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Are you a trusted advisor?

August 10, 2015

We often hear about the benefits of becoming a ‘trusted advisor’. Certainly it is a role that most consultants seek to fill, even if only in the context of a specific assignment. But it is also a term widely used by commercial managers and lawyers, representing an aspiration for the value they might deliver. IACCM training includes extensive discussion about the qualities needed to gain this status, especially for those who complain that they are often not consulted or, more commonly, ‘not involved early enough’.

Research undertaken by ICCPM resulted in a paper called ‘The Conspiracy of Optimism’, which highlighted a tendency by executives to be overly optimistic and therefore to initiate projects with unrealistic expectations of results, or underestimates of the costs or complexities involved. This theme has now been picked up by Chief Executive magazine, but making the observation that a tendency to optimism needs a reality check – and that this is best provided by a trusted advisor.

Given that many of the projects or initiatives sponsored by senior management involve contracts and commercial relationships, it is logical that lawyers or commercial managers should be able to fulfil a trusted advisor role – and indeed some do. But the majority do not. One reason for this, based on my experience, is that they somehow expect to be consulted as a matter or right, rather than considering that they are personally responsible for making things happen. By failing to consider the characteristics that make someone a trusted advisor, they naturally fail to become one.

The Chief Executive article offers several pointers to the way you need to think and behave if you are going to make advisor status.

1. Business leaders have different aims. Some are focused on growth, others may be driving major change programs or seeking to develop new products and markets.You must position your expertise to align with their priorities. Too often, we approach executives with our perspectives or issues in mind, not theirs. A trusted advisor is someone who assists on the journey, not someone who simply trashes ideas or plans and offers no insight to alternatives.

2. Business leaders want relevance and objectivity. Have you developed expertise in your business’s core competencies? Has your role exposed you to broad understanding of stakeholders and their perspectives? If you are doing a commercial role effectively, the answer should be yes. To be a trusted advisor, you must show that you understand the market, potential threats and that you possess a strategic mindset that will help your executive get where they want to be. In addition, you must be objective, not seeking functional or personal benefit from your advice. Again, this objectivity is something that should be fundamental to a commercial or legal role, so it should be a natural fit … but where we often fall down is the wider market knowledge and real empathy with other stakeholders.

3. Are you well networked? Having an effective and extensive network is increasingly important to status in any organization, but in a trusted advisor role it is important for the credibility it offers as well as the connections it represents. And just being networked in your own professional community is not enough. That might make you a trusted advisor on very specific issues, but not on a wider scale. Contracts and commercial staff often have quite narrow networks (I base this on data from IACCM skills assessments). Lawyers frequently have bigger networks – but with other lawyers.

4. Trust is critical. In addition to being objective, can you avoid being judgmental? A trusted advisor asks lots of questions and assists in both raising and handling doubts or obstacles. They don’t argue a case or simply pose lists of problems or risks. They assist in finding viable alternatives.

The truth is, being a trusted advisor is a valuable quality at every level within an organization. It is something that contracts and commercial staff must aspire to, if they want to do their job well and have security. Whether you are advising an executive, a sales person or a project manager, gaining their trust as an advisor is a major achievement. To do so, it would be wise to reflect on whether you have the right approach.

What observations do you have about the best ways to gain trusted advisor status? 

2 Comments
  1. Owen Davies permalink

    I think this is very topical as we all strive for commercial excellence. In my experience one needs to highlight the risks in an objective and business rational manner and then suggest a creative way to get around those risks that doesn’t necessarily ignore or belittle the risk but finds a constructive way to mitigate. One you have done this several times with success you may gain trust.

    Owen Davies

  2. Neal Unitt-Jones permalink

    Good article: I’ve often thought about this stuff but without ever having seen it verbalized. Having that all-important network is essential, I find your advice is taken more seriously if you are known to be trusted by others in the org. In offering advice I always try to give a few clear options; its really easy to be the commercial gatekeeper, but the commercial gate-opener gets more Christmas cards.

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