The Trusted Advisor

Cover of "The Trusted Advisor"

The Trusted Advisor by David Maister

In the world of executive teams, punches can get pulled and frank words disappear as people become guarded and disinclined to rock boats. It’s the distillation of an environment – as the May 2007 Harvard Business Review notes – where the operating conclusion is “When in doubt, keep your mouth shut.”

In such settings, senior execs need trusted advisors like fish need water. They are the people who provide candid, often courageous, balanced and selfless advice to execs – frequently the type of advice that these senior managers seldom get from anyone else. Without that quality of advice, execs frequently flounder and ultimately fail. As Andrew Sobel – noted below – writes, “Behind every great leader you’ll probably find at least one great advisor”.

It was timely, then, when the note came from a former colleague I’ll call “Sam.” He wrote, “[I’m] sending along this fellow’s site. Former McKinsey guy [Sobel] that has good ideas about building and maintaining client relationships. First person to clearly articulate the important attributes of a ‘trusted advisor.’ Might be some helpful content for your future newsletters.”

Irony has faultless timing. The topic of “the trusted advisor” had been on my radar, but the end of “Sam’s” run as a trusted advisor with his corporate employer had not.

Trust – which has confidence and integrity as its foundations – is in short supply these days. In the land of spin, frank communications are mostly absent. One of my clients recently spent significant training time with their first line supervisors reinforcing the value of “robust dialogue ” and candor. The short story: people and organizations can’t execute well unless candor – and implicitly trust – is central to a firm’s DNA.

While some aspire to be a trusted advisor – particularly to key decision makers – few are willing to uphold the qualities and pay the price for that privilege. I have been fortunate to play that role, and JB at the former firm (TFF) or Lee Paterson at Winston & Strawn are people who also come to mind. In a world of king (and queen) makers, the skills and qualities required to be a trusted advisor are many and the people who possess them are few.

As David Nadler notes, being a trusted advisor to senior execs usually means limited career expectations, and that one’s tenure is on a running clock. The role requires unquestioned candor and courage – discussion, not PowerPoint decks. Truth and accuracy – not spin and self-promotion – are a trusted advisor’s calling card.

“Sam” above is one example of such a trusted advisor. Professionally excellent with his craft, he served senior execs well by being a sounding board with whom discretion and frankness were a given. And as proof of Nadler’s ideas, “Sam’s” tenure ended with a change of his boss, and lessened respect for his advice by managers from afar who mistook frank disagreement with what it represented – candor and honesty.

Like good red wine, either finding a trusted advisor, or being a trusted advisor, takes time and nurturing. And like good red wine, once you’ve been blessed to have a trusted advisor – or been one – it’s hard to settle for less in your close business relationships.

Repost by request: “The Trusted Advisor” was originally posted on May 16, 2007.

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