Unsolicited advice on unsolicited advice
I have a confession to make. I write this column, week in, week out (that’s not the confession, you impatient lot!). It is mostly reflections on my experiences and beliefs, the challenges I have faced, the things I have learned and the hopes I carry. Invariably my musings entail a call to arms.
I am solution-oriented, a bit of a rebel and an incurable optimist.
I believe better is possible and within our reach. I believe we owe it to each other, not to mention ourselves, to strive towards better.
So I nudge, that much is true.
I have often been told “thank you for the inspiration” and I find that humbling and largely undeserved, albeit heart-warming and wonderful.
I have also occasionally been thanked “for the advice” and then I bristle.
Now, my friends will tell you I take being asked for advice very seriously. I ask a lot of questions around realities, options, motivations. I try to be specific. Realistic. Relevant. Personal. And within the boundaries of the invitation.
If someone asks for advice, you have been invited into their world from a place of vulnerability, hope and trust and you need to behave like a guest who appreciates the honour of their situation.
Giving advice is a privilege you need to be invited to. You don’t invite yourself in.
Advice itself, needs to be situational and specific, in order to be useful.
My columns are only situational and specific to me in the moment of writing so they may be a lot of things, ‘advice’ is not one of them.
Do I deny that some times usefulness is found in my musings? Not at all.
But I firmly believe that the lesson finds the student. If your mind is open and searching, you find inspiration even where someone else sees drivel. I release something into the world. What people take and make of it is not of my doing, much as it inspires and excites me to know things live on and go on to transform and fuel and feed greater things.
Still, I don’t give advice in a generic and open-ended manner. As a matter of principle.
One size does not fit all,
The devil resides firmly in the detail.
I seriously don’t appreciate unsolicited advice, personal or professional, when given to me.
And I tell the people who offer it to me exactly that.
And they are always and without fail put out by the fact that the thing they gave without being asked, without knowing the full extent of what was going on, was not gratefully received let alone remotely useful.
Everyone has an opinion. That much is a fact.
And those eager to share opinions don’t want your facts.
They have shapes and that is enough.
They will suggest “you take some time off” if the issue is personal. Off what?
Work, life, sugar, dating, socialising, doing what you do, living where you live. They will suggest a distraction. A new hobby, yoga, learning a language, living abroad for a while (mate… this is abroad).
If their chosen arena is professional, they will suggest you align your stakeholders, they will tell you ‘sponsorship is an active condition’ they will tell you to communicate more/less/differently.
They will suggest things that will be much ado about nothing, tell you to do things you have already done, try things you have tried, say things you know would be the wrong call.
You name it.
Advice is given.
Relevant. Irrelevant. Trite, Basic. Inappropriate. Comical.
Unthinking. Generic. Potentially harmful, definitely time-wasting in its cookie cutter blandness.
I know that advice, especially when not solicited, is a testament to what the person offering it would like for themselves. What they would like to think they would do in my shoes. Even if they have no idea what shoes I am wearing, where they are currently pointing and where they’ve recently been.
Even more frequently, it is a no-consequences opportunity for smug point-scoring, as they will never need to walk a mile in said shoes and who will challenge them when they say that when they were in your position it was pirouettes all the way to your pathetic hobble?
People offering unsolicited advice never ask any questions before opining. Not about you. Not about your situation. Not about whether what they perceive as a problem, is actually a problem to you. In the first place.
I have been offered advice so irrelevant to my circumstances as to be laughable.
So blind to my circumstances as to be cruel.
I have often been offered advice to ‘fix’ something that was far from being a problem.
This tends to come from a place of knowing best, even if it is couched in profound care, love and consideration or, the corporate equivalent, expertise and a worldly sense of having seen it all so many times as to be able to standardise your problems so will it be the blue pill or the red pill and aren’t you a silly goose for not thinking it yourself?
People offering advice of this sort know best. So much so that they will dispense it without stopping to care whether they have diagnosed your problem correctly. Whether you even have a problem.
On a personal level, they are annoying and can be upsetting.
On a professional level, they are distracting and can be a hindrance.
On an industry level, however, they are the siren call of stern complacency, a public rebuke softened by the fact that it applies to everyone and its remedy is reassuringly generic and vague.
And for this, they could be catastrophic.
The lesson finds the student
This week was no exception when it comes to unsolicited advice.
I had a call with someone about a thing.
I was tired and said so. I don’t see the point in pretending everything is fine all the time. It takes something away from the good times to diminish the bad. It belittles our successes.
It is important for my team to know I am not superhuman and they don’t need to be either.
It is important for clients to know we are humans in this together. It sets the tone. It matters.
This didn’t and neither was it client or team. This was a call with someone who needed something from me. I will confess, telling them it had been a long week and I was tired was me pre-emptively activating the “cut the meeting short” protocol. I wasn’t born yesterday.
Why are you tired, he said.
Oh you know, COVID-19 related issues and challenges keep us busy and it is stressful. But it is what it is.
Ah yes. He said. Of course. You should stop writing.
I said, excuse me?
You should stop writing, he said. You obviously are not in the right frame of mind.
Now. I saw red. Because unsolicited advice. But I held it together.
I said, oh. Have you found my recent pieces “off tone”?
No, he said. No, you are just not in the right frame of mind.
I said, I am not writing right this instant.
And he said, you know what I mean.
I said, of course I do. But I am not sure you do.
And I do. And he doesn’t.
He knows nothing about my process (how and when I write) but I know something about his business.
He gets paid to tell people what they are doing wrong and obviously loves his job.
He doesn’t know how or when I write. What the creative process is. What instigates and what inspires. How I get filtered and how I filter myself. Nevertheless, he knows best. And he offers unsolicited advice to the person who dislikes it the most.
And I would suspect he offers advice applying the same rigour of critical thinking to the people who know they have a problem and they bring him and his expertise in to help opine on it. So he sneers at the obvious and throws some truisms and some harsh truths at them and, because they are already in a place of soul-searching and self-doubt, he feeds into the process, they are spurred into action, change happens. He gets paid.
Do I know that for a fact? No.
But I know he gets paid. And I know that his stock in trade is dismissing the incumbents in ways generic and facile.
I also know that if you are in the process of learning and reflecting and thinking, even a blank wall may give you inspiration. No offence to the best of teachers, but the lesson finds the student when the student is ready. So maybe my aversion to unsolicited advice is down to me not being ready for it when it’s delivered (I will go on holiday when I feel like going, not when you tell me to, Karen) but more to the point (yes, I had one), the commercial success of feeble and weakly-informed advice during the fat years of our digital transformation journey was down to exactly that: after years of trying, those ready for change listened so hard they chanced upon inspiration that may not have even been intended; and those desperate for a factoid and a theory to explain away inaction, were also not left in the cold.
Am I suggesting that nobody peddled good advice? Not at all. I am saying good advice is always measured, informed and situation-specific and our industry has thrived on producing generic and re-usable postulations claiming to be universally true and, although even in those one-size-fits-all flippant pronouncements, some students were ready to find a lesson, mostly we failed to move things forward fast. Because the law of averages and lowest common denominators swiftly met.
And here we are. COVID-19.
The fact of the matter isn’t always the truth of the situation
Everyone will tell you COVID-19 has created a massive crisis in the banking sector. And they will be right.
Over-leveraged corporate loan books, creaking offshoring strategies, dated infrastructure, overwhelmed deployment capabilities.
The world as we knew it, work as we planned it, problems as we anticipated them… all ceded centre stage to a whole new set of worries that came in suddenly and didn’t make it at all clear how long they are planning on staying for. And at some point, hindsight will be 20/20 but right now things are tough.
The fact of the matter is, we are in crisis mode.
The fact of the matter is, our infrastructure can’t take it.
The fact of the matter is, the knock-on effect of all this will be felt for a while yet.
The fact of the matter is, we were unprepared for this. Other crises, yes. This no.
The truth of the situation is more complex.
The truth of the situation is we knew our infrastructure was not fit for purpose, and although we didn’t know how long we had till it clean-failed us, we knew it was coming. Just not now.
The truth of the situation is we heard the world was changing but the generic interchangeable advice most banks consumed was that the world still needed us and we can change a little and weather a lot and we still actually sort of believe that, as proven by the fact that the reason we are struggling now is that we are biding our time till we can “return to normal”: maybe reprioritise some of the committed work for this year, maybe push some deliverables back but essentially crisis mode means “hold your breath till it’s over, then we take stock”. And repair to return. To what we had sort of said was an untenable transition period.
So what gives?
The fact of the matter is we knew these challenges existed. All our expensively procured facile advice hinged on us agreeing we were all in this together one way or another and, if we changed in step, it would mostly be ok, manageable and able to sort of come out in the wash. Strength in numbers and whatnot.
The truth of the situation is we were wrong. Life happened and we were unprepared.
The fact of the matter is nobody blames banks for not having been further along the journey. The truth of the situation is nobody expects them to learn from this and be different on its far side.
And I don’t hear anyone offering the only unsolicited advice that would be situationally specific albeit uninvited here: the unsolicited advice that says I will tell you something you may not want to hear but hey I will take myself out of the judge’s seat and join you at the pointy end of the imperative: going back to normal ain’t gonna wash.
Normal is about statistical averages.
It is situational and circumstantial (just like good advice, see what I did there?) and what normal is after a pandemic is anyone’s guess. And it will take a while in coming. But one thing is for sure: what was before, ain’t it.
The fact of the matter is we know we need to change. Fundamentally and radically and for good.
Even the facile advice-givers know that. For what it’s worth.
The truth of the situation is we hoped we could get away with it.
The fact of the matter is we can’t. The truth of the situation is we don’t know what to do now. And those peddling reusable advice are either silent or trying their luck with a reheated menu of “same old”.
The things that you do and the things that you are
Trying to hold onto familiarity is human nature and the millstone around the neck of every transformation agent.
The way things used to be.
The way I used to make money.
The way we used to do this.
We know the trope.
And we know that a yearning to hold on to the comfortable and familiar – not to mention profitable – fuelled the most vocal resistance to transformation until yesterday and the most doe-eyed yearning for ‘normality’ today. The way we used to do things. The things we used to know.
And yet the journey of transformation has been about moving away from being defined by what you do (as an industry, an organisation, a function, an employee) to being defined by what you are (what you accomplish for the customer, the market, the community, the share price).
What you do is transient, situational and radically transformed by technology.
What you are defines how you deploy the technology.
And although using tech to change what you do without thinking hard on what you are is the domain of lucrative lukewarm advice, we always have sort of known it’s a sleight of hand that won’t last.
So here we are.
It has now ran its course.
Mid-coronavirus, we know even if we don’t admit it, that if we had spent the last ten years focusing on what we are and leveraging available tech to transform what we do, we would not be in crisis mode now. We would be worrying about people’s safety but we would not be worrying too much about our ability to adjust interest rates (because we could do it in real time). We would worry about the balance of our loan book from a risk distribution perspective, not from a repayment schedule change management perspective. The business choices would still need to be made. Some of them would still be hard. But the ability to deliver against them wouldn’t be, and that is not nothing.
I know what next. But what now?
Half of us in the trenches right now are desperate to go back to normal. They want normal next.
The other half of us in the same trenches don’t want normal. Normal was what we were mid-change with.
We want this pain and fear to be worth something.
We want it to catalyse something.
We want it to silence the generic and the timid with the sheer force of reality.
“Normal” was not good enough. And now we are here. When the storm passes, let’s not crawl back. Let’s limp forward. It won’t be easy but it will only be fractionally harder than trying to recreate a “normal” we knew wasn’t long for this world anyway. A “normal” that let us down when the chips were down.
I know what I want next. I want “better”.
I want technology that can live up to my aspirations and deliver the agility my worst unforeseen disaster commands. I don’t want to go back to anything. Least of all to something I know wasn’t working and needed changing anyway.
But knowing what “next”, or rather especially knowing what I want next, what do I do now? In the middle of the storm?
I can hear the unsolicited advice giver.
Go for a run, don’t take on the weight of the world. Focus on business continuity. Focus on surviving. As an employee, As a division. As an organisation.
You survive, you get to take stock. Repair. Rebuild. Return.
As advice goes, it’s not bad. Unsolicited advice rarely is. It means well. It’s generic. It’s innocuous. It’s too re-usable to be wrong. It won’t kill you.
It won’t do anything else for you either, though.
Because it is not specific. To you or your organisation. To your personality and your business realities. To the specifics of your market vertical, your cash reserves, your technical debt, your belief in a dream of “what next”. Your appetite and courage.
So sod that vanilla advice and the horse it rode in on.
If you know what you wish for next, then ‘what now’ is for you to answer. Nobody else.
You are in the middle of a fight. Same as everyone else.
But what is at stake and what is at risk is very personal and very specific to you and your organisation. The crisis rages for us all. The battles we fight, however, are not generic even if they are universal.
So what now?
Now you fight the war, not for survival. Not for the joy of the fight.
But as if survival matters only for the shores it will take you to.
Fight as is you are fighting for the long future, not just for the day after.
Fight like you believe in what can and ought to come next. Fight like you know that inter-changeable vanilla does no more than what is says on the tin and if someone outside your situation could take one look and give you an answer, the world would be a simpler, cleaner, tidier place.
So don’t take facile advice when faced with a hard question: it won’t serve.
Take stock of what is at risk, what is at stake, what you do and who you are. Focus on your very own “what next”. The “what next” that is situational, specific, personal and real to who you are.
Set your sights on that.
Despite received advice, turns out “now” is about a lot more than mere survival.
It is about vulnerability, hope and trust.
It is about striving towards better.
It is everything.
This, perversely, is not advice.
It is the most basic truth: universal, unifying, levelling.
So on we go.
For each, our path is personal. Situational. And, you guessed it, I have no advice to offer. Just a call to arms and my help, should you want it.
About the author
Leda Glyptis is FinTech Futures’ resident thought provocateur – she leads, writes on, lives and breathes transformation and digital disruption as CEO of 11:FS Foundry.
She is a recovering banker, lapsed academic and long-term resident of the banking ecosystem.
All opinions are her own. You can’t have them – but you are welcome to debate and comment!