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Advice Season Is Upon Us

My daughter's recent high school graduation ceremony got me to thinking: what advice have I received over the years and how well have I listened?

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received? And that you’ve given? 

I was occasioned to think about this recently while listening to the class president cum keynote speaker at my daughter’s high school graduation. His message was not to be daunted by the seemingly challenging circumstances of life, but instead to engage and turn this sense of disconnection into opportunities to develop mutually beneficial relationships and contribute meaningfully to one’s associates, community and society as well.

Which got me to thinking: what advice have I received over the years and how well have I listened?

The first great advice that I’ll share came from my first boss at a major financial services firm that I had just joined to lead one of its regions (which, it turned out, was something of a perennial underperformer). Almost as an aside to our conversation, he shared that in my new role I couldn’t be successful if I attempted too much. So, in his view, the key to my success (and therefore to that of my entire region) was to focus on fewer, more impactful efforts. Or, as he summed it up pointedly:

At your level, you can’t do everything, and you’ll fail if you try, so pick your spots carefully.

I did, and we went from being a laggard to a leader for the next decade of my tenure there, so I’ve been picking my spots carefully ever since.

The second great advice that I’ll share came from the legendary CEO of the financial services juggernaut for which I worked. Grateful to be invited to join a small group of what we describe now as next-generation executive leaders for an exclusive developmental workshop, I had the good fortune to be seated right next to the CEO at dinner. Though he primarily spoke with the entire table, we did have a few minutes for interpersonal exchange during which he shared another of those wisdom boulders that’ve never left me:

You need to realize that the more senior you become the better you must be at how you lead. You wouldn’t be in this room if you weren’t a consistent (quantitative) performer, but what’ll take you to the top of this company are the qualitative aspects of how you achieve those consistently stellar results. The more senior you get, the ‘how’ (you achieve outstanding performance consistently) begins to matter as much if not more than the ‘what’” (you produce).

I’ve emulated this dual—quantitative and qualitative—focus ever since.

(And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that his leadership of our deeply affected company through the 9/11 crisis is the greatest demonstration of the leadership how that I’ve seen.)

The third piece of great advice wasn’t business-related, it was truly ‘life advice’ and was delivered by my namesake, Dr. Walter E. Johnson, my maternal grandfather, via a letter he wrote to me just days before I departed for college. In it, as would be expected, he shared praise and encouragement lovingly, but the eternal chord that he struck occurred when he quoted the Bard, specifically Polonius’ guidance to Laertes in the third scene of the first act of Hamlet:

This above all – to thine own self be true,

And it must follow, as the night the day,

Thou canst not then be false to any man.

This noble man passed me the most ennobling of advice. I remember weeping as I read it, beset with a powerful mix of emotions: though immediately I understood its timeless profundity, it carried even greater meaning not only because of its giver but also because I realized that he was sharing advice meant to last beyond the term of his life and, hopefully, mine. I knew that he intended for me to keep this as a North Star that I would follow always and, I assumed, would hand down to successive generations of our family, which I have indeed done.

In fact, as I did for her siblings before her, right now I’m crafting a post-graduation, off-to-college letter to and for my daughter, the youngest and last one in our family to matriculate. In it, I’ll pass on several nuggets of wisdom that’ve stood me well, but, most importantly, I’ll impart my grandfather’s gift of Shakespeare (with more inclusive language, of course). In the end, though I want her to do well in college as a necessary precursor to the rest of her adulthood, my greatest hope for her is that she live a life of uniquely resonant meaning and fulfillment, and Shakespeare’s words will certainly help in this regard.

So, what’s the best advice that you’ve gotten? And, in appreciation and in the spirit of paying it forward, with whom could you share it right now?


Walter K. Booker is the chief operating officer of MarketCounsel, a business and regulatory compliance consultancy for investment advisors.

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