On Leadership

This piece is part of a leadership roundtable with four expert contributors – Wharton Professor Peter Cappelli, Space Policy Institute Professor Emeritus John Logsdon, NYU Professor Kerry Sulkowicz, and former NASA leadership program director Gail S. Williams – about the leadership challenges of shuttering NASA’s iconic space shuttle program.

As Atlantis lifted off Friday from the Kennedy Space Center, America bid farewell to its space shuttle program. It was an emotional moment for the country, and, in a less public way, represents a major loss for NASA workers. It was also something perhaps less obvious: a leadership moment for Charles Bolden, NASA’s administrator.

So far, Bolden’s handling of this inflection point in America’s space program can serve as a lesson for leaders faced with the challenge of closing beloved initiatives–a difficult process no matter how rational and justified these decisions may be. As the centerpiece of NASA for 30 years, the space shuttle brought further glory to the agency that gave us the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs, not to mention steady employment for generations of employees.

In a speech delivered to the National Press Club on July 1, Bolden did what a good leader should do under such circumstances: He made an emotional connection to his people, was honest about the facts, acknowledged the loss they’ve just experienced while putting it into larger context, and painted a vision that realistically yet reassuringly connects the past with the future.

Bolden, himself a retired Marine Corps major general and a four-time shuttle flight veteran, has instant credibility with NASA’s employees. And in his speech to the National Press Club, he drew on his own career to establish that emotional connection. “I spent 14 years at NASA before leaving and then returning to head the agency. Some of the people I respect most in the world are my fellow astronauts. Some of my best friends died flying on the shuttle. I’m not about to let human spaceflight go away on my watch. I’m not going to let it flounder because we pursued a path that we couldn’t sustain.”

Early in his remarks, he addressed head-on the concern that last week’s final shuttle flight marks the end of America’s dominance of spaceflight. Naysayers, he said, “must be living on another planet.” While he didn’t dwell on the sense of loss that some NASA employees must be feeling, he did add, “We are not ending human space flight, we are recommitting ourselves to it and taking the necessary — and difficult — steps today to ensure America’s pre-eminence in human space exploration for years to come.”

In his more private leadership role inside NASA, one presumes that Bolden is attuned to the multiple layers of meaning in the shuttle’s last flight, ranging from the literal loss of jobs to the more purely emotional losses of purpose, self-esteem and organizational pride that may come with such a transition. He would do well to tolerate, and even encourage, employees to voice such feelings. No matter how exciting the new plans might be, it’s a crucial step in helping the organization transcend this loss and move on.

Not surprisingly, though, it’s those future plans that have been the primary focus of Bolden’s public speeches: “It is vital that we keep exploring. …So we keep generating new knowledge about our planet and our universe and new solutions to the challenges our planet faces on many levels,” Bolden said. And, like other charismatic leaders, he set this future within the context of NASA’s history–from its founding 50 years ago by the “young President Kennedy” to the re-articulation of its mission now by the “young President Obama”, who has challenged the agency to explore asteroids and, eventually, Mars. His evocation of youth effectively yet subliminally connects the mission of NASA to what’s modern, preparing the next generation of NASA workers, as well as Americans generally, for a new phase in the agency’s development.

None of this, of course, comes easily. We can only assume that what Bolden conveys so effectively in public gets translated with equal conviction and passion when he addresses NASA employees internally. External political pressures to reduce government spending will undoubtedly make it harder for NASA to achieve all of Bolden’s — and Obama’s — lofty goals. And the extensive investigations of two of NASA’s darkest moments, the tragic Challenger and Columbia disasters, have already revealed NASA’s ongoing struggle with internal organizational problems and their impact on decision-making. While NASA hasn’t cornered the market on dysfunctional organizational culture, the stakes are arguably higher (and higher profile); and to the extent that they persist despite being identified in both investigations, these management hurdles won’t just disappear with the end of the shuttle program.

Shuttering an icon represents not only a logistical challenge for an organization but also a profoundly emotional one for its employees. So far, Administrator Bolden seems to be handling the passing of the shuttle era masterfully; to continue to do so, he’ll need to attend to the varied feelings of loss, even while articulating a path for passionate re-engagement with the future.

Kerry J. Sulkowicz, MD, is a clinical professor of psychiatry at NYU School of Medicine and, as managing principal of the Boswell Group LLC, advises CEOs and boards of directors on leadership and organizational culture. (Dave Cross)

Leadership Lessons from the McChrystal Meltdown

Much ink and few tears have been spilled about President Obama’s firing of Army General Stanley McChrystal, following his insubordinate remarks in Rolling Stone. Most political commentators and management experts seem to believe that, while it was a setback for the war effort in Afghanistan, Obama ultimately had no choice and did the right thing. I agree. But what to make of McChrystal’s underlying motivations? And what can we learn, beyond the obvious canard that “it’s a bad idea to trash your boss in public”?

The question “What was he thinking?” is often asked after public figures do something stupid that topples them from grace. But it’s the wrong question. What they’re thinking often has little connection to what they’re feeling, and it’s those subterranean feelings  existing outside of conscious awareness  that motivate so much of human behavior, particularly those actions that on the surface appear irrational. I suspect that if you asked McChrystal what he was thinking, after the obligatory hair-shirt explanations he might say that he thought his comments to the Rolling Stone reporter were off the record. Of course a media-savvy military leader like McChrystal knows that nothing is really “off the record” in public life  although I suspect he might have been much more careful and deliberate with a reporter from the New York Times. But that begs the question: why did he do it?

As a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who advises CEOs, boards and investors, I’d like to offer a few speculations on McChrystal, at a distance. Clearly his behavior was self-destructive, as it effectively ended a proud and distinguished military career in one fell swoop. In this case, he may have let his guard down in part because of the reporter’s skill in making him feel comfortable, and in part because he was  deep down  dying to unburden himself of what was weighing on his mind. In this regard, good journalists are like good psychoanalysts.

Military officers sublimate their fundamental aggressiveness in the most socially acceptable of ways: by making a career of it. It’s no wonder then, that they tend to lean Republican, the more militaristic party, and that they are naturally critical or even contemptuous of those who are more cerebral and diplomatic. There must be an inherent tension for McChystal and others warriors working for Obama. At times of great stress  like now, with the disastrous state of the war in Afghanistan  the pressure to express themselves (rather than bottling it up as is politically necessary in the service of one’s country and of one’s own job security) is serious. McChrystal was undoubtedly expressing his true feelings about Obama and the members of his White House staff, but he may also have been expressing his unconscious need to share internal emotional tension that had become unbearable.

Presumably his feelings were already known to his close associates, but that’s preaching to the choir and does little to relieve his inner state of tension. Which leads to the tragedy of the McChrystal affair: that in the hierarchy of government, there was no place for him to safely open up about what it was like to work for a White House he did not respect. In the absence of real communication about that, the emotions have no place to go but underground  until the pressure builds and the opportunity presents itself for those feelings to explode self-destructively. What if McChrystal had had an outlet to discuss his views directly yet privately with Obama? What if some of his opinions about the White House were valid? And what if Obama could have opened McChrystal’s mind to an alternate point of view? Such an avenue, I contend, could have saved a career now in ruins and  even more importantly  led to real progress in Afghanistan

Leadership in the Gulf: What’s Needed Now

The political crisis emerging from the Deepwater Horizon disaster now threatens to eclipse the environmental calamity itself. Between the handling of the situation, our collective response to it, and the leadership challenges to come, there’s a lot here to psychoanalyze. Let’s take a look.

What are the underlying psychological forces at play? Deep down, the massive spill makes us feel profoundly helpless, and there are few human emotions as intolerable as that. While we’re not entirely helpless, of course, the magnitude of the spill  combined with the technological challenges of stanching the flow of oil and cleaning up afterward  feels overwhelming.

The environmental impact is often compared, unfavorably, to the Exxon Valdez incident. Destructive as the Valdez spill was, there was a finite amount of oil contained in the doomed vessel, as opposed to the undersea oil reserve in the Gulf, which feels bottomless. The political right has also characterized the disaster as President Obama’s Katrina. While he and his administration appear to be taking all the appropriate actions, the linkage to Katrina implies that his response was callously inadequate. Calling it a Katrina also suggests that the spill is a natural, as opposed to man-made, disaster. Deepwater Horizon was decidedly not natural, but it is precisely the sense that man has messed with Mother Nature  that we’ve poked a big hole in the Earth  that makes it feel so apocalyptic.

As the investigation into the causes of the disaster and the handling of its aftermath proceed, we will continue to see the predictable human tendency to cast blame. Pointing the finger at Obama is absurd (though not surprising), but exclusive culpability can’t be laid on BP’s hapless CEO Tony Hayward, either. Such scapegoating is natural, even emotionally satisfying at times, but no more valid than trying to pin the blame for the Great Recession on a single authority figure. Creating and then blaming a villain is ultimately a dangerous way of dealing with uncertainty, serving more to bind the anxiety that arises from helplessness rather than trying to accurately understand root causes and assign responsibility.

Only a more holistic, systemic view gets at the complexity of such problems. We need to consider multiple simultaneous causes, which could include: a lack of role clarity or proper authority among senior executives and regulatory officials; rapid chains of action and inaction before and after the blowout; broken lines of communication; cultural factors within the oil industry and in our society at large that permit dangerous policies and decisions to go unchecked; failures of leadership that reinforce maladaptive behaviors; and so on. This has been true of the financial crisis, of Katrina, and of the space shuttle disasters  not to mention the everyday problems of hospital errors, product failures, and other systemic breakdowns.

So what should leaders do in the face of such complexity, and how are ours doing? The best leaders in times of disaster are straight with us, communicating clearly and frequently about the nature of the situation and the efforts to fix it. Obama is doing that part well. But leaders also need to mirror the emotions of the day, without going overboard, and this is where Obama is falling short. His cool, cerebral approach may be reassuring to some (it works for me), but to others he feels distressingly distant and devoid of the nurturing reassurance that so many seem to need, despite the fact that there isn’t much to be reassuring about yet. Exhortations for Obama to show more emotion are futile, though, as the expression of feelings isn’t something that can be turned on and off at will. I suspect he’s one of those leaders who gets even more calm and focused during a crisis, showing even less spontaneous emotion than he might otherwise. We want our leaders to make us believe things are under control, even when they’re not, in the same way that we want our parents to make us feel everything will be all right, even when they’re not so sure.

Obama’s increasingly punitive, angry attitude towards the oil industry is also an understandable but unfortunate response to the public’s demands for heads to roll. It may make us feel better to see such demonstrations of punitive authority, but it doesn’t do much good. Punishment has its role, but it’s rarely the best way to teach a lesson about behavior or change a flawed system. Punishing a kid too much just teaches him to fear and hate his parents, and punishing the oil industry in the middle of this crisis probably complicates its ability to cooperate. There’s plenty of time for punishment after the crisis ends and all the facts are in.

Similarly, while some say that BP’s Hayward should be fired, this strikes me as a terrible idea right now. A leaderless BP, followed by the inevitable transition period before a new CEO could get up to speed and take charge, would be even worse for the bleeding Gulf of Mexico than a team led by Mr. Hayward. A bumbling leader, he apparently was as caught off guard by the disaster as the rest of us, and in the end he may not survive the withering criticism about his repeated gaffes and missteps. But for now, let him try his best to do his job.

Complex problems often require complex thinking and multifaceted solutions. They demand emotionally attuned leaders who can tolerate high degrees of ambiguity and uncertainty. We need that kind of leadership to plug the hole and clean up the mess, especially if we want to learn from the experience and prevent another Deepwater Horizon  or at least respond better next time.

The Most Common Mistake CEOs Make — and How to Fix It

As an advisor to CEOs, I’m often asked what’s the most frequent mistake they make. While there are many  after all, they’re human  I’d say the most common one is not acting quickly enough on “people problems.”

The consequences can be disastrous. Keeping bad apples too long, especially in key roles, breeds all kinds of difficulties including dysfunctional teams, poor morale, and various liability risks. Ultimately, failing to address the problem of an under-performing or misbehaving senior executive undermines the credibility and authority of the CEO, and that sort of damage is hard to repair. In an interview in the the New York Times Magazine, Alan Greenberg, the former Chairman of Bear Stearns, was asked why he didn’t fire James Cayne, his successor as CEO, who famously played bridge and golf during the week the company was going under and reportedly smoked pot in his office. Greenberg’s responses are classic rationalization: Cayne “owned about 5 percent of the company”; “it was hard to complain when things looked so rosy.” Owning 5 percent of nothing turns out not to be such a big deal, and everyone knows that things can look rosy but be rotten underneath.

It’s worth thinking about why CEOs often have so much trouble pulling the trigger. Some of the most decisive, visionary, principled business leaders I know still have trouble with this one issue. Here are a few reasons I’ve encountered, offered not as excuses but as explanations:

  1. The CEO is too far removed from the executive in question and doesn’t quite see the extent of the problem. This can be compounded by a failure of talent management, in which the CEO doesn’t get the full scoop on problem people.
  2. The CEO is too close to the executive in question. Either he or she is blinded by personal feelings of affection or loyalty, or others in the organization believe the executive is “protected” and are afraid to offer critical feedback about the CEO’s friend.
  3. The CEO is aware of the problem, and showers the executive with all kinds of resources like 360 feedback, coaching, leadership development training, reassignment to another role, reading the latest bestseller on leadership, etc., all of which turn out to be exercises in wishful thinking and a big waste of time, because most people really don’t change very much.
  4. The executive is high performing. The CEO makes the calculated decision that the benefits of keeping the person outweigh, or at least justify, the risks. This can be an exercise in self-delusion, because the benefits of the high producer are often eventually overtaken by the harm to the organization  and to the CEO’s reputation.

So what’s to be done? Perhaps most important is the need for CEOs to be more realistic about the malleability of human behavior. Our personalities are largely set by the time we’re adolescents or young adults. It’s not like you can send a problematic executive off for five years of psychoanalysis  which is what it really might take to make a dent in their behavior  and say “Come back and see me when you’re done.” My clinical background often comes in handy when assessing an executive’s capacity for change, and it allows me to tell CEOs that, in some cases, what they see is what they’re gonna get.

CEOs also need to recognize that their own emotions  their guilt about letting someone go, or their desire for financial performance at all costs, or their desire to be liked, or their fear of mustering the courage to be proactive and assertive  are major factors in this common conundrum. But what I also remind my CEO clients is that, as hard as these decisions are, people are usually tremendously relieved after they’ve made them and wish they’d acted sooner.

Kaczinski Plane Crash: Pilot Error or Deadly Leadership?

The recent tragic death of Polish President Lech Kaczynski and 95 others in a plane crash in Russia was an unprecedented disaster for Poland. But some of the facts emerging from the investigation raise important, and alarming, questions about the dangers of leadership. The investigation is focusing on “pilot error” as the likely cause of the crash. But early news reports suggested that Kaczinski might have ordered the pilots to land in heavy fog, despite the horrible weather and an aborted first attempt at bringing the plane down safely. We may never know exactly what happened: what, if anything, was said between the pilot and his powerful passengers, and even (in the absence of a misguided order to land the plane) what the pilot might have been thinking about the consequences for his career if he chose to displease the president by not landing the plane under those conditions.

What is clear from my work with powerful chief executives, especially those who rule by fear, is that variations on this dynamic can result in disastrous consequences. The fear of a punitive authority figure can lead to the stifling of independent thinking and sound judgment. If the pilot of the doomed Polish jet indeed felt he had no choice but to submit to desires of his powerful boss, then it was not so much “pilot error” (which suggests that the pilot was acting alone is his fatal mistake) as it was a case of a pilot acting under the influence of deadly group dynamics.

Non-lethal versions of this situation play out every day in the corporate setting. Managers who are terrified of being punished if they question the status quo or raise unpopular points of view will usually just clam up, even if their ideas could do tremendous good. While some may say that people should have the courage to voice their views regardless, it is psychologically naive to place all the responsibility on the employee. Never underestimate the greater power of group dynamics  and of the inhibiting effects of powerful authority figures. It is up to leaders to have enough self-awareness to recognize that they may be inadvertently stifling free speech and dissent, and to alter their leadership style before it’s too late. They rule by fear at their own  and everyone else’s  peril.

Next time you’re afraid to disagree with your boss’s wrongheaded idea, remember what happened to the Polish pilot. And if you’re in a position of authority, ask yourself if you are really creating an atmosphere in which your pilot can comfortably and directly tell you that he knows better than you.

Is Tiger Woods a Leader or a Golfer?

Tiger Woods’ return to the Masters following his sex scandal gives me a chance to underscore the difference between a celebrity and a true leader. We sometimes confuse the two, or assume that since a public figure has a high profile, then he must know something about leadership. Woods is  or at least has been  the leading golfer in the world. But being the best in something doesn’t necessarily make you a leader of anything. We shouldn’t confuse the two.

Billy Payne, the Chairman of Augusta National Golf Club, where the Masters is played, delivered a gratuitous lecture to Woods the day before the tournament began. In his rather misguided and self-righteous sermon, Payne said, “Our hero did not live up to the expectations of the role model we saw for our children.” Give me a break! A pro golfer as a role model for our children? If Woods was a leader (in business, government, the clergy, etc.), then yes, Payne’s comments would have been spot on. But it strikes me as dumb to hold the the world’s best golfer up to the same standards to which we should hold real leaders. Here’s why. The word “leader” is misleading: it means being the head of an organization or group, a role that includes inspiring everyone else and galvanizing followership. But it can also refer to the person with the lowest score on the golf course (the “leader” on the scoreboard). We’re talking about two very different things here. Part of real leadership is serving as a behavioral role model. Barack Obama recognizes this and does it admirably. But Tiger Woods is supposed to be really good at golf, period. While I’m not defending what he did in his private life, to cast it in such moralistic terms rather than seeing it as a fundamentally private, emotional problem strikes me as misdirected and hypocritical.

In fact, if Billy Payne, who is supposed to be the “leader” of a golf club, were acting as a real leader, he would have stuck to his knitting and graciously welcomed us all to the Masters. True leaders lead people. Celebrities are not generally leaders of other people. There’s nothing wrong with being a star, but they’re usually looking out for Number One.

GM’s CEO Gets Company Culture. Do You?

GM CEO Edward Whitacre appears to be doing what his predecessors seemed incapable of doing: being a red-blooded, true leader. And it looks like it’s starting to pay off with a much needed culture change.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the 68-year-old Whitacre does such shocking things as walking around GM offices and talking to people; dropping in on employees unexpectedly, while wearing jeans and a T-shirt; giving a junior GM employee who lives in Whitacre’s apartment building a ride to work and a tour of the executive suite; and  get this  actually appearing to listen when engaged in conversation!

He apparently has gotten the message that GM’s “plodding culture” is a big part of the auto giant’s problems, and he just may be on his way to fixing it. Corporate culture is, in some ways, analogous to the personality of an individual. It’s the way it feels, over time, to work in and interact with an organization. Culture gets deeply embedded in the people and structures of companies, and therefore is extremely resistant to change. GM’s culture was notoriously slow-moving, hierarchical and bureaucratic. The Journal piece includes the amazing detail that, several years ago, in an effort to stamp out bureaucracy, the company  in its infinite bureaucratic wisdom  appointed a committee to study how many committee meetings should be held.

Whitacre seems to understand what I tell my CEO clients all the time: that culture, while ingrained, starts at the top, and the CEO is by far the person most able to change it. His spontaneous visits with employees, his real rather than entirely scripted conversations, and his willingness to grant managers greater autonomy all signal that he means business when it comes to shaking the place up. And the stories about his behavior undoubtedly spread like wildfire within GM, long before you read about them in the Wall Street Journal. As long as the CEO’s actions are perceived as real, they will do good. Some employees will be nervous about their jobs, particularly the more senior ones who prefer the status quo or who are incapable of adapting. But it’s a good thing that he may have some people squirming, and nothing for Whitacre to worry about. Not everyone will make it to the other side in a time of necessary transition.

If I were on the GM board, I’d be feeling cautiously optimistic that the company finally got the right guy in the driver’s seat.

Why the Best Person to Run the Family Business Isn’t Always Family

The announcement in the New York Times that the Rothschild banking family had named Nigel Higgins its new CEO was not only a sign of intelligence and far-sighted wisdom on the part of Baron David de Rothschild, it was welcome news for those of us who advise family-owned businesses.

One of the biggest mistakes made by family businesses  and one that may be directly related to why so many of them fail at the transition from one generation to another  is that many believe they can only be led by a member of the clan. What Baron Rothschild did underscores the idea that family businesses, like any other business, should be led by the person most qualified to do so. Period, end of story.

As an advisor to several large family businesses around the world, I often speak with patriarchs about their passionate and understandable desire to keep the business in the family. They’re all aware of the statistics that show how the majority of family businesses fail during the second or third generations.Paradoxically, I tell them, sometimes the best way to preserve their legacy is to give up control and select an outsider as their successor, rather than clinging desperately to their mistaken notion of control at all costs and looking only within the family for succession candidates. Choosing an outsider can also mitigate some of the natural competition among siblings who are vying for control.

One of the main reasons it’s so hard for a patriarch to hand the keys to an outsider (even if, as in the case of the Rothschilds, the “outsider” has been working in the business for 27 years!) is that they have a very hard time trusting people who aren’t in their family. This despite the fact that members of their family may have demonstrated over and over again just how untrustworthy they are. Only considering family members constitutes a paranoid choice, rather than a sound business decision. A deeper, darker reason why patriarchs, particularly founders, choose an unqualified family member has to do with their narcissism: some of these founders believe that they are ultimately irreplaceable  “nobody could possibly run this but me”  so they unconsciously choose a successor who is destined to fail, thus proving their point, albeit from the grave.

All things being equal (which occasionally they are), then sure, it makes sense to anoint a member of the next generation to run the business. Presumably the son, daughter or cousin shares in the patriarch’s family values and takes a similarly long-term view of the business. But there’s nothing that says an outsider can’t also hold these perspectives. Handing the reins over to a family member can be done for several wrong reasons, too, including a desire to please one’s child or spouse (or, to be more accurate, a fear of displeasing them), or the mistaken belief that, once turned over to an outsider, the family will lose control forever (there are plenty of legal and financial ways to insure this doesn’t happen).

Ultimately all situations of CEO succession, in family businesses and in public companies, should be based on a meritocracy rather than the gene pool. The right leader keeps the family business thriving; the wrong one just adds to the statistics.

Leadership Lessons from Manual Transmission

When traveling in Europe, you can’t help noticing all the cultural differences between “the Continent” and home. But one that always strikes me is the prevalence of manual transmission in cars in Europe, compared to the virtual absence of it in the US. While there are many things the Europeans emulate about our ways, American business leaders might want to borrow an occasional page from the European playbook, and the stick shift is the perfect metaphor.

I’ve always had a preference for manual transmission. I used to think this was just the frustrated Mario Andretti in me. Sports cars are the last bastion of “manual” in America. Assuming that cars are generally made for those who buy them  not necessarily a complimentary assumption, given the state of American cars until recently  European drivers clearly have preferred the clutch.

What’s this all about, and what can we learn from it? Driving standard gives the feeling of being more in control of the car and suggests wanting a more nuanced relationship between the car and the road. It’s seeking an elemental, and at times exhilarating, experience of driving, rather than the more passive experience of being driven in hermetically sealed comfort. It’s more work for the driver, which  paradoxically  makes it a lot more fun.

Those business leaders in the U.S. who feel they can run a business from a comfortable drivers seat, far from the maddening cobblestone roads and the vicissitudes of driving, assuming that their corporate engines will seamlessly shift gears for them, would do well to heed the lesson from European drivers: the best way to lead is with that fingertip touch. Alas, I’ve learned from some of my European friends that the popularity of standard transmission in Europe has been waning of late. But the idea  and the pleasures of the stick  remain unchanged.

7 Tips for Giving Advice That People Will Follow

Much has been said about how to deliver feedback, because giving it is so often fraught with anxiety. Bosses shy away from the negative, critical part, even though they know it’s one of their most important responsibilities. But relatively little has been written about the art of giving good, old-fashioned advice. Unencumbered by some of the complications of performance reviews — nothing official, nothing related to compensation or promotion, nothing necessarily critical or painful to hear — well-intentioned advice should be a treat to give and to receive.

Why should you get better at giving advice? Lots of reasons: it’s helpful to pass your wisdom on to others; it extends your own influence, regardless of whether you ever get “paid back”; it’s a way to gain trust, stature and gravitas; and it’s just plain gratifying to be valued for what’s in your head. This is ego gratification of the very best sort.

So why do people who are sought for advice still manage to screw it up? In my experience, it’s less about the quality of advice and more because of the way it’s delivered. The way advice is given can inadvertently increase the receiver’s resistance to hearing it or acting on it, which is such a shame, because that undoes the best of intentions. You want the advisee to come away with good advice, rather than bad feelings about the advisor. Here are four tips on how to give advice well. (Remember that giving it well doesn’t necessarily make it good advice. Caveat emptor.) 

1. Bear in mind the difference between solicited and unsolicited advice. Both are perfectly fine ways to be helpful, but remember that the unsolicited variety may not always be welcome, so the recipient might be more vulnerable to a bruised ego if you push the advice too far.

2. Say thank you before plunging in. This applies to solicited advice. Before offering any of your wisdom, express some gratitude for being asked. After all, it’s flattering to be seen as wise and helpful. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like being asked for advice. In fact, doing so is one of the best ways to deepen a relationship, because it’s a mutually gratifying human interaction and flattering without being obsequious.

3. Make sure you understand the limits of the question. There’s nothing more annoying than asking for advice on one thing (like “What do I need to do to get a promotion?”) and getting advice on your marriage and your vacations plans, with a few golf tips thrown in. Stick to the subject at hand, unless somehow there’s a connection.

4. Be confident, but not arrogant. This distinction is blurry for some folks. There really is a difference between coming across as authoritative (presumably the solicitor wouldn’t be seeking your advice if they didn’t think you knew your stuff) as opposed to authoritarian (using your power to compel someone to follow your advice, or being pathologically certain that you’re always right). Being authoritative can be done with humility, like saying “I’ve seen a lot of situations like this, and I’m concerned that if you don’t deal with this problem executive now, the damage will only get worse with time.” An authoritarian way of giving the same advice might be, “Look, you have to get rid of that guy now, or else I’ll do it for you.” The latter is obnoxious, off-putting, and not helpful.

5. Give the recipient an “out.” This is related to No. 4. While there’s plenty of room for passion in the giving advice, a bit of humility also helps. You can say, for instance, that you’ve seen such-and-such approach work for yourself and for others, but it might not be for everybody. Or you can preface it with a turn of phrase like, “I’m not sure about this, but I think you could benefit from doing x, y, and z.” Or my personal favorite: “Have you considered…?”

6. After giving advice, ask how it sounds. Often the best advice is created in an iterative way, rather than being delivered from on high. So after you’re done expounding, ask the recipient if that makes sense, or how they might feel about acting on your advice. Their reactions can help you refine it together and make it even more meaningful.

7. Ask for follow-up. Not only does it show you care if you ask your advice-seeker to let you know how it goes, but it also conveys that you have a stake in giving good advice. Whether or not they take you up on the offer, it will leave them feeling even better about you and more confident in acting on what you’ve shared.

I’ve learned that giving advice is one of life’s great pleasures, especially when it turns out that I was right. I’m also grateful for all the good advice I’ve received over the years.