A few months ago, you could watch so-called political experts declare on national television that Mitt Romney would win the presidency by a landslide. Despite being wrong, these same people continue to tout themselves as experts on politics.

It’s an old story. In 2007, many Wall Street experts predicted the Dow would hit 20,000. A year later, the financial system collapsed and the Dow hit 8,000. The intelligence experts for the U.S. government said Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Yet it took a war with thousands of deaths to find out they were wrong.

That’s the problem with experts: They may claim to know their subject, but that doesn’t mean they’re accurate.

Although expert opinions are valuable, and executives should seek good advice when making difficult decisions, executives should never relinquish their roles as critical thinkers. An expert opinion is just that—an opinion. It should not be misconstrued as an expert decision. Oddly, some of the brightest executives will hear the credentials of a self-proclaimed expert and automatically cede every decision.

When seeking expert advice, consider the following:

• Is your expert really an expert? A failed executive of a closed national chain seems to have a proven record in only one thing—failure. A real expert has a proven record of success in your field.

• Does the expert have practical experience? It is probably a good idea for an expert on trucks and logistics to know how to drive a truck and carry the right credentials.

• What’s on the expert’s scorecard? Look for multiple testimonies and references where that person successfully offered advice.

The real problem with seeking expert advice in the building supply industry is that the best experts are busy, successful executives at other companies. These are the people who have found the ways to make the best decisions, even in the most difficult of situations, and they generally seek diverse opinions beyond their “yes” circle.

The best three sources for expert opinions are the least costly and most rewarding. Peer executive roundtables offer a great source of good advice and long-term relationships, which can be vital when making important decisions. For independent dealers, many purchasing groups and trade associations offer roundtable opportunities for minimal cost.

National dealers should create roundtables consisting of their best managers with their top executives to ferret out the best ideas and solutions. Successful roundtables for national suppliers can only work if there is ironclad assurance there will not be retaliation to managers who speak their minds.

Probably a company’s most critical expert, but the one who could offer the greatest benefit, is the customer. Execs with the courage to meet customers in a focus group or non-scripted private gathering will learn more than they probably want to hear. In the South, it is amazing what you will find out about your company over a plate of pork ribs and a few glasses of “brown water” (you might call it bourbon). Success here hinges on being able to listen while not getting defensive, because before the night is over, feelings will be hurt. A successful builder often is a sharp businessman with a lot of common sense.

Finally, don’t forget the experts who work for you. If you really want to find out what is going on in the company, have lunch with your truck drivers. Most successful executives, if they are honest with themselves, admit their best ideas come from the people who work for them.

Don Magruder is CEO of Ro-Mac Lumber & Supply in Leesburg, Fla., and a former chairman of the Florida Building Material Association. Contact him at don.magruder@romaclumber.com or 352.787.4545.

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