How To Handle Conflicting Advice From Different Mentors

Michael Ho, Entrepreneur-In-Residence at Graphite Ventures explains how to deal with what he calls “advisor whiplash”

Curated by
: Stefan Palios in partnership with MindFrame Connect

As a startup founder, you face what feels like thousands of problems per day. That’s where a mentor becomes incredibly valuable: not only can a mentor help you avoid problems and accelerate your journey, a study by Mentor Canada found that mentorship is connected to positive mental health.

But what happens when you get multiple conflicting pieces of advice on the same question? 

That tension can cause advisor whiplash–the feeling that you’re even more lost after getting advice because you received so many different opinions. Here’s some advice from Michael Ho, sharing his experiences both as a founder and now as an advisor to startups at Graphite Ventures. 

What really causes advisor whiplash

Ho explained that nearly every time a founder asks for advice from multiple people, what they really want is for each subsequent answer to increase their confidence about a specific action or plan. When you get wildly different or opposing answers, you walk out feeling less confident than before. 

“It's kind of like when you're looking for directions and you talk to three different people,” said Ho. “What you're hoping for is that each person that you talk to is going to increase your confidence that you're on the right path.”

“What you don't want is you don't want to talk to one person [and] they say turn left and then talk to the next person [and] they say turn right,” Ho continued. “And then that last person says, no, no, no, you should turn around. That's when you're left more confused than when you start.”

In the end, this is an emotions and expectations problem. Which means it can be solved. 

How to overcome advisor whiplash

If you’re in a situation where you’re dealing with conflicting advice from multiple mentors, there are multiple ways you can move through the issue.

Know what you need

Ho advised founders to think about what type of advice they were truly looking for. He said, broadly speaking, you’ll need one of two things: 

  1. Options: Learning more to broaden your horizons with new ideas.
  2. Direction: Narrowing down to the correct next step for you, in context. 

If you’re looking for options, then you don’t need to feel bad about getting a diversity of opinions. If you’re looking for direction, Ho’s advice is to protect your time and realize that not every person is capable of giving you the best advice in context. 

Ho’s suggested a couple pathways for founders who need direction:

Consider accelerator programs: He said these programs have “better maps” of best practices that can help you figure out the right next step for you.

Ask a mentor for their “boundary conditions”: When someone gives advice, it’s in their own context. So ask a mentor to explain those boundaries–the landmarks they saw or the context they were in when they learned the lesson they are sharing with you.

“Advisors and mentors have the benefit of understanding and seeing a lot of different landmarks and understanding the boundary conditions to any of the advice that they're giving, which is super helpful for a founder as they're trying to navigate through growing their business,” said Ho.

Filter the advice

Another mental model founders can use is the Advice Filtering Framework shared by Katherine Homuth, the founder and CEO of Sheertex.

Homuth shared that many mentors advised her to “play small” with her company and avoid risk. However, this didn’t feel right to her as an entrepreneur, so she developed a test to filter out advice, consisting of five questions to consider about your mentor:

  • Do they have experience in your industry?
  • Have they dealt with similar challenges?
  • Are they inspiring you to be better?
  • Are they excited by your vision?
  • Do you connect with them on a personal level?

If you answer ‘no’ to at least two of the above, Homuth said that person may not be the right mentor for the specific need you have in front of you.

Challenge your mentor and bring up conflicts

If you’re faced with multiple conflicting pieces of advice, challenge your mentors on them. While this doesn’t give you permission to be rude, Derek Szeto, the co-founder of Walnut, said that conflict can “provide keen insights into your venture-building approach and how your mentor may see things differently.”

You can also ask if the mentors are willing to join a group call (or Zoom meeting) to talk through the conflicts. You would need to run these meetings as a mentee, but you can:

  • Remind everyone of your context and need. 
  • Point out what each mentor said and how that conflicts. 
  • Ask them to explain more to one another (and to you) so that you can hopefully uncover the reason behind the conflict and get to more cohesive guidance for you as a mentee.

Regardless of the approach you take, know that this is part of the overall entrepreneurship journey. You’re not a worse entrepreneur for having these hard times—if anything, you’re gaining strength and mental clarity for every issue you work through. 

The key to long-term success, said Ho, is to find out how to work through everything internally and then identify how to communicate everything outward so your mentors, investors, employees, and customers understand you.

“One of the things that founders often feel is you're solving this Rubik's Cube in your head 24/7, 365 days a year,” said Ho. “And it makes complete sense to you because you're spinning that cube left, right, and centre all the time. You've gone through all the different permutations. The biggest challenge is when you have to communicate that Rubik's Cube to someone else.”

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