Cindy Krischer Goodman

When the boss needs advice

After years of advancement, Johnny Taylor took the helm of publicly traded Internet company, only to discover he had no where to go for advice on whether to fire a division head or walk away from a problematic customer.

"It really is lonely at the top," Taylor says. "If you're the CEO, you can't show signs or weakness or indecisiveness."

For answers, Taylor turned to the person most CEOs go to for business advice — the person who was then his wife. Calling on a spouse or significant other is a surprisingly common option for top executives who discover career advisors they sought in their 20s might not be the most appropriate confidents after they rise in the ranks.

While CEOs and business owners often have people in their companies they do consult, a new survey by Adecco Staffing found nearly 40 percent said the opinions of their spouses matter most when making big business decisions.

"You look towards your spouse as someone who has watched your career progression and has your best interest at heart," says Lauren Griffin, senior vice president of Adecco Staffing U.S., "When seeking advice, trust is a big factor."

Executives say the higher they rise, the more they are challenged with business dilemmas and a smaller circle of trust. Seeking advice from company insiders can be riddled with drawbacks.

"You can't let employees — or even your senior team — know if you are staying up at night wondering if the business is going to survive," explains Taylor, now president and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund. "You don't want your stars to leave and you don't want to be perceived as a leader who is not in control." In addition, he says, you don't want advice from a subordinate who could be too agreeable or have an agenda of his own.

A significant other often becomes an easy option, typically a safe place to get input from someone who wants you to succeed. Protecting the relationship, though, comes with inherent complications. It requires expressing when you want support and when you need solutions, deciphering how much the other person understands your industry, and managing expectations about taking the advice.

A common mistake is to rely solely on one person's advice and resent when the outcome is unfavorable. Sometimes it is better to get advice from multiple sources, Griffin says. The Adecco survey found CEOs and business owners also look to their heads of business development department (16 percent) and operations departments ( 13 percent) — less often than they consult their spouses.

Steve Deli, CEO of American Road Group, which operates Harley Davidson stores around the country, seeks both advice from his wife and from former colleagues when he confronts major business challenges. The complication: Anne, is the company president, making their relationship dynamics more complex. "I usually shop around to get three or four takes because there's usually some bias built in."

Recently, Deli had to decide whether to change his company's pricing strategy — a move that would affect margins and carry risk. Seeking advice from his managers didn't make sense, he says, because, "They are cautious about disagreeing on sensitive topics.

Deli followed his usual pattern. First he went to Anne. Then, he mulled it over with a former colleague, an investment banker. "It can be valuable to go to people who don't know the way it's always been done." Eventually, Steve made a decision, heeding some of Anne's advice. "We are both comfortable with the fact that we come at things like polar opposites and ultimately, it is that person's decision to make."

While Steve is also Anne's most frequent sounding board, she, too, looks outside that relationship for advice on some business challenges. She joined a local group of women CEOs and often seeks her peers' advice. Still, the couple say they balance work and their relationship by an informal agreement to let each make his or her own final decision, without recriminations. "You don't want to feel like your spouse is making major decisions for you."

Going to family members for advice presents another option. Saul Kravec, vice president of sales at Elizabeth Arden Inc. in Miramar, often seeks his fatherÂ’s thoughts on work dilemmas "because he's a big picture thinker, a visionary and I trust him." Kravec, whose father used to be the company chairman, says he recently asked dad for advice on how to handle a customer who wasn't paying his bills. "I followed it and it worked."

Kravec considers that when a family member or spouse gives advice, there's more heart involved. Often career or job advice is based on a holistic approach, balancing ambition with how a promotion or job change would affect stress levels, health and family life. "A coach or mentor might look only at financial advancement," Kravec notes.

For some leaders, seeking advice from mentors is favored. Dr. Kathleen Rotella, principal at St. Mark's Episcopal School in Fort Lauderdale, prefers tapping her mentors for guidance on business decisions over her spouse who is an attorney. She has two mentors, head mistresses at larger schools who have more experience. Rottella says they help her assess risk in introducing new programs and curriculum and making high-level decisions. "I donÂ’t like to burden my husband unless it's a major career decision. We're both working professionals and both have our own decisions to make."

In the corporate world, Taylor says he — and most CEOs — would only go to mentors with certain dilemmas. "Whatever level you reach, you still want to impress your mentor. You might go to your mentor with two opportunities to help you navigate. But you don't go and say "I'm compromised, now what do I do?'"

Below the CEO level, going to the boss may be another option. "I will go to a former or current boss to run by the different ways to go, but I will always have my own point of view fleshed out first," says Lisa Kauffman, vice president of marketing for Celebrity Cruises in Miami. While she seeks her husband's input on some decisions, "in certain scenarios, it is useful to get advice from someone who knows the nuances of the business." She acknowledges the option of going to a boss — or possibly even the board — disappears the higher you climb. "When you're the CEO, the buck stops with you."

A good strategy, advises Adecco's Griffin, is to ask yourself where you can get the most objective advice, and to evaluate the risks associated with each source you consult. She recommends carefully wording how you ask for help and choosing confidants who share your values.

As research shows, the best confidant often will be your life partner. And if you don't trust your spouse with career advice, maybe you've got other issues to sort out as well.

Columnist Cindy Krischer Goodman is a business journalist who writes on work life issues.

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