Good Advice About Bad Advice

By: Joe Rominiecki

Advice comes from every direction, and not all of it is sound. Several association professionals share the worst tips and guidance they've ever been offered and the unexpected lessons they learned as a result. (Titled "What's the Worst Advice You Ever Got?" in print version.)

In the mid-1990s, Rick Johnston, CAE, was given some advice by his boss: You have the ".org" domain name for the organization; you don't need to acquire the ".com" domain for an extra $50.


Fifteen years later, Johnston still regrets following the advice, and the healthcare nonprofit that Johnston worked for at the time loses a lot of potential web traffic to the pharmaceutical company that owns the ".com" address today. Hindsight is 20/20, of course. In the early days of the internet, clear standards had yet to emerge, and Johnston says he doesn't blame his boss for the bad advice.

"This was still at the time when people said, 'No one's ever going to make a dime online,'" says Johnston. "What I regret is not having pushed back harder on that. I think I realized that there was potential there, and just maybe I didn't realize it strongly enough that it was worth a fight."

The lesson has stuck with him. Johnston, now senior web strategist for Ironworks Consulting, knows the value of being entrepreneurial on the web, and he advises associations accordingly. If nothing else, the worst advice Johnston ever received is now a cautionary tale he can tell.

Associations Now asked professionals in the association industry for stories like Johnston's about the worst advice they'd ever received, and what might have been merely a set of amusing anecdotes turned out to be a study in management practices, human interaction, and the contrast between inquiry and intuition. The stories on the following pages each offer a unique lesson learned—an offering of advice on advice itself.

Little White Lies

Name: Pat Nichols, president, Transition Leadership International

Bad advice received: It's OK to tell members or colleagues something that's untrue or misleading or to tell them you can't answer.

"Powerful, charismatic people can give some very bad advice." —Pat Nichols

Reaction: "The damage to the CEO or the senior leader's self respect is a huge casualty.  You just can't feel as good about yourself having lied or willfully misled with partial information," says Nichols. "One of the consequences is you may actually get caught, and that's really a disaster because then everything you do or say after that is suspect."

Nichols does long-term transition management for associations, and he says he hears this advice at least once in every transition project. It's an understandable reaction: "You're concerned about the organization pulling apart during the stress, and so you identify another potential stressor and the first impulse for many people is to say, 'Oh well, let's just brush that under the rug.'" 

Lesson learned: "Take the easy way out" is usually bad advice. Good advice is often much more difficult to face.

Belittle the Little People

Name: Betsy Boyd-Flynn, CAE, deputy executive director, Oregon Medical Association

Bad advice received: Trust the people around you to do a good job. And when they don't, make them feel really bad about it.

Reaction: The advice came from a former colleague, who was a veteran lobbyist and came from an era "when the larger culture did not put a premium on emotional intelligence," says Boyd-Flynn. That perspective simply didn't match up with Boyd-Flynn's era or her management style.

"I think the first half of the advice is sound; trusting the people around you to do their best until proven otherwise remains a principle of mine. The second part of the advice, however, seems spectacularly cynical, and in fact very unlikely to produce good results or a good working relationship from any colleague or employee," says Boyd-Flynn.

Lesson learned: Advice isn't universal. What works for one person is a mistake for someone else. 

Keep One Eye Open at All Times

Name: Jeffrey Cufaude, president and CEO, Idea Architects

Bad advice received: Never leave your board alone during a board meeting, not even for a bathroom break.

"I had to filter [others' advice] through [my] value system and say, 'Not going to work for me.'"
—Jeffrey Cufaude

Reaction: "If you find yourself in a situation where you want to accept that advice, it means that you have a fundamental lack of confidence in the board's decision-making capabilities," says Cufaude. "And so then you have to pull yourself back and say, 'What would need to happen in order for my level of confidence to be sufficient that I feel I could miss an entire board meeting and all would be well, and then what role can I play in helping bring about that type of a change?'" 

Cufaude was surprised when this advice came from several trusted colleagues as he began his first executive position. "Here are people who I respect who, within some variation, are all suggesting a common strategy," he says. "Are they all wrong, or how could I see this so differently from them? And so I went back and thought, 'No, they're not wrong.  They're applying a different standard or different value than what I hold deeply in the way that I want to do my work,' and so I had to filter it through that value system and say, 'Not going to work for me, but I understand how it might very well work for them.'"

Lesson learned: If you at least consider the potential merits and origins of bad advice, it can help you adapt, clarify, or strengthen your own ideals.

Runaway Excitement

Name: Jim Booth, CAE, executive director, PRISM International

Bad advice received: This fancy new website/AMS/database is exactly what our association needs.

Thirty days after taking bad advice on new software, Booth says his staff "went from enthralled to completely disenchanted and angry."

Reaction: Booth says he jumped into a software implementation last year that turned into a boondoggle. "We began the process of working on this and, in a span of 30 days, my staff went from enthralled to completely disenchanted and angry," Booth says. "We're starting to be able to laugh about it now, but it got really ugly there for a while." [For more on how PRISM International handled the specific challenges of the project, see "A Year of Failure Ends in Success," in the February 2010 issue of Associations Now.]

Booth's decision was based on staff recommendations and sales pitches, but he says he wishes he had pushed back a little on the initial enthusiasm around the potential upgrade and investigated more options first. "I think being able to weigh things rationally is great, but that's not why people give advice," he says. "They give advice because they're emotionally invested ... and the justification occurs after the fact." 

Lesson learned: Advice based on partial info or emotion can be dangerous.

Philosophical Differences

Name: Carolyn Fazio, senior strategist, Fazio International

Bad advice received: Don't ask prospective donors for a specific donation; let them decide on their own when and how much to donate.

Reaction: A former boss of Fazio's was averse to making direct asks to donors. "What he didn't understand was that by setting the parameters and by giving the person the opportunity to know what the organization really did need, you were doing them a service," says Fazio. "So by not telling them what you needed, you would always run the risk of undervaluing the organization."

The clear difference of opinion led Fazio to make a tough career choice. "He was my boss, and under the circumstances, I just had to say, 'Oh all right, well if that's the way you want to do it, then you handle the meeting,' and I pretty quickly thereafter started looking for different career opportunities," Fazio says. Soon she founded her fundraising consultancy, which is now 27 years old. "It turned out to be a blessing in disguise, but I'm not suggesting that every piece of bad advice should turn somebody into a consultant."

Lesson learned: Just because advice is bad doesn't mean it can't have a profound effect on your life.

Look Elsewhere, or Stay Put

Name: Don Pendley, CAE, APR, president, New Jersey Hospice and Palliative Care Organization

Bad advice received: Don't stay in any job too long. Change jobs every two or three years; it's the only way to really advance.

"Get advice from lots of folks and make the good parts work." —Don Pendley, CAE

Reaction: "I did not follow the bad advice, partly because it proved false faster than I could have done anything with it," says Pendley. "In two months, I got my first promotion. In less than five years, I made vice president, heading the entire creative department of that same national association."

Pendley says, in a job situation, you should "do what feels right for you," but he says he likes to bounce ideas off a lot of people. "One of the great joys of the association profession, for me, is collaboration," he says. "In the association world, we talk about the CEO being the broker of ideas. I fully agree with that approach. Get advice from lots of folks and make the good parts work."

Lesson learned: If you're unsure about advice given to you, there's nothing stopping you from getting more.

Not Exactly What You Want to Hear

More Good Advice About Bad Advice

Receiving bad advice is a learning experience, as these perspectives show.

"I'm paraphrasing, but there's a great quote out there that 'good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment.'"—Jim Booth, CAE, executive director, PRISM International

"Truth really is subjective. ... Perfectly rational people can experience the same event and have absolutely different versions of what happened. And most people aren't perfectly rational. ... When someone gives unsolicited advice, I am always mentally checking it against what their motivations might be."—Betsy Boyd-Flynn, CAE, deputy executive director, Oregon Medical Association

"We need to be really attentive to ... always pushing against our impulse to respond significantly based upon who offered the advice. Sometimes great advice comes from abrasive people, and if we are too attuned to the personality, then we may fail to grasp the kernel of wisdom. Or, if we're too seduced by power or charisma or whatever, then we may fail to realize that powerful, charismatic people can give some very bad advice."—Pat Nichols, president, Transition Leadership International

"If the advice is from someone I greatly respect, then I try to think if they have been in my shoes before and take their advice a little more to heart before making my decision. But ultimately, it's always my decision to make."—Alyssa A. Pfennig, CAE, director of membership, National Dart Association

"Watch others who have embraced the advice before you decide that it's the right thing for you. Learn from the failures of others."—Peter de Jager, change management consultant, de Jager and Company Ltd.

Name: Colleen Knight, assistant manager of membership, American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers, Inc.

Bad advice received: Instead of being yourself in a job interview, just tell the interviewer whatever you think they want to hear.

Reaction: A friend of Knight's offered the advice when Knight was in the midst of her first job search after college. She decided she wasn't desperate enough to take it, though. "There is a chance I would have gotten hired for a job that would have been completely wrong for me and I would have left it shortly after I started, which is not at all what I wanted to do."

It makes sense that someone who believes that advice would give it out. "I think that my friend thought that was a good piece of advice because she knew how frustrated I was with the job market," says Knight. She prefers career advice from experts, though. "If it's one of my friends who is just spouting off advice that they don't really know anything about, I definitely don't pay any attention to it."

Lesson learned: Advice is cheap, and sometimes people will tell you whatever they think you want to hear.

Know Your Role

Name: Joan Eisenstodt, chief strategist, Eisenstodt Associates

Bad advice received: As a woman, you should keep quiet and not speak up among this group that is mostly dominated by men.

Reaction: Eisenstodt was pulled aside during a meeting break by a fellow delegate on a board of directors that she served on early in her career and advised to keep a low profile. "I didn't follow it, though I had moments of considering that it might be 'best' for my career if I did," says Eisenstodt. "If I had followed it, I would have been mostly disappointed in myself, and I would have disappointed the organization that appointed me their delegate. They made it clear that I was to speak up and question policies, finances, et cetera."

Even if the fellow board member had Eisenstodt's career interests in mind, he may have had the status quo in mind, as well. "It was the way things were done then, and he was of an age—albeit not that much older than I—that believed women had 'their place' and speaking up was not a place they should have," says Eisenstodt.

Lesson learned: Some advice is merely disguised as being in your best interest. Consider the source's motivations.

Online Extra: More Bad Advice

Joke's On You

Name: Peter de Jager, change management consultant, de Jager and Company Ltd.

Bad advice: Start a presentation with a joke.

Reaction: De Jager says he never followed the advice after watching how it worked—or failed to work—for others. "If you tell a joke that they've heard, they laugh out of politeness, but you now owe them for wasting their time. If you tell a joke that isn't funny, they laugh out of politeness , but you now owe them for the social concession they've made on your behalf," he says. "If you tell a joke that they find offensive, they might not even laugh out of politeness and you now owe them big time. You might also lose future business."

Lesson learned: "Watch others who have embraced the advice before you decide that it's the right thing for you. Learn from the failures of others," says de Jager.

Jobs and Generations

Name: Alyssa A. Pfennig, CAE, director of membership, National Dart Association

Bad advice: Even if it makes you unhappy, you should stick with a job for more than one or two years.

Reaction: The advice came from Pfennig's father, and she says she thinks it marks a major difference between their generations. "I believe my father thought it was good advice because it was probably the advice that my grandfather gave him," she says. "He did not have a college education, so it was always more difficult for him to change jobs."

She says she sees the value in committing to a job, but happiness should always come first. "I would first suggest they do what they can to change their attitude or situation, especially if they basically had a decent boss, position, salary, and company," she says. "If that doesn't work, then start looking for something else to do or a new place to work, because life is too short to spend 40-plus hours of your week in a job that makes you miserable." 

Lesson learned: "If the advice is from someone I greatly respect, then I try to think if they have been in my shoes before and take their advice a little more to heart before making my decision.  But ultimately, it's always my decision to make," says Pfennig.

Joe Rominiecki is managing editor, newsletters, for ASAE & The Center for Association Leadership. Email: [email protected]

Joe Rominiecki

Joe Rominiecki is a contributing editor to Associations Now.