I spoke to a conference in Baltimore a few weeks ago about the role of a trusted advisor. I was asked to share what I’ve learned over 30-plus years working with a governor, a couple of congressional candidates, a ton of CEOs, including former GE chairman Jack Welch, and a myriad of operations leaders in the field.
David Maister coined the “trusted advisor” term 15 years ago in his book by that name. Essentially a trusted advisor is an internal or external counselor who builds trust, gives advice effectively and builds relationships. The conference I addressed included external consultants and internal advisors who were looking to improve their skills and knowledge. Typically, internal trusted advisors tend to be in staff functions such as human resources, communications, technology, finance or the legal department.
Many people in these staff functions complain that they’re viewed all too often as order takers rather than strategic or trusted advisors. Heads of HR complain that their leaders often call on them to fix a “people problem” when it is actually a local-level leadership issue that needs to be fixed. A communication person at the conference said she recently got a request from an operations leader who wanted a new brochure on safety even though the absence of the brochure was not the root cause of the company’s safety problems.
I covered a wide range of topics that were on the participants’ minds, but focused on three actions that would-be trusted advisors should make sure they take.
When an advisor helps the organization create a performance gain that’s larger than the cost of creating the gain, he or she’s likely added value. Conversely, when whatever you do, or advise someone else to do, creates a gain that’s less than the cost of creating the gain, you’ve in all likelihood drained value. People who drain value are expendable.
Improving business results is critical to staying in the game.
Communicate on your leader’s channel.
Too often I see both internal and external advisors communicate in their language, not in the language of their client. I was in a meeting a couple of years ago when a leadership team was discussing when they would announce a multi-billion dollar merger. Everyone in the room agreed the merger needed to be announced within a week. The communication person wanted to delay the announcement so that it would coincide with the date her newsletter would come out. Hardly a reason that could be appreciated by all the lawyers and finance people sitting in the room.
When I was a junior consultant, I learned Dr. Stuart Atkins’ life orientations process, which essentially helped my colleagues and me get on others people’s channels and see things from their perspective. It helped me communicate with others faster, more clearly and with greater impact.
We teach that process in our trusted advisor workshops.
Adopt a point of view, use sound methodologies and care about your client.
It’s important to have a point of view about relationships, about the way organizations should be run and the way they should be led.
Sometimes I get calls from clients who say the equivalent of: “I really know how you’re going to answer the question I’m about to ask, but I just need to hear you tell me one more time that I’m on the right track.” They know that I don’t grab for the latest business fads, I’m practical and somewhat obsessed with measurable improvements.
Having led a number of lean transformations, I’ve adopted the Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve and Control (DMAIC) process that puts discipline and rigor into problem-solving and helps insure that work is focused on what matters most. DMAIC eliminates wasteful activities that customers aren’t willing to pay for. And its rigor and reputation is embraced by many senior leaders with whom I work.
When speaking of the client/consultant relationship, David Maister told me a few years ago: “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
I don’t believe trusted advisors can fake it. Clients want advisors who they can trust, who understand their business and who will put the client’s needs ahead of theirs–such as appearing to be brilliant, staying within the budget, or selling more work. As David says, “Clients want someone who will care!”