Magic Johnson, Peter Guber and Business Stories

We all know the power of stories in business. We know too that it’s the heroes who give stories power. The hero may be a person, a brand, a company, or it may be the listener.  When the story and the hero are strong, it resonates with the audience.

Peter Guber and Magic Johnson

In his book “Tell to Win” Peter Guber tells the story of a hero stepping up.  It was Earvin Johnson’s first season with the Lakers.  They had made it to the NBA finals when the legendary Kareem Abdul-Jabbar sprained his ankle and was out for the final 2 games.

Nineteen-year old Johnson stepped up and told the despondent team: “Kareem isn’t here.  I’ll be Kareem.”  He sat in Kareem’s seat on the team plane, played Kareem’s position during practice, and went on to play “the greatest game ever played by a rookie in the NBA.”  In the process, he became Magic Johnson.

The hero of this story is Johnson, of course; but it’s also the listener, anyone who imagines him or herself stepping forward with conviction and assurance.  This story lets everyone in the audience think of how: “I’ll be Kareem.”

My Business Story

The story I used most as a manager I borrowed from Anne Lamott’s priceless book, “Bird by Bird.”

Her brother has procrastinated on a huge school project, a paper on, as I recall, birds of North America.  The night before the due date, he found himself at the dining room table in tears, surrounded by reference materials, not knowing where to start.  Their father sat down with him and said: “Take it bird by bird, son, bird by bird.”

This story got my teams – many positions, many companies, different industries — through tough deadlines, the stress of layoffs and other corporate upheavals, and all kinds of not knowing where to start.

What I love particularly about this little story is that–just like Guber’s story about Magic Johnson–it makes the listener–the team–the hero.  Everyone can start somewhere, taking it bird by bird.

Your Business Story

There are lots of great resources around for improving your story, whether it’s your interview story, your consultant story, or the story of your company or brand.  Here are a few I like:

Who is the hero of the story you tell to prospects and clients? I would love to hear it, in a paragraph or two.


More Women, Smarter Teams

The title says it all: to help teams perform better, add more women.  An intriguing research project highlighted in the June 2011 issue of the Harvard Business Review by Anita Woolley of Carnegie Mellon and Thomas Malone of MIT suggests what makes teams smarter: having more women on them.  The study also points out some things which you might intuitively think would help, but don’t.

In contrast to some earlier studies which used surveys to get feedback from team members, this research examined teams’ performance on solving puzzles and completing team tasks in the lab.  The researchers studied almost 200 teams, with randomly assigned members.  Each team was given tasks to complete, including puzzles, brainstorming, decision-making and solving complex problems.  Woolley and Malone then compared the results of the task-completion to other factors like individual intelligence and group cohesion.

Individual Intelligence Didn’t Matter

It turned out that the sum of the parts did not equal the whole; teams with members who collectively scored higher on standard IQ tests were not the “smartest” teams.  Group cohesion, group satisfaction and other factors we might think would contribute to smarter teams didn’t correlate with performance either.

More Women = Smarter Teams

The one factor which stood out in the research was that the higher the percentage of women in the team, the better the results in team IQs.  The researchers suggest that their findings go beyond “diversity in teams is good;” the data indicates that except at the very extremes, where performance flattens out, the more women on the team the better for the team IQ.

The researchers speculate that this may be due to generally higher social awareness in women, a contributing factor to smarter teams, or to other factors not yet identified.

Five to Fist and the Blogojevich Jury

One fascinating clue to women on teams and how they make decisions is provided by a look inside the Blogojevich jury, made up of eleven women and one man.  Jezebel wrote that instead of taking an immediate up or down vote on various counts, the jury used a teacher’s device of “five to fist” – hold up five fingers if you completely agree, a fist if you completely disagree, and 2, 3 or 4 fingers to indicate that you’re somewhere in between.

In the Chicago Tribune Mary Schmich suggests that:

The jurors reached their decisions with no bullying, no shouting, no pouting. A colleague of mine who has covered a lot of trials said she’s never seen a jury build agreement through so many shades of gray.

My take-away? Make sure your teams have plenty of women, and oh, while you’re at it, try “five to fist” for coming to consensus.

Managing For Trust

Supposed you asked me the score of the latest Boston Red Sox vs. New York Yankees game, and I told you “12.”

You: Twelve? What kind of score is that?

Me: Twelve points were scored in the game; you asked the score, that’s it.

You: Well, who scored how many?

Me: New York scored 7 and Boston scored 5.

You: Well thanks; you could have led with that!

Silly. But that’s exactly what happens with trust metrics. People say, “Trust in business is down.” Cue the dialogue.

You: Trust is down? What kind of metric is that?

Me: Well, some people trust less, some businesses are less trustworthy; the net is down.

You: Wait: how much of the “down” is made up of people trusting less; and how much of the “down” is made up of business being less trustworthy?

Me: 73% of it is business being less trustworthy; 27% of it is people being less inclined to trust.

You: Well thanks; you could have led with that!

Are you trying to improve trust in your organization? You might want to start with clarifying the problem you’re trying to fix.

Are you trying to create more trustworthy employees and managers, so that customers and other stakeholders will trust you? Then focus on the personal attributes of trustworthy people, and on the kinds of principles and values that are observed in trustworthy companies.

Or are you trying to get your people more willing to trust others? Getting better at trusting means better risk management, delegation, personal growth, people development and innovation, to name a few benefits.

What is it that you are trying to manage?

Never mind, “You can’t tell the players without a scorecard.” Heck, you can’t tell the score without knowing what game you’re playing!

The Dishwasher’s Tale

During a recent conversation, a friend–General Counsel for a large listed company–mentioned that she does not feel appreciated by her CEO for all the work she does; and that feels disheartening.

How often do we hear this? Is this a gender issue? Do females need to feel workforce appreciation more than males?

A Little Appreciation

One of my biggest lessons in life came 30 years ago. I had time between University semesters. I wanted to travel to the country nearest Ireland, where I was studying, where they didn’t speak English. After getting a bus, boat, and train…I arrived at my destination: Belgium, where Flemish is the first language and French the second. Because of the language barrier, I had to work in a position that did not require customer contact.

Hence my job: dishwasher.

Day in and day out I washed glasses, dishes, pots and pans. I think it was the hardest job I have ever completed. Only one of the waiters would come up to me at the end of a shift to say ‘thank you.’ This simple, genuine ‘thank you’ was so warming to my soul that it would make me feel motivated enough to come back into work the next day. Luckily this was a summer job to fund my holiday travels and I only had to work there for one month. I cannot begin to imagine what it must be like to have that job long term.

A Question of Perspectives

I walked away with from that job knowing what a huge difference it makes if someone feels appreciated. Ever since, I have tried to make a point of showing my appreciation–from my client, to the person in the office emptying the rubbish bins, to the lady in the bathroom at the airport cleaning the cubicles, to the tram driver when I get off at my stop and I leave via the door beside the driver.

Recently, I have become more aware of how many others do not do this. I asked colleagues in the office why they do not say ‘thank you’ to the person cleaning their rubbish bins. The answer was almost always, “It’s their job, why should I thank to someone for doing their job?” Maybe this is the perspective of the CEO at my friend’s company.

A Little Less Self-orientation

Imagine if we all proactively practiced genuine appreciation–what a wonderful world we would live in. It reminds me of one lesson of the Trust Equation; that as we empathetically reach out to others by giving them a sense of importance, we simultaneously reduce our own self-orientation.

An old Chinese proverb says it all “Flowers leave some of their fragrance on the hand that bestows them.”

When we make people feel good about themselves we elevate ourselves to greatness as well.

Trust Primer Volume 11

Our goal at Trusted Advisor Associates is to help people and their organizations become more trustworthy and trust-enhancing. It’s always exciting when we meet people who believe as we do. It’s even more exciting to talk to those who have found success by applying the same principles we talk about.

This month we place a spotlight on real trusted advisors, success stories of real professionals who make trust part of the foundation of their business strategies.

The Trust Primer Volume 11 features three powerful interviews: Chip Grizzard, CEO of Grizzard Communications; Jeb Brooks, son of author Bill Brooks and Executive Vice President of the Brooks Group; and Mahan Khalsa, partner of Ninety-five-5 and author of Let’s Get Real Or Let’s Not Play.

Each of these three demonstrate in their own unique ways how concepts of trust have played out for them in sales and leadership careers.

Get the Trust Primer volume 11 here

If you enjoy this ebook, you can email it to friends by following this link. Better yet, stop by the blog and join in the conversation. If you received this from a friend or colleague and would like to subscribe to the series, click here.

Help, Leadership and Teamwork

“I helped Maia and Maia helped me”… was the breathless comment of a three year old at the end of a very successful Easter egg hunt recently; she had formed a partnership with an equally ambitious four year old egg-hunter to be clear winners in the task of finding (and consuming!) as many Easter eggs as possible.

At the other end of the age spectrum, a Chief Operating Officer said to me last week that senior leadership relationships in his organization were improving through an increased readiness to approach colleagues with the simple request, ‘I need some help. Please do me a favour.’ It had not been easy to start to do this, he pointed out, because it had implied a declaration of vulnerability but the results were making it most worthwhile.

As leaders strive to build the agile, trust-based cultures that fuel the quality conversations – strategic, creative, curious, experimental – needed to generate breakthrough ideas and breakthrough execution, I notice them using more and more the language and approaches of ‘help.’ Are you noticing this too?

Thinking About Helping

If so, we might turn to Ed Schein’s 2009 book Helping: How to Offer, Give, and Receive Help. Schein suggests ‘what we think of as effective teamwork, collaboration and co-operation can all be understood best as consistent effective mutual helping.’ He defines teamwork as ‘a state of multiple reciprocal helping relationships including all members of the group that have to work together. Building a team therefore is not just creating one client/helper relationship but simultaneously building one among all the members.’

Schein points out the many challenges involved in giving and receiving help. As receivers of help, we can often feel diminished or ‘one down’ when offered help. As givers of help, we must consciously pause and turn away from what seems to be most pressing at the time in what are often very busy, hectic lives.

Principles of Helping

Three principles and tips stand out from Schein’s advice to leaders:

  1. Task interdependence is the foundation of strong mutual helping relationships. Maia of the Easter egg hunt understood perfectly that she and her little friend had better chances working together than did others searching on their own. Similarly, a VP of Sales and a VP of Operations in an IT Services company have formed a very strong ‘helping’ relationship around the challenging task of entering a new market. Schein argues that, without these mutually important tasks, it is very difficult to form strong ‘helping’ relationships. He zeroes in on the importance of solicited, specific, descriptive and goal-related feedback–enabling colleagues to become more helpful.
  2. The strongest helping relationships occur when both giver and receiver are ready, and the relationship is equitable. He urges the giver of help to check whether the person she wants to help is ready and able to receive it; and the receiver to give regular feedback on what is and is not helpful—in particular, being clear when help is no longer required.
  3. Effective helping starts with pure inquiry, a strong effort to understand and empathise with the needs of the person requiring help. No matter how clear the request for help, he urges us to pause and reflect, truly to listen, and to challenge our own assumptions. This is particularly important at the beginning of a helping relationship because it enhances the status of the one being helped, and maximises the information available to the helper.

The Trust Equation and Helping

The Trust Equation supplements Schein’s notions as a strong frame for effective helping relationships. To be truly helpful to you, I focus on your needs, not mine (low Self-orientation); you are safe raising any issue you wish with me, and I will engage with you at both emotional and rational levels (high Intimacy); when you ask for advice, I will be clear and truthful (high Credibility); and you can rely on me to be available to you when needed (high Reliability).

I recently saw one CEO commit to his organization to:

  1. Encourage open feedback across my leadership team about the pursuit of the team’s collective and individual goals. Above all, cultivate a readiness in the team to say ‘I am not sure’, ‘I need some thoughts on this one’, ‘This is not quite going as we would wish it to.’
  2. Adopt an even more inquiring approach with my colleagues, really listening in order to understand their needs for help, and challenging my own assumptions about what I think they need.
  3. Check in regularly on what help is needed and how this is changing.
  4. Invite help myself, showing my own vulnerability as a result. Acknowledge my own deficit of understanding and knowledge in numerous matters.

He will help his organization and his organization will help him. Just like the Maia egg-hunting partnership.

Attitude Adjustment: A Customer Service Reality Check

This article was first published in

I bet you’ve said this before: “If it weren’t for the customer, this would be a great business.” I have. We say it as a little joke, an eye-rolling one-liner when we have “one of those” customer moments.

Jokes are funny only because they’re partly true. And where there’s the smoke of truth, there’s often fire. This sort of attitude may be a signal that your business is missing opportunities to better serve your customers. Here’s a look at the folly behind this flawed mind-set and how to stop it in its tracks.

Companies do a lot of things for their own convenience—not the customer’s. Step into the customer’s shoes, and imagine how you’d feel in these scenarios:

  • It’s two minutes before closing. You sprint to the store, only to have the person inside shrug, point at the clock and continue locking the store door.
  • You dial the company’s number and get a brusque “hel-lo” from someone you’ve clearly interrupted in the middle of a far more compelling activity and who’s annoyed by the interruption.
  • You say, “I’m not sure, just looking around,” and the salesperson visibly loses interest in you.

I could go on: the phone pitch aimed at qualifying you in or out, the obstetrician who wants to schedule the Caesarean on Thursday before Friday’s golf outing, the clerk who mumbles “thanks for shopping at XYZ” while chatting on the phone.

You might be thinking, “That’s retail or consulting. I know better. I really don’t do that sort of thing.”

Let’s keep going. Do you ever:

  • Screen out low-quality leads for the sake of efficiency? What that says is, “If I can’t get in your wallet in X seconds, then you’re not worth my time.” (See related column: “Sales Efficiency Can Hurt Your Marketing.”)
  • Say, “We don’t do that here,” and just leave it at that? Not only is that insulting to the customer, it translates as “You should’ve looked this up before wasting my time.” But it assumes you know every possible variation of the customer’s situation.
  • Find yourself with a chatty customer and think, “Is this guy going to make up his mind sometime this year?” The customer hears what you’re thinking — it shows up in your rolled eyes, your fake smile, your heaving sighs.
  • Tell customers, “Please give us two days’ notice,” when an hour would do?
  • Say to yourself, “Well, if that’s what he wanted, why didn’t he say so in the first place?”
  • Say to yourself, “Why do I seem to get all the stupid clients?” If you’re getting all the stupid clients, take a look in the mirror. Either you really do attract stupid people, or your definition of “stupid” is faulty.
  • Say to yourself after a customer changes his or her mind, “Just make a decision, already.”

All of these are opportunities to say, “This would be a great business if it weren’t for the customers.”

It’s easy to see what’s going wrong here. We construct comfortable worlds for ourselves. When a customer upsets our idea of the way things should be, we don’t like it. And it leads to resentment. But if we can see the situation from the customer’s point of view, we can generate empathy that could lead to a better business outcome.

Here are three ways to help you thwart the “if it weren’t for the customer” blues. Next time you encounter a troublesome customer, remind yourself:

  1. “I wonder what she’s thinking.”
    The next time a customer does something you consider odd, ask yourself, “I wonder what she’s thinking?” Resist the urge to blame, and banish the eye roll. Replace these with simple curiosity. If you can figure out what’s behind her behavior, you’ll not only know how to react, you’ll empathize. And she’ll appreciate it.
  2. “It’s not about me.”
    When customers are angry at you — furrowed brow, disapproving tone, maybe even yelling — remember that what you’re hearing isn’t people who are angry at you, but people who are angry while standing in close proximity to you. In other words, it isn’t about you. It’s about them. You’re just picking up the flack by being in the neighborhood. If you don’t take it personally, then you can empathize with them, and help them get what they want.
  3. “There are few degrees of separation.”
    You’ve heard the theory of six degrees of separation, the number of links separating you from Kevin Bacon and every other stranger in the world. These days, that number feels far smaller. That annoying customer may be likely to know someone you know. Word gets around exponentially faster nowadays. Treat this customer like you’d treat a friend. Odds are good that you are you will not be far off.

Adopt these tactics, and your business can be great—because of the customers.

Top 6 Facts About Trust and How to Become More Trustworthy

Trust is a tricky thing. When you’ve got someone’s trust it’s great: you can sell them more stuff, get more favors, ask for more, and generally benefit a great deal. But when someone doesn’t trust you, forget about it, you’re in big trouble.

So what do we know about trust? Turns out a lot! After years of research and 73,000+ responses to a trust quiz, we compiled a list of the Top 6 Facts About Trust.

  1. Trust = Credibility + Reliability + Intimacy + Self-Orientation
    Trust can be measured across four key factors, including credibility, reliability, intimacy and self-orientation. Credibility is all about what we say, our skills and credentials. Reliability is all about the actions we take and our predictability. Intimacy is tied to how comfortable people are confiding in us, and our empathy. And self-orientation is about ego.  Learn more about The Trust Equation here.
  2. Expertise Does NOT Equal Trust
    Your expertise in something doesn’t guarantee people will trust you. So overemphasizing your expertise isn’t always the best way to succeed.
  3. Balance is Good
    People are considered more trustworthy when they rank all four trust components very close together. So the more balanced you are along the four trust components, the better. If you’re super credible but not intimate at all, trust drops.
  4. Most People Aren’t Balanced
    Survey results show that most people do emphasize 1 or 2 trust components more heavily than others. For 53% of respondents to the survey, Reliability was ranked as the highest. Intimacy and Self-Orientation ranked lowest at 28%. It turns out we think we’re reliable, but we don’t want to get too close to people and we’ve got big egos! Sounds about right to me!
  5. We All Think We’re Experts
    Even though expertise is the least effective strategy for gaining someone’s trust, it’s the one that people use the most often. People like to define themselves by their expertise and skills. But it looks like we’re not impressing a whole lot of people … at least when it comes to trust.
  6. Trust Can Be Taught
    If you’re not trustworthy, don’t worry. You can be saved. Trust can be taught, by focusing on your weaknesses in any of the four trust components. Actually, intimacy skills are the most easily taught. We’re talking about soft skills here — let’s keep this out of the bedroom! Truth is, it’s easier to learn to listen and to empathize (i.e. intimacy) than it is to gain an advanced degree (credibility / expertise).

So now that you know the Top 6 Facts about Trust, you can use them to improve your own trustworthiness … or do a better job of faking it! Trust matters. Don’t forget it. You’ll sell more, get better jobs, find better looking dates (OK, I don’t have scientific proof on that one, but it sounds good!) and succeed overall. So get intimate, keep the ego in check, don’t focus too much on your expertise — and you’ll be all set!

For more learning and tools on building trust:
1) Take the Trust Quotient Quiz

2) Read Our White Paper: Think More Expertise Will Make You More Trusted? Think Again

3) Read Article:  Ten Myths about Selling Intangible Services

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Build deeper trust with your clients and colleagues


The pragmatic, field-oriented follow-on to the classic The Trusted Advisor. Green and Howe go deep into the how-to’s of trusted business relationships—loaded with stories, exercises, tips and tricks, and deeply practical advice.


TrustBasedSelling“Sales” and “Trust” rarely inhabit the same sentence. Customers fear being “sold” — they suspect sellers have only their own interests at heart. Is this a built-in conflict? Or can sellers serve buyers’ interests and their own as well? The solution is simple to state, hard to live—and totally worth the effort.



The Trusted AdvisorThis classic book explores the paradigm of trust through the filter of professional services. It is a blend of thought and practice, clear ideas and practical suggestions, and it has found a place on many professionals’ working bookshelves.


2010: The Summer of Trust

This article was first published in

What would become known as the Summer of Love was already taking shape in January 1967, in the Human Be-in at Golden Gate Park. The phrase itself—Summer of Love—was bandied about for months that spring by national media, building up demand among students impatiently waiting for the school year to end. The Grateful Dead, the Merry Pranksters, Free Love, Be-ins, Hippies, and Timothy Leary were all part of the mix. At the time, “Love” was a euphemism for various things: music, progressive political policies, psychedelic drugs, sex.

But however the word was used, it eventually became clear that the legacy of that summer was anything but love. As PBS later put it, “by 1968 … an alternative lifestyle had descended into a maelstrom of drug abuse, broken dreams, and occasional violence.” The summer of 1967 was also the Summer of Riots in Newark, Detroit, and 126 other U.S. cities.

You could argue that the level of talk about “love” was inversely proportional to the love that resulted. Which brings us to 2010, and the Summer of Trust.

Distrust, Anger and Discontent

In 2010, “trust” has bloomed in the public’s consciousness the way “love” did back then. I’ve been focusing on trust for 13 years now, and the amount of attention I see focused on the subject is unprecedented.

But—what will be the legacy of the Summer of Trust? Will we look back on all this focus as a time of consciousness-raising, enabling an increase in a crucial element of business and society? Or, like the Summer of Love, will more talk actually signal the reverse—the beginning of even more malfeasance and declining trust?

Trust has certainly gotten the full attention of the measuring and tracking industries. Beginning in January, the Edelman Trust Barometer celebrated its 10th edition at Davos.Gallup hit the headlines with its Confidence in Institutions poll. Both showed new lows for various forms of trust. The Pew Research Center weighed in, showing trust in government down, with distrust, anger, and discontent all on the rise.

Perhaps most obviously, the “T” word got considerable play with current events. Think how quickly we came to connect “trust” (as in “abuse of” or “failure of”) with: BP (BP) (April); Goldman Sachs (GS) (April); Toyota (TM) (February); GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) (July); congressional ethics (August); the press and the White House (July); Tylenol manufacturing (JNJ) (May).

In the press, CNBC hosted a distinguished panel of experts on the subject of restoring trust in business and markets. And Forbes produced a 19-article special on trust.

HBR’s special edition was there a year before, and BusinessWeek declared The Great Trust Offensive to be the new high ground way back in fall ’09).

Tower of Babel

Trying to make sense of all the above is daunting. What other subject matter is eclectic enough to merit press coverage on issues from leadership to economics to psychology to politics to marketing? Some of this is due to the sheer cantankerous mess of the word itself. Our casual use of the word “trust” fails to distinguish between a noun (“trust is down”), a verb (“trust me”), and an adjectival phrase (“politicians are less trusted than lawyers”).

This is not a trivial issue of semantics. We use the same word for long-term social belief systems (e.g. “democracy works”) that we use for feelings that follow economic cycles (e.g. “I trust the President”). Beneath this definitional difficulty lurks real confusion about social policy. If trust in government is down, does that mean that people are less trusting? Or that government is becoming less trustworthy? Ditto for the SEC, the local school system, and the mass media. Is the problem that we trust less, or that people, policies, and institutions have genuinely become less worthy of our trust?

If indeed the bigger issue is trustworthiness, we need to look to codes of conduct, approaches to governance and regulation, and misaligned goals and incentives. If the issue is that as a people we have become less and less inclined to trust, then scholars would tell us the root issues are such things as economic disparity, the perceived inability to better one’s life, and a generalized sense of good or ill will on the part of others. Intelligent policy discussions can’t be held if we don’t cultivate the data, even the language, to make such simple distinctions.

We sometimes forget a simple fact about trust: It’s about relationships. There has been an explosion in the number of relationships we all maintain. Fragmented business models (think outsourcing) have increased the number of relationships we maintain with customers, suppliers, new and old co-workers, and industry contacts. These new relationships are hyper-fueled by the growth in new social media (Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, blogs, and e-mail), in turn supported by faster Internet speed and lower costs. Just imagine how many people you interact with daily, as compared with the number 10 years ago.

Given the growth in our interactivity, we are in many ways far more trusting than we were just 10 years ago—in the amount of information we share online and the number of people we share it with. A higher number of untrustworthy interactions is compatible with a lower rate of untrustworthy interactions. So is trust up or down? Perhaps both.

Where the Weak Links Lie

Nonetheless, surveys saying “trust is down” are almost certainly saying something meaningful. And three sectors are most at risk of becoming the Newark and Detroit of this Summer of Trust. They are government, business, and the press.

The Shirley Sherrod case was a frightening example of trust breakdown for government and media. Just as with the recent financial meltdown, it became apparent that an infection in one part of the system was immediately reflected in another. Everyone—from mainstream news to bloggers to politicians—immediately bought a story that was presented horribly out of context.

The CNBC panel discussion showed the dysfunction at the junction of media and business. A panel of distinguished experts, summoned to talk about “restoring trust in business, the markets, and government,” found they couldn’t agree on much other than the need for tax cuts, a politician-like response to a critical social question stated, yet unenforced, by the media.

All three sectors—politics, business, media—are suffering from a rapid replacement of relationships by transactions. When time is short, feedback is instant, and attention spans are measured in nanoseconds, we get daily sound bites expressed at high decibel levels around issues that cry our for longer, thoughtful, collaborative discussion.

As the world of business becomes more and more interdependent and tightly connected, the implications for trust are twofold. On the one hand, the need to interact smoothly may be the major force driving us to increased trust relationships.

On the other hand, if those relationships are made up solely of low-trust, short-term, market-based transactions, the same need for interdependence will put us at greater risk of Black Swan events, thus threatening systemwide trust. We need to figure out how to integrate long-term relationships and shared goals with business models that link multiple organizations.

Trust Me, I’m from HR/IT/Legal/Finance

When we hear the phrase “Trusted Advisor,” most of us think of external experts: consultants, actuaries, accountants, lawyers, the professions. But there is another group for whom that term is at least as relevant—maybe even more so. That group is made up of internal staff functions: and mainly the “Staff Big Four:” HR, IT, Legal and Finance.

These internal staff have exactly the same challenge that their outside brethren have—to successfully persuade and influence others, over whom they have exactly zero direct authority.

But it’s worse for internals: first, because they eat in the same lunchroom as their clients and are known by their first names, they tend to not get the same respect that outside experts do.

Second: an internal consultant can’t fire his or her client. They are joined at the hip, like a married couple, for better or worse.

The Big 4 functions represent a big chunk of our business, not far behind trusted advisor work, and about the same level as Trust-based Selling work. And although the keys to success are pretty much the same for internal advisors as for externals, there are some distinct cultural problems that each of the Big 4 functions face.

Differences Between the Big 4 Functions

  • The IT Challenge. Ask any line employee. “The problem with IT,” they’ll say, is “they use too much jargon and don’t deliver on time or on budget.” Strip out the value-laden words and what we hear is that IT has a reputation for being non-user-friendly, and that its big trust opportunity may lie in improving reliability.
  • The HR Challenge. Unlike their IT brethren, HR suffers from speaking the same language as everyone else; which means everyone else feels equal to them in expertise. AS HR folks will tell you: “they can’t get no respect;” and they more they ask for it, they less they get.
  • The Legal Challenge. You know this one too. “The trouble with lawyers is, they always tell me what I can’t do, and don’t help me with what I can do.” Let’s translate that into simply a predilection for avoiding Type 1 error (doing the wrong thing) at the cost of Type 2 error (not doing the right thing). Let’s call this one a misalignment around risk profiles.
  • The Finance Challenge. Finance tends to speak clearly, meet deadlines, and be very sober about risk. In fact, very sober about pretty much everything. The fear that clients have of finance people is that of being relentlessly ground down on budgets, financial analyses, plans and forecasts. They are relentlessly, somberly, right.

Each of these groups can take some simple, solid steps toward improving their level of trust by their clients. (And if you’re an external, keep reading: this applies to you too).

Key Trust Opportunities by Function

Improving Credibility. More an issue for HR than the others, remember that credibility is not only—in fact, not even mainly—an issue of credentials. The average internal client is not impressed that you have advanced degrees, or that you are a recognized expert in OD. You can argue that’s not fair, but arguing fairness just digs the hole deeper.

What improves credibility is the capacity to apply your knowledge to a specific client situation—in their language. Instead of letting the client know that you’ve seen the latest, greatest research on teaching emotional intelligence—instead, use emotional intelligence yourself to help identify, and identify yourself with, client issues. For example, “Joe, do you find your people are as involved in work as you’d like them to be? Where do you see that playing out? And how big an issue is it for you? In what terms?”

Improving reliability. Reliability—an issue that affects IT more than the other Big Four—is one of the four key components of the Trust Equation, and one of the easiest to correct. Simple awareness is a good place to begin. Reliability lends itself far more easily to measurement than do the other components of trust (credibility, intimacy, low self-orientation); figure out good measures of reliability, and track them. Think you’re already doing the most you can? Try increasing the number of promises you make, even small ones; then make sure to meet them.

Improving Intimacy. Intimacy is the variable that makes an advisor ‘client-friendly.’ Intimacy skills are what make a client feel comfortable sharing, or not sharing, information with you. If you’re being constantly shunted into a role which is far short of your capabilities, this is one area to focus on (the other is self-orientation—see below).

You don’t have to resort to commenting on kids’ pictures, college degrees and ‘how ‘bout them Bulls.’ Make it a point to learn things about your clients’ business lives—then ask them for help in understanding things that you genuinely don’t understand about them.

Self-Orientation. We find that nearly everyone can improve their trustworthiness by getting better at lowering their self-orientation (see “Get Off Your S”). Within the Big Four internals, this is particularly useful for HR and IT organizations. Too many clients see HR as whiney, and lawyers as officious: both of which are forms of overly developed self-orientation.

The solution is harder than for the other issues, but well within reach. Simply be very, very sure to see issues from the client’s vantage point—not just from yours. No one’s asking you to abdicate your professional perspectives, just to see it as well from the other side of the table. If a client says to you, “We want to do X, how can we do it?” make sure to start with, “Interesting idea; let me make sure I understand what this means to you. Tell me more about what you could do with this, how it would make you more successful. I want to make sure I know where you’re coming from before I try to comment.”

Risk-Orientation. Both Finance and Legal get heavily tarred with the brush of being too risk-averse. To some extent that may seem unfair; after all, part of their job is indeed, to manage downside risk.

But organizations that adopt an adversarial relationship, where Legal represents the downside and management argues for the upside, are creating vast areas of unnecessary cost, mistrust and confusion. It’s far better to create collaborative relationships, where issues can be sorted out mutually.

While improving self-orientation and intimacy skills are certainly relevant for many legal and financial people, there is still an underlying disconnect about risk. This disconnect has to be called out at the start. It’s no good having lawyers and Finance people suggesting, from the get-go, that their role is to reign in the irrational exuberance of those id- and ego-driven people out there in the market; we can look at the pharmaceutical and investment banking industries as pockets where the relationship has deteriorated into such a caricature, and it is not pretty.

Instead, staff people have to state the terms at the outset: ‘We are here to collaborate with you in jointly determining the right amount of business risk to take on, consistent with legal, regulatory and market-based risk. We all work for the same organization; and we’re committed to working with you.’

Then, walk the talk.