How to Become a Trusted Adviser

Most professional roles require you to give advice to others, often to people more senior to you. In the strategy document you write for your manager, the presentation you give to the Board, even in your verbal briefing to the CEO, at each point you are using your abilities to influence and persuade. Indeed many of us spend most of our professional lives trying to become effective and trusted advisers to our bosses or clients. For the consultant, particularly, there is probably no higher mark of success.

However, perhaps surprisingly, your success as an adviser depends only in part on the accuracy of your advice. Clearly, few people will trust the guide if your guidance isn’t good. You wouldn’t keep visiting the same doctor, for example, if they consistently failed to diagnose an obvious ailment. Yet what makes you trust your doctor is more than the sum of their correct diagnoses. The same is true for other professional relationships.

A trusted adviser is more than a reliable fortune teller. At best, these professional relationships are influential as well as intimate, valued whilst also invaluable. They often bring with them tangible benefits for the adviser, in terms of status and recognition, whilst also requiring significant responsibilities, like loyalty, dedication and honesty.

I’ve been lucky enough to take part in training, at my former employer WPP, specifically focused on how to be a trusted adviser, and have gone on to train others in the same thinking. The fact that the world’s largest marketing group sees these skills as core for their staff says a lot about their importance in business. So what does it mean to be a trusted adviser, and what do you have to do to become one?

In their book The Trusted Advisor, consultants David Maister, Charles Green and Robert Galford, suggest there are three stages to professional relationships. In the first stage, the focus tends to be on subject matter expertise. You get hired because you have a specific skill or knowledge and so long as you continue to demonstrate this expertise, you will continue to be valued by your boss.

Over time your relationship can develop into something which is more based on your resourcefulness. We all know times when we have ended up working on projects that bear no relation to our job title or expertise. You get given these jobs because you have demonstrated your ability elsewhere and your boss turns to you because they know you won’t mess up.

The goal is to move to the third stage: the trusted adviser. Here you are no longer sought just for your expertise or reliability. You have become so intimate with your boss’s challenges and point of view as to be able to act as a proxy for them. Your guidance to them is grounded in an honesty that they don’t welcome or believe from other staff. Your relationship has also moved from something based purely on professional terms: you know their hopes and fears, how they think and feel, what keeps them awake at night and what they do to relax. This is why trusted advisers are often called on to solve personal crises or help with career advice, as well as to tackle any and every professional challenge. As Maister et al put it:

“The trusted advisor is the person the client turns to when an issue first arises, often in times of great urgency; a crisis, a change, a triumph, or a defeat…In the deepest and most complete trusted advisor relationships, there are few boundaries within the relationship, little separation between professional and personal issues. Both members of the relationship fully know about each other and understand the role the other plays in his or her life”.

So the trusted adviser is someone who has a relationship with their client or boss which is comprehensive, candid, and is rooted in a shared respect and understanding spanning issues beyond the professional sphere. But that still doesn’t explain what a trusted adviser does.

Richard Hytner, in his book Consiglieri: Leading from the Shadows, offers four different functions a consiglieri can play:

'the lodestone that lifts the burden from the leader, like a caddie that carries the clubs and anticipates the bunkers, freeing the golfer to concentrate on playing the perfect shot; the educator that helps to inform and coach the CEO, like a Sherpa, a humble guide exuding confidence about every step of the path ahead; the anchor, who roots the leader in reality through honesty, humour and healthy scepticism; and the deliverer, someone who is able to translate for others their boss’s agenda, fix problems and put out fires.'

Hytner argues both that consiglieri can have more than one of these qualities and also that leaders often have multiple advisers to cover each type.

An example in Hytner’s mind of a consiglieri is Willie Whitelaw. Whitelaw was one of the closest advisers to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, skilful at managing ministerial clashes and back-bench dissent on her behalf. Thatcher was hugely grateful for his support, famously remarking “every Prime Minister needs a Willie”. But it is often forgotten that Whitelaw and Thatcher were originally rivals and Whitelaw actually stood against Thatcher in the 1975 contest to be Conservative leader. It was only following his defeat and his full acceptance that he would never be leader that Whitelaw was able to become one of her most loyal and valued counsellors.

The term consiglieri was popularised in the fictional work The Godfather and the role played by advisers to mafia families. This brings to mind an influential if rather unseemly job. For most advisers, however, their job is not as illicit. They exist to achieve success through the victories of their boss. The prize for them is trust, influence and proximity to decision-making. It is a tough job, demanding, frustrating and often spent, as Hytner suggests, in “the shadows”, but there is huge satisfaction, and occasionally significant rewards, from being a trusted adviser.

So how do you go about becoming one?

Hytner observes that in the Imperial Court of China, those who aspired to work alongside the powerful were often expected to conduct self-castration. Fortunately, the requirements today are a little less demanding. Below are four simple actions that I believe can help establish your credentials as a trusted adviser.

1. Suspend your agenda

How many of us have had an opportunity to meet with our boss or client and spent most of the time trying to show them how smart we are or pitching them our latest big idea? It’s not uncommon and it may make for good lunch conversation but it doesn’t build trust. As Machiavelli wrote in The Prince, his 16th Century guide for aspiring leaders: “when you see the servant thinking more of his own interests than of yours, and seeking inwardly his own profit in everything, such a man will never make a good servant, nor will you ever be able to trust him”.

Instead Maister argues that to build trust we need to avoid self-orientation and keep focused on the needs and interests of the leader. This means talking less, listening more and asking good questions. Trusted advisers spend time with leaders not trying to show off but trying to understand what is on their mind. So when you next get time with the boss, ask them how their day is going and what are the big challenges they are facing right now. You might get lucky and they could share some of what’s keeping them awake at night. And if you are even luckier, you might already have a new big idea that could help them.

2. Speak truth to power

It’s vital for their success that leaders get a good sense of the real world around them. Advisers are, in Hytner’s words, the anchors who ensure their leaders remain connected to the truth. Of course, this is easier said than done. You can always plead “don’t blame the messenger”, but many leaders do. Sharing details of the mistakes of others with the boss can also feel disloyal or uncomradely. Moreover not all bosses want to hear the truth. As Machiavelli again perceptively notes, it is only a wise prince that lets his advisers know “the more freely he shall speak, the more he shall be preferred”.

We often feel a huge fear and face a significant risk in sharing the truth with a leader. Nevertheless it is not possible to be a trusted adviser without giving honest advice. Sugar-coated flattery may endear you to some leaders but it isn’t truly giving advice and won’t, in the end, build trust. Instead be brave and seek the respect of the leader who knows what’s been said contains a painful but valuable truth. Most leaders will come to appreciate the pitfalls they have avoided by following your advice, no matter how difficult it was to receive.

This is not to ignore the role of effective communications in sharing the truth. Discussing difficult issues involves more than logic: it requires credibility, empathy and emotional presence. If you walk into your doctor’s surgery and before you have a chance to sit down, they exclaim that you are morbidly obese and likely to die before you’re 50, they may be speaking the truth but they aren’t like to win your trust. Similarly, no matter how enjoyable it may seem, simply shouting home truths at your CEO is unlikely to get you a promotion.

3.Build intimacy

I imagine most of us have given advice to a client that was unsuccessful not because our thinking was flawed but because we had failed fully to comprehend the challenges the client was facing. It is easy to take at face value what we think is the issue but if we don’t establish a deep enough relationship with the client, we may never appreciate the real situation they are in.

Trusted advisers are, in Maister’s model, more than successful experts or resourceful fixers. They know their client’s issues like their own. They have a comprehensive view of the world around the client, hence why they are able to give advice that is usually relevant and right. But to get this, they need to know a huge amount about the client. Not just what they do and the issues they face at work, but how they think and feel.

Becoming a trusted adviser with a client requires you to build an intimacy and understanding with them so that you are fully able to enter their world. This means spending time with them at work, listening and observing, but it also means seeing them in an environment outside of work, where you can often get a fuller picture of their personality. Moreover the best insights about leaders don’t always come from them. You can also learn a lot about them from other members of their team or interviews they have given in the media.

If a stranger stopped you in the street and asked for your advice about a professional challenge they faced, you’d want to know a huge amount about them before daring to offer a suggestion. The same should be true for your boss or client. Know them intimately if you want to be confident you fully understand their issues.

4. Be prepared to commit for the long-term

Becoming a trusted adviser to a particular client isn’t going to happen overnight. It takes time. Therefore you need to be patient, persistent and willing to commit to relationships over the long-term. For example, Harold Burson, now in his 90s, who co-founded global PR firm Burson-Marsteller, has for most of his long career been an adviser to The Coca-Cola Company. My understanding is that he continues to provide them with his counsel today, not so much a long-term relationship as a life-time commitment.

This also means when it comes to a choice of making a short-term gain versus building long-term trust, successful counsellors always choose the latter. Imagine buying something on the advice of a salesman who was only interested in making their commission. If the product wasn’t right for you, they may make a quick sale but will lose a lifetime of repeat custom. Always placing your clients’ interests first and making decisions that will build, not erode, trust over the long term is the right path for success.

Finally, let’s not forget, giving effective advice is a two-way process: it needs the permission of the person receiving your views as well as your willingness to share them. This permission is not always easy to gain.

Just think of the average CEO or political leader. Many have climbed to the top of the greasy pole only because of their inner confidence and ability to shut out critical or distracting noises. They are sometimes the last to seek out advice and the least willing to hear it. That’s why leaders often turn to friends for advice before experts, why they value long-term relationships with advisers and why to win their confidence, you cannot be perceived as a threat.

Inevitably this means many of the best counsellors are destined never to be leaders themselves. Becoming a trusted adviser requires dedication and courage, but you also need to be happy seeing your success achieved through the effective performance of others. That is truly leadership from the shadows.

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