This 1 Piece of Advice Could Make Or Break Your Career

There’s no handbook on how to evaluate and process “suggestions” and “advice” from a boss or a mentor. But how you choose to act on these recommendations can speed up your learning and make or break your career. Here’s what to keep in mind:

I had a team of students working on an arcane customer problem. While they were quickly coming up to speed, I suggested that they talk to someone who I knew was an expert in the area and could help them learn much faster. In fact, starting in the second week of the class, I suggested the same person several times – one-on-one, in class and in writing. Each time the various team members smiled, nodded and said, “Yes, we’ll get right on it.”  Finally, eight weeks later when they were about to fly across the country to meet the customer, I reminded them again.

When they returned from the trip, I asked if the advisor I suggested was helpful.

I was a bit surprised when they replied, “Oh, we’ve been trying to connect with him for a while and he never responded.”  So, I asked:

As per our conversation about the lack of response from your advisor John Doe -please forward me copies of the emails you have sent to him.



The reply I received was disappointing — but not totally surprising.

Dear Steve, 

Unfortunately, I believe our team has painted the wrong picture due to miscommunication on our part. It was our responsibility to reach out to John Doe, but we failed to do so.

We did not attempt to reach out to him up until Week 8 before our flight, but the email bounced. We got caught up in work on the trip and did not follow-up. What we should have done was to clarify the email address with our Teaching Assistant and attempt to contact him again.

Best regards,


Extra credit for finally owning that they screwed up – but there was more to it.

Combine Outside Advice with Your Own Insights
Upon reflection I realized that this student team was missing a learning opportunity. They were soon heading for the real world, and they had no idea how to evaluate and process “suggestions” and “advice.”  Ironically, given they were really smart and in a world-class university, they were confusing “smart” with “I can figure it all out by myself.”

Throughout my entrepreneurial career I was constantly bombarded by advice – from bosses, mentors, friends, investors, et al. I was lucky enough to have mentors who took an interest in my career, and as a young entrepreneur, I tried to pay attention to what they were trying to tell me. (Coming into my first startup from four years in the military I didn’t have the advantage of thinking I knew it all.) It made me better – I learned faster than having to acquire every bit of knowledge from scratch and I could combine the data coming from others with the insights I had.

Have a Process to Evaluate Suggestions and Advice
Here was my response to my student team:

Dear Team:

Throughout your work career you’ll be getting tons of suggestions and advice; from mentors – people you don’t work for but who care about your career and from your direct boss and others up your reporting chain.

  1. Treat advice and suggestions as a gift, not a distraction
    • Assume someone has just given you a package wrapped in a bow with your name on it.
    • Then think of how they’ll feel when you ignore it and toss it aside.
  2. When you’re working at full speed just trying to get your job done, it’s pretty easy to assume that advice/suggestions from others are just diversions. That’s a mistake. At times following up on them may make or break a career and/or a relationship.
    • The first time your boss or mentor will assume you were too busy to follow up.
    • The second time your boss will begin to question your judgment. Your mentor is going to question your willingness to be coached.
    • The third time you ignore suggestions/advice from your boss is a career-limiting move. And if from a mentor, you’ve likely damaged or ended the relationship.
  3. Everyone likes to offer “suggestions” and “advice.” Think of these as falling into four categories:
    • Some bosses/mentors offer “suggestions” and “advice” because it makes them feel important.
    • Others have a set of contacts or insights they are willing to share with you because they believe these might be useful to you.
    • A few bosses/mentors have pattern-recognition skills. They’ve recognized the project you’re working on or problem you’re trying to solve could be helped by connecting with a specific person/group or by listening to how it was solved previously.
    • A very small subset of bosses/mentors has extracted some best practices and/or wisdom from those patterns. These can give you shortcuts to the insights they’ve taken years to learn.
  4. Early in your career it’s hard to know whether a suggestion/advice is valuable enough to spend time following up. Here’s what I suggest:
    • Start with “Thanks for the suggestion.”
    • Next, it’s OK to ask, “Help me understand why is this important? Why should I talk to them? What should I learn?” This will help you figure out which category of advice you’re getting.If it’s a direct boss and others up your reporting chain, ask, “How should I prioritize this? Does it require immediate action?” (And it most cases it doesn’t matter what category it’s in, just do it.)
    • Always report back to whoever offered you the advice/suggestion to share what you learned. Thank them.

If you open yourself to outside advice, you’ll find people interested in the long-term development of your career – these are your career mentors. Unlike coaching, there’s no specific agenda or goal but mentor relationships can result in a decades-long dialog of continual learning. What makes these relationships a mentorship is this: you have to give as good as you are getting. While you’ll be learning from them – and their years of experience and expertise – what you need to give back is equally important – offering fresh insights to their data.

If your goal is to be a founder, having a network of mentors/advisors means that not only will you be up to date on current technology, markets or trends, you’ll be able to recognize patterns and bring new perspectives that might be basis for your next startup.

Lessons Learned

  • Suggestions/advice at work are not distractions that can be ignored
    • Understand the type of suggestions/advice you’re getting (noise, contacts, patterns, insights)
    • Understand why the advice is being given
    • Agree on the priority in following it up
  • Not understanding how to respond to advice/suggestions can limit your career
  • Advice is a kickstarter for your own insights and a gateway for mentorship
  • Treat advice and suggestions as a gift, not a distraction

13 Responses

  1. Excellent post

  2. Steve – Excellent advice! Absolutely Excellent. I especially like your suggestion of the follow up questions: ” Help me understand why is this important? Why should I talk to them? What should I learn?”. To me, the the best part is “What should I learn”. Never stop asking, never stop learning.

    I wish had heard this years ago.



  3. Very clear and very correct. This is important in every environment, including academics. People who share and listen are the ones you want to work with

  4. Steve, the types of advice that you have described — especially as pertains to #3 — are often priceless in value. My further recommendation would be that, if you are ever lucky enough to find an experienced advisor who has a proven track record in successful pattern-recognition, then you should bend over backwards to try to get that individual to serve on your startup’s Advisory Board; the long-term benefits of their ongoing insights would no doubt be incalculable.

  5. Perhaps it was a case of education overload. Sure your intention was to help. But when you feel like your back is to the wall, you fall back on what you know best. You don’t therefore have time to integrate and change your methods, for the perception is the time it will take will endanger the whole project. If you wanted to teach a lesson about receiving a mentors guidance than the project chosen should have been easy but required the intergration of a mentor. Just my 2 cents.

    • Brilliant…but why stop at the very early stage of a career? To have an uncanny ability to “separate wheat from chaff” – is a quality that all great CEOs must have, too!

      IMHO: I can’t emphasize enough the importance of building OUTSTANDING Advisory Boards – to all CEOs. After all, the directors at your BOD level are not your friends – they are your investors! The only impartial advice to CEOs may come from: the ADVISORS THEY CHOOSE!

      You can see more of my comments on above at:

      • If I could only offer a single advice to a progressive CEO – this would be it!

  6. I got this comment from a friend I’ve known who wants to remain anonymous. I thought it was useful advice.


    I liked your essay today on how to gracefully and effectively accept mentoring.

    While I agree with all of your advice here, I think it’s incomplete. Your students should also be told that sometimes free advice isn’t worth what they have to pay for it—that is, the time to get it, to analyze it, to test it, and ultimately to integrate it into the business. They have to be given explicit permission, by you as their teacher, to reject advice if it doesn’t make sense to them—and to reject it as firmly as necessary to make it stop. Otherwise you bias them toward accepting bad advice and badgering, which I’m sure you know is sometimes part of the package.

    Obviously, distinguishing good advice from bad advice is most difficult for the least experienced entrepreneurs, and obviously rejecting bad advice can itself be done well or badly, but both of those are separate matters.

    Over the years I’ve concluded that input from outside experts—most especially when they’re also investors, or the trusted advisors of the investors—will become a distraction and even active interference almost as often as it will be helpful. This conclusion is based not only on my own experience, but on the experiences of the dozens of startups I’ve studied closely as an analyst.

    The most common way for a startup to fail is that it successfully delivers a product the market doesn’t want, not that it fails to deliver a product that the market does want, and in most of the former situations, the market target is based heavily on input from outside experts. Sometimes the experts want the startup to solve some problem that vexed the expert in a previous life, sometimes they’re excessively idealistic, sometimes they’re only subject-matter experts in a subject that doesn’t matter, and sometimes they’re just painfully wrong. They’re no less fallible than the rest of us, after all.

    The critical skill is that one of recognizing bad advice. This isn’t all a matter of that squishy concept “experience.” There are objective facts involved. For example, entrepreneurs need to know not just the advice, but the basis of the advice. Can the expert be regarded as a reliable proxy for the potential customers? Do the technical aspects of the recommendation come from someone who has the relevant technical qualifications? What is the actual readiness level of the essential technology? For that matter, is the expert actually an expert, or did they just happen to spend some time around experts at some point? Answering questions like these is a lot more time-consuming than just giving the advice itself, so asking the questions may seem disrespectful or burdensome, but there’s no getting around that.

    An entrepreneur who feels pressured to accept advice without fully understanding and agreeing with the advice is no longer running the company, and from what I’ve gathered from your other work, you’re trying to teach people how to run their own companies, not just how to do all the scutwork while someone else pulls their strings.

    • Love this, mostly because of the focus on the amount of bad advice from well-meaning advisors. Unless the advice comes from a history of getting out of the building, it’s probably just an opinion. But Steve’s advice to talk to an expert in this field, with the offered connection, seems quite obviously advice worth taking!

  7. Thanks for sharing Steve!

  8. No one shares his work more openly than Steve Blank. His contributions to entrepreneurship and new startups are immeasurable. We got lucky with him.

  9. Amazing advice you gave to them, Steve. A lot of people reading this would be wondering if there was anybody there who could have taught these so they could have been something different today.

  10. Thanks for sharing, Steve.

    I also like following up with my team when needed and bringing in experts. Both are important for continued growth and innovation to stay profitable.

  11. A military background has an enormous advantage for sustainable development, giving an extra sense of order and responsibility. Sadly it was represented in public as a burden to society, anyway, we have a great opportunity to change it with social networking.

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