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The Story of Advisors

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The Most Important Decision of Queen Elizabeth I

When Elizabeth Tudor became Queen of England in 1558, England was a minor European power. France was dominant, Spain increasingly powerful, the Italian city-states financially strong, and the Germanic principalities vigorous. She reigned for forty-five years, and when she died, England was on its way to becoming not just a European but a world power.

A key reason for Elizabeth and England’s success was her wise selection of a group of extraordinary advisors. Amongst these advisors, the most important was William Cecil. Elizabeth made him Secretary of State (in those days looking after home affairs and parts of foreign affairs) for fourteen years and then her Lord Treasurer (looking after finances) for twenty-six more years till his death in 1598. When Elizabeth made Cecil her Secretary of State, she gave him her reasons as follows. 

  • “You will not be corrupted by any manner of gift.” Elizabeth wanted someone without reproach.
  • “You will be faithful to the state.” Elizabeth did not want someone to be blindly faithful to herself. She wanted someone who put the country above any individual.
  • “You will give me counsel which you think best.” Elizabeth wanted someone who had an independent mind. Not a yes-man who would agree with her.
  • “If you shall know anything necessary to be declared, you shall show it to myself. And assure yourself I will not fail to keep taciturnity (keep the secret).” Elizabeth meant two things here. First, Cecil should be transparent with Elizabeth and second that Elizabeth promised to be a “good boss” and would not betray her minister.

The result was that Elizabeth’s reign was known for internal tolerance, cautious foreign affairs, flourishing cultures, especially of English drama (William Shakespeare), a dramatic increase in English maritime power, and an increase in national wealth.

Bad Advisors Often Result in Disasters

Selecting the right advisors is thus crucial to the success of any endeavor. Unfortunately, history is also full of advisors who were either sycophants or who were scheming. Both types lead to terrible disasters. In business, some of the most slippery advice is often given by the big investment banks. 

One of the most disastrous M&A deals leading up to the sub-prime crisis was the purchase of ABN Amro by Royal Bank of Scotland, Fortis, and Banco Santander. The who’s who of global investment banking, including Lehman Brothers, Morgan Stanley, Rothschild, UBS, Goldman Sachs, Barclays, Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank, Lazard, and JPMorgan, advised on the deal. With such an illustrious list, one would have thought that this should be the best deal ever done! Instead, it led to massive losses, added further stress to the international banking system, and required taxpayers to bail out the banks.

Best Practice

When selecting advisors, the best practice may be to follow Queen Elizabeth I. In words, this is simple; find trustworthy people who are capable, independent, and are faithful to a higher cause you want, not to yourself or other individuals. In practice, we often do not like dissenting opinions, and we wish for people to be faithful to us – no matter what right or wrong we do.

Margaret “Margo” Georgiadis, an American businesswoman, summarized the selection of good advisors. She said, “From my experience, the best advisors help in three ways: encourage you to look at the problem or opportunity from multiple angles; help you balance the tug of the short-term with important long-term priorities; and ask the tough questions you need to know to reach the best solution.”

© Kaikhushru Taraporevala

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