be people whose diversity complements who you are, so that you’re not trying to get meaningful advice in an echo chamber.

We’re not talking about random advice from colleagues or others in your organization. This is the stuff that may sting a little when you hear it, even though you know that it’s right – and offered in a spirit of love and support.

Bottom line, the advisers on your board should be able to tell you what you need to hear, whether you want to hear it or not.

My list includes people whose backgrounds, interests, talents and life experiences range widely, and depart in some important ways from mine. Some of them have very different political or social values; it is these differences that make them essential members of my board.

I’m going to exclude my wife from this list. She’s obviously my most trusted adviser. Since she’s also in government, we share many of the same assumptions about our life together and the world around us, every bit as much as we do about the way we work. At the same time, when I’m struggling with a choice – whether to take a job, or how to manage a relationship that’s going badly – I know she’ll help me make the right decision.

Here’s a little peek at who else is on my list:

  • Friend #1 is someone I first met almost 20 years ago when he was delivering a workshop that I’d signed up for. I admired his thoughtful style, sought him out afterward, and we’ve become closer over time. I’ll come back to him in a minute.
  • Friend #2 is the guy I mentioned in this post – the one who helped me crystallize my thoughts about the value of fit versus other competing career drivers.
  • Friend #3 is a senior leader in a core service of our government. She’s been a trusted confidante who has said to me, more than once over the years, “You’re looking at this from the wrong perspective. What you should be focusing on is…” She’s also helped me to see the value I bring to the organization as an older worker.

Back to friend #1. I left my long-time job in 2013 as part of a restructuring, which included the elimination of my job – and its replacement with another job doing similar, although not identical work. Under the rules of my workplace, that meant I would have to apply for the new position.

And of course I’d planned to do so. I’d been in my role for five years, had accomplished some good things (with the support of a great team), and more than anything, I wanted to remain employed.

When I told friend #1 of my plan, he reacted with surprise, verging on disdain. “What are you doing?” he asked. “You’ve been in this job for five years. You’ve accomplished a lot. It’s time to move on.”

It was his way of reminding me that sometimes the universe sends us coded signals. It’s our job to decode them. In this case, as I’ve mentioned before, I was already thinking about next steps in my career. I just wanted to do it on my own terms.

So I ignored my friend’s advice. I applied for the new position, and of course, I was granted an interview – which I bombed. I didn’t get the job.

In hindsight, I know he was right. I probably even knew it then. Since then, I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have landed several opportunities that would never had come my way if I’d stayed.

What this experience taught me, as have so many others, is the importance of well-placed trust.

So the question is, who do you trust enough to put on your board of advisers?

Larry Till is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

Leave a Comment


Leave a Reply

Avatar photo Nicole Blake Johnson

Great post, Larry. You can’t put a price tag on personal board members who have your best interest at heart and can tell you the truth in love. I know the feeling of wanting to do things on your own terms, but taking that step of faith into the unknown helps us to grow personally and professionally. All the best to you!

Larry Till

Thanks, Nicole. It’s an idea that’s really resonated with me over the years, and I’m more than happy to share it.

Jacqueline Elder

You have reminded me that having a support group definitely has a positive impact on one’s life.
Support groups are something that definitely impacts quality of life in general.
Thank you for writing.

Davis Cheng

I agree with Larry’s great idea that each of us should appoint our own personal board of advisers to help us navigate the shoals and depths of our careers if we want to do a great job for our USDA and to enhance our career development with our Agency. However, the reality or challenge for us to do so in our day-by-day work life is how and where to “find” these advisers to give us the required advice. Here, I have a question for Larry: Did you get these friends (of a support group) who have given you great advice on your career through your personal contacts occasionally or can you share with us your “secrets” how you were so lucky to get them? If these personal efforts can become an official management policy of our Agency in near future, it will help many of our USDA employees, leaders, managers and supervisors a lot and greatly enhance our job performance. Can someone who has enough power to send such a proposal to our Administrators and senior leaders to promote this effort if possible? Thank you.

Larry Till

Thanks for the really perceptive question, David. Obviously I can’t speak to the way your organization works. I can tell you from my own experience that my advisors are almost all people I’ve met in a professional context, and come to know and trust as friends later on. It comes down to listening to your gut, really – when you meet someone and find yourself thinking, “You know what? I like the way this person operates. What they say makes sense, and it speaks to me,” you know you’re onto something. It’s different than a formal mentoring or coaching approach, which your workplace or mine might sponsor. This is more about people you know, and who know you, on a very individual basis. I used the word “love” to describe the connection, and I don’t want to lose that point – my advisors are all people who I know would have my back no matter what.

Does that help?

Davis Cheng

I see. Thank you very much for your advice. I hope that I will learn more from you to enhance my job performance. My supervisor is great. He often gives me advice on many matters either from work or from personal life. I appreciate your advice and my friends in my workplace.