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Inside Buffer

What Happens When Startup Advisors Advise the Whole Team

One of the things that has fascinated me most about ancient Greece and Rome has always been the idea of oracles.

If you’ve seen the movie 300, you might remember the scene in which Leonidas has to consult the oracle, which will decide whether the Spartans will go to battle or not.

Screen Shot 2014-10-14 at 4.55.20 PM

You can almost grasp the frustration of the Spartan king. He’s not in control. He has to rely on the priests and only the priests are able to understand the oracle’s advice. He feels powerless, as he has to follow whatever the priests might say to him about the oracle’s thoughts, which eventually is not to go to battle.

I’ve noticed something very similar happen with “oracles” in the world of startup advice, and particularly for us at Buffer.

As founders, Joel and I have been incredibly lucky to be able to be in touch with some incredible advisors that we can reach out to for advice on tough decisions we have to make.

A few incredible people that might be considered our “oracles,” who have helped us tremendously in the past, are the following:

How we used to pass knowledge down

What would happen at times is that Joel and myself would have an incredibly productive and useful session with some of the great folks listed above about a problem we’ve been facing.

For example, Hiten and I used to meet regularly for advice sessions on growth and how we might build a scalable process into our workflow. After the session, I’d go and share some of the great advice with the team.

At that point it’s very hard for the team to question any of the advice that I’ve received. They’d have to accept it, even if it was presented in a neutral way. By nature, questioning it is nearly impossible, since Hiten isn’t present and I had the direct line to speaking to him.

I can imagine that some team members might have felt quite similar to Leonidas, having to follow whatever the priests said to him.

When Joel and I realized this, we decided that this didn’t feel like a great setup—especially as we’d just made the change to the “decision maker” framework, where didn’t have any managers and everyone was accountable for their own decisions.

Here is how we changed that:

Letting advisors speak directly to teams

Instead of keeping up sessions with Hiten and others between us as founders and our advisors, we have been experimenting with letting him speak directly to the team.

advice methods

We invited Hiten to come out to our most recent retreat to New York, where he came in for a full day of office hours and worked with every single team that we have (8 at the moment):

  • Happiness team
  • Content crafters team
  • Onboarding team
  • Dashboard + Awesome plan team
  • Buffer for iOS team
  • Buffer for Android team
  • Browser extension team
  • Buffer for Business team

In 8 sessions of 30 minutes each (we couldn’t believe he’d not be completely tired after doing 8 of these sessions!), everyone on each of the teams had a chance to speak to Hiten directly and ask their questions. I genuinely believe that through this method, we had an 8x better outcome of the advice, compared to if it would have just been given to Joel and myself.

 

Making it a process

I can see us scaling this process across all advisors in the future and possibly inviting more advisors to our retreats or setting up general office hours session for the individual teams.

My hunch is that for us to grow collectively as a team, giving people access to all the same information that we have as founders is crucial. Keith Rabois put this really well in a great interview:

“If you want people to make the same decisions that you would make, but in a more scalable way, you have to give them the same information you have.”

It’s also one of the main reasons we keep all emails within the company transparent, so that no knowledge is locked away in certain threads.

I’m excited to see how we can consistently make the advice-giving process better in the future and hope to keep you posted.

I would love to hear your ideas and experiences with similar situations before. How does your company give and receive advice?

And if working on a team like this sounds good to you, we’re hiring!

  • Sorin Vinatoru

    This is very interesting, thanks for sharing, Leo.

    To me it looks like this can work if the advisors have enough time to dedicate to such meetings. Being able to grab your advisor for a full day is quite an achievement.

    Any ideas on how this can be made to work with busier people, when they only have one or two hours to spend with you?

    • LeoWid

      Yup, I think having enough time is crucial! If there’s not enough time, then I think it’s best to have advisors speak with people closest to the problem, instead of founders. Say, connect the marketing team with a marketing advisor, etc.

  • Justine Fenwick

    Thank you for the article. I have been one of the members of the team who received the oracle’s advice and would have felt better about following it if I had had a chance to interact with the advisor.

    Did the advisors gain more knowledge from meeting with the team? This process seems like it might be a two way process where they walk away with a deeper understanding of the issues after meeting with the team.

    • LeoWid

      Hi Justine, completely agreed! I think that the advisors get a lot more context this way too and it becomes much more powerful as a two-way street!

    • Hi Justine, yes. absolutely. I always get more context and knowledge when I meet directly with the people on the team. It helps me be a better advisor to the company as a whole.

  • petergold99

    I do this with some of my clients I.e. involve the team as much as the founders. Where I don’t do that change/growth is not add rapid. This post has reinforced this to me so thanks for sharing.

    • LeoWid

      Yup, great stuff Peter!

  • Fantastic post and insights Leo you are doing so great

  • Rob Abis

    Thanks for the post Leo ; )

    I like that you called it “Oracle” advising because even if you don’t agree with using it, there is certainly a mystical kind of power behind it. There’s that mystery behind who was advising. As you said, it’s “impossible to argue with.”

    It’s another way for managers to make employees acknowledge the hierarchy (who’s in charge) and reinforce that they should only be listening instead of thinking and engaging.

    Although oracle-advising is antiquated, much like the idea of going to an oracle, I think it still has it’s rightful place in many work environments.

    Nothing about the general concept of an oracle even slightly resonates with the words “open transparency.” I’m glad you and Joel recognized this and decided to try something different!

  • Really enjoyed reading this – inspiring stuff.

    Apart from the fact that Hiten got closer to each problem, and so was able to give more accurate advice, the camaraderie the group must have received such a boost to be a part of a joint experience like that.

    I can imagine it’s such an elevating feeling to be a part of a team so dedicated to doing things right, rather than allowing any ego to get in the way.

    As you say – very impressive that Hiten had the stamina to keep going through 8 sessions without keeling over!

    As this was the first such whole team+advisor meeting, is there anything you’d do differently next time?

  • Katya Pavlopoulos

    So, what’s your posting schedule for Buffer Open? I really enjoy reading this blog, and I keep checking it to see if it was updated, but it looks a little abandoned. It’s cool if you guys want to scale it down to a less frequent posting schedule, just let me know what to expect :)

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