We’re talking in this series about change agents who function as trusted advisors, which is the highest level of partnership with a sponsor. Trusted advisors engage in some or all of the following activities.
How Long Should It Take to Build a Trusted Advisor Relationship?
This kind of relationship isn’t usually quick to materialize…it typically takes some time to unfold. It’s possible to have a fast “connection” occur between sponsor and practitioner (liking each other, being impressed with the initial exchange, etc.) but developing deep trust is another matter. It begins with earning trust based on meeting or exceeding expectations, and evolves further as mutual commitments are realized.
The establishment of such an affiliation requires sufficient sponsor exposure to allow the proper dynamics to mature. First, the relationship is initiated and the early manifestations of “chemistry” become apparent. Then there is a period of concentrated activity, where results produced are consistent with expectations. It is only after these two phases have been completed, which may take months, that the full value of the trusted advisor role can be realized.
It Doesn’t Always Happen
The trusted advisor relationship is a powerful vehicle for supporting sponsors. Sometimes, however, it just doesn’t materialize. We should not assume that this kind of connection will always form with sponsors, yet we should remain vigilant for signs of the possibility (e.g., the sponsor values your frankness, seeks guidance from you when the stakes are high, is eager to learn from you, is willing to expose vulnerabilities during candid conversations).
The existence of a trusted advisor partnership ultimately hinges on whether the right chemistry evolves. Despite all the advantages for both us and our sponsors, such a relationship can only be encouraged; it can never be mandated or contrived. We need to nurture whatever signs emerge that point toward a tighter bond with our sponsors, being careful not to force anything past its natural boundaries. We should focus on earning the right to become trusted advisors by cultivating value in as many of the currencies as is appropriate, and appreciate and celebrate those trusted advisor relationships that we are privileged to be a part of.
What are your views on the nature and importance of the trusted advisor role? How important do you consider such a role to be in your sponsor relationships? What challenges have you faced when attempting this sort of sponsor affiliation? What aspects to establishing and maintaining this kind of connection to sponsors would you add to what I have shared
Assess Your Personal Trustworthiness
Charles Green, author of Trust-Based Selling, has developed an online self-assessment tool, the Trust Quotient, that profiles one’s trustworthiness along four dimensions, and reveals your “TQ” compared with a database of 13,000 others’ scores. Detailed implications, profiles, and action steps are included, based on your scores. Click here to access the tool, or here to learn more about Mr. Green's work.
This concludes my series on the trusted advisor. Next, I’ll begin what I hope will be a thought-provoking series on how we sometimes disrespect others' implementation methodologies.
We’ve been talking in this series about becoming trusted advisors to our sponsors. An important exchange takes place between sponsors and practitioners when advanced trust is explored. We want to earn trusted advisor status, but sponsors want to be sure they grant this rare level of confidence to someone who is truly worthy. In effect, we want to purchase (earn) the sponsor’s trust while they want to sell (grant) it only if paid the right price. What sponsors want in exchange for their trust is to be “paid’ with the proper currency. There are several types of currencies that could help us attain the credibility we seek. Here are five that I think are particularly important.
Essential Trust Currencies
1. Bottom-Line Results
Above all else, the sponsor must see the connection between our efforts to influence and the realization of the intended results—that we contribute significantly to sustainable conclusions, enduring commitment, measurable outcomes, and achievement of the ROI that the change was designed to accomplish.
It’s essential for us to demonstrate deep knowledge and experience around the human aspects of implementing change. Our judgment and proficiency must exceed anything that could be provided by SMEs, valued sources, and influential resources. Otherwise, a trusted advisor relationship cannot be justified. The sponsor must recognize that we deliver not just useful guidance but wisdom (e.g., discerning, insightful, penetrating, and valuable change-related perspectives/recommendations).
3. Sponsor Focus
All our efforts must be fully in support of the sponsor’s fundamental goals. This means understanding and remaining true to the intended outcomes of the initiatives we work on, evaluating our success based on the sponsor’s success, and subjugating our ego (agenda, personal preferences, etc.) to what will be most helpful to him or her.
We must display an extremely high level of candor at all times. Among other things, this means:
- Directness: straightforward, unequivocal, crisp, and unambiguous
- Understanding: empathetic, considerate, sensitive, and compassionate
- “Embodying” what we promote (being a model for what we suggest the sponsor does)
Trusted advisors are expected to tell the truth regardless of the circumstances. Agents who are subject matter experts, valued sources, or even those who operate as influential resources may inadvertently (sometimes even intentionally) be less than candid. Although the motives for doing so may be based on caring for, or being protective of, the sponsor, nothing short of complete honesty will allow us to fulfill our prime directive—to help the sponsor make informed decisions. Truth telling should always be expressed with respect and kindness but never at the expense of failing to convey our genuine perspective on a situation.
This means we can’t stop with being “merely accurate” in our exchanges (This includes making statements that can later be defended as correct but that clearly lead the sponsor to a different conclusion than what full candor dictates.) Sponsors will grant trusted advisor status only to practitioners who consistently convey the truth of situations, not just accurate information.
5. Relationship Orientation
We must be willing and prepared to invest a significant amount of energy into the relationship. This kind of partnership calls for more than simply engaging in a pleasant collaboration with a likable client. It requires genuine caring, manifested in attentive listening, responsiveness, and availability when access to us is needed. It also requires a willingness to stay emotionally connected even when it is difficult to do so. The trusted advisor relationship represents a major mental, emotional, and physical investment on our part and should not be entered into lightly. Such expenditure must be from a commitment of the heart as well as the head. This will only happen if we are drawn to, and believe in, the sponsor and what he or she hopes to accomplish.
Which of these types of “currencies” is most difficult to earn? What other currencies can you think of that can help you gain trust with your sponsor?
Next: How Does a Trusted Advisor Act?
“Our distrust is very expensive.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson
The sponsor-agent relationship is so important that just about everything we can hope to accomplish hinges on it. Without that relationship, our knowledge and skills are underutilized, poorly allocated, or worse, not called on at all.
It’s true that we work with and support the targets of change initiatives. We also work with advocates who want change but don’t have the ability to make it happen on their own, as well as with other internal or external agents. While our relationships with people in these roles are necessary and valuable, our key function is to serve the sponsor.
I recently wrote about the relationship challenges that change agents can experience with sponsors. In one post, I drew a distinction between being seen by sponsors as a partner, versus merely a vendor. Here, I want to say more about partnerships. Specifically, I want to talk about the upper end of the partnership scale—the trusted advisor.
As practitioners, we can relate to and partner with a sponsor at many different levels. There are five that I feel represent the least to the most influential. Each level adds to and builds on the level beneath it.
Every level provides value, if applied appropriately, with the exception of opinion provider, which falls below the threshold of influence necessary to offer meaningful advantages to a sponsor. At each new level, the practitioner’s ability to be persuasive with a sponsor increases significantly, with the trusted advisor relationship representing the highest level.
In this series, I am focusing on what’s entailed in being a trusted advisor to the sponsor, but this type of relationship is also appropriate with select change agents, and maybe even with a few targets and advocates. Trusted advisor relationships are powerful ways of connecting with clients, but they are also resource-consuming (for us and those we work with). It is impossible to have this kind of association with everyone, so we must be choosy about who we extend ourselves to. For this reason, most trusted advisor relationships are limited to sponsors and a few key agents.
Because this kind of relationship is rare, it’s important to exchange as much as possible with each other about our experiences as trusted advisors. I invite you to share what you have learned here so we can further our individual development and advance our craft in general. I am sure the collective wisdom of this blog community can help all of us raise our game to new heights.