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Podcast: EmbedSubscribe to TrustMatters, The Podcast Android | RSS
Podcast: EmbedSubscribe to TrustMatters, The Podcast Android | RSS
(I’m attending #CODECON this week). Trust in digital technology is a nascent hot issue. The headlines are a target-rich environment for emerging trust issues: from GDPR to autonomous vehicles to fake news to ad tech to AI to cyber-hacking. Tech leadership is scrambling to stay out in front of the EEC, the Justice Department, and – most of all – public opinion.
Trust is not yet the crippling threat that we see in financials or pharmaceuticals; brands are still strong, the sector is relatively regulation-free, and money is being minted. But the clouds are on the horizon. According to Edelman PR, “Trust in technology is showing precipitous decline.” Smart leaders know not to ignore the canaries in the mine.
The usual solutions are – to be kind – all over the map. They include governance, “best practices,” re-skilling, communications efforts, transparency initiatives, compliance programs, and mission statements.
If you feel these “solutions” are all vaguely unsatisfying – you’re right. What they all lack is a fundamental understanding of the basics of corporate trust, as applied to tech.
At the root of it all: people trust people more than organizations.
Trust – the Basics
Consider three basic, commonsensical tenets of trust:
- Trust is a dynamic relationship between trustor and trustee;
- Trust is created when a trustor takes a risk, to which the trustee responds (or doesn’t), creating higher levels of trust (or not);
- The strongest trust is between persons; trust in organizations by contrast is pale, or ‘thin.’
Here are a few counter-intuitive corollaries of those basic principles:
- Working directly on the perception of corporate trust – through PR, advertising, reputation management – is pushing on a string. Corporate messaging urging you to trust the corporation is impersonal, viewed skeptically, and weak by nature;
- Risk mitigation doesn’t help trust, it destroys it. All trust begins by a trustor taking a risk; no risk, no trust.
- The best way to create a trusted organization is to create a Trust-based Organization: one in which all persons are trusting and trusted by all those they encounter, in all their interactions.
The failure of corporations to articulate coherent approaches to trust can be traced to their failure to fully appreciate that trust is primarily personal, that it requires risk, and that it is driven by employees interacting with others based on core trust values.
A positive (or negative) personal interaction with a Lyft driver does more to create (or destroy) trust than a revised TOS agreement, ad, or app feature. Ditto for an Airbnb host, a Google technical service rep, or a Salesforce account exec. Corporate trust is created by the aggregation of personal interactions at the platform/customer interface.
Trust Basics Applied to Tech
The tech industry, like most, has a few peculiar wrinkles. For one, tech inherently deals with inanimate, impersonal ‘things,” whether that be iPhones or algorithms. It’s an uphill battle to personalize trust.
Another signature trust challenge for tech is scaling. This typically means data capture, digitization, and algorithms-cum-procedures. Trust can also scale – but through values, not algorithms. Corporate trust ultimately rests on personal trust, which rests on personally-demonstrated values:
- Southwest Airlines’ reputation emerged unscathed from recent disasters that would have sunk United, because its demonstrated emphasis on deeply personal interactions inoculated it against the impersonal “big company” image;
- Facebook has a great trust advantage in that its core subject is personal relationships. But it gained a reputation as being “creepier” than Google because, once hacked by fake ‘friends’, our sense of personal betrayal is far greater than for a flawed algorithm about buying preferences.
Transparency in tech is big – but often misunderstood. Transparency per se is not key – it’s how open you are about what you’re being transparent about. Ten pages of “disclosed” Terms of Service is like the small print at the end of your bank statement – more a cause for suspicion than a gesture of openness. Tech customers – like all people – will accept a wide range of behaviors as long as they feel you’re being intentionally open about them.
What is To Be Done?
The answer is simple, albeit not easy. Create a Trust-based Organization.
As noted above, that means an organization in which the cultural DNA is rooted in individual relationships, in which people know how to be trusting and trustworthy in all their personal interactions, and in which the organization supports such traits through some specific shared values.
- Trusting. The key skill of trusting is intelligent risk-taking. This is less about risk-aversion, and more about knowing how to be personally vulnerable and emotionally connected. The skills of empathy, listening and transparency are, to paint with a broad brush, not widely practiced in tech – but they are as key to trust as anywhere else.
- Trustworthiness. The Trust Equation lists the four factors of personal trustworthiness: (Credibility + Reliability + Intimacy) / Self-orientation. Tech people love the equation-based formulation, but tend to focus overwhelmingly on the two ‘rational’ components of Credibility and Reliability. Yet our research shows that, in fact, the single most powerful factor driving personal trustworthiness is Intimacy. Again, not a core strength in most of tech.
- Values. The Four Trust Principles – Collaboration, Relationships over transactions, Transparency, and Other-focus – offer a values-based beginning point for cultural transformation. There are many things an organization can do to become trust-based, but chief among them are conscious role-modeling on the part of leadership: in particular, role-modeling of the virtues of trusting and being trustworthy.
(It’s worth noting that the traditional tools of change management – metrics, KSFs, incentives – are not only not very helpful in trust, but can even be counter-productive: we don’t trust others if we think they’re incentivized to appear trustworthy just to gain personal advancement).
In sum, people don’t trust YourCo. They trust the people in YourCo, and they do so based on how those people interact with them and with all others.
If you’re serious about improving trust in your company, don’t lead with your communications department – lead with your leaders. Personally.
The morning news is celebrating a minor triumph of civility in the United States Senate. Senator Susan Collins helped broker a (very) short-term deal by using a talking stick – a centuries-old example of early social engineering from Native Americans.
What’s interesting here is not the agreement itself, but how the use of the talking stick creates trust.
The Nature of Trust
Interpersonal trust is a bilateral, reciprocating relationship based on risk-taking. Let me unpack that in simple English.
Trust requires a trustor, and a trustee. The trustor initiates the relationship by taking a risk. The trustee then responds, or not, by being trustworthy. The players than reciprocate roles – it becomes the trustee’s turn to be the trustor. And so on.
As a visual metaphor, think of a simple handshake; one person extends their hand – the other (usually) responds in kind. A minor social ritual, but of the type that plays out dozens of times a day in simple respectful, reciprocating gestures. It is the stuff of etiquette, among other things.
The Critical Role of Listening
Trust formation follows the rule of reciprocity – but what is the currency of that reciprocity? A powerful component of it is very basic – listening. As in, “If you listen to me, I will listen to you.”
This is a familiar proposition to all of us. In sales, we have “I don’t care what you know until I know that you care.” In fields as diverse as hostage negotiation, terrorist interrogation, and suicide hotlines, we know the critical nature of listening in order to ensure the other person feels heard. (In the field of relationships, you’ve probably been on one end or the other of the familiar line, “Would you stop trying to solve the problem, I just want you to listen to me.”)
I’m not talking about “active listening,” or listening to find out the other person’s position, or to formulate a value proposition. I’m talking about something much more basic and fundamental – listening so that the other person feels heard, validated, understood. This is primal stuff.
The Talking Stick
What the talking stick does is to ritualize this fundamental human truth. The only person allowed to talk is the one holding the stick. The result – even though everyone ‘knows’ that it’s an artificial constraint – is that it works.
We are hard-wired to appreciate the civility of listening – and to respond in return. The talking stick is a physical reminder of a basic rule of trust creation: the critical role of listening. If you let me talk about my issues, I will then let you talk about yours.
It’s a rule all humans seem to respect; and a clever vehicle, even if transparent, for drawing on our better natures to create trust.
Where do you draw the line between general best practices and vertical industry-specific applications? The answer, of course, is it depends. Specifically, it depends on the best practice, and on the industry. But what does that mean in the general case of leadership, and the specific industry of complex intangible services?
Think of all the books on leadership in business. Now think about the leaders those books routinely cite as examples. Jamie Dimon may come to mind. Other names might include Jeff Bezos, Neil Armstrong, Ray Kroc, Pat Reilly, Steve Jobs, Walt Disney, or Jack Welch.
Now take this simple test. Imagine Jack Welch running a consulting firm. Imagine Jamie Dimon as CEO of an accounting firm. Ray Kroc running a law firm? Bill Belichik at an actuarial firm? Steve Jobs a commercial banker?
If these combinations sound a little “off” to you, there is a reason. Leadership is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. Most writing on leadership assumes a single definition of “business.” But leaders in certain businesses look decidedly different. Among those distinctive businesses, I would suggest, are retailing, high technology – and complex intangible services.
Intangible services firms often waste considerable time and effort in management development – and in management itself – by focusing unduly on leadership themes that are not business-relevant. Why? Because of the unconscious belief that there must be leadership “best practices,” and therefore what’s best for Apple/IBM/Amazon/Goldman must be best for everyone else as well. But the truth is, if Jeff Bezos is king, it’s only of one particular kingdom.
For complex intangible services, relative to industry at large, some leadership traits are more important – and some less important. The relatively more important themes are trust, coaching and values. Among the relatively overrated are vision and rewards systems.
GALP (GENERALLY ACCEPTED LEADERSHIP PRINCIPLES)
The list below shows the results of an unscientific quick scan of the business leadership literature. There are fifteen topics, arranged alphabetically. Most if not all these topics fall within four components of leadership identified by Warren Bennis, probably leadership’s top guru – vision, communication, trust, and personal characteristics.
LIST OF LEADERSHIP TRAITS: VARIOUS SOURCES
- Implementing consistent systems
- Inspiring people to greatness
- Leading by example
- Organizing for flexibility and responsiveness
- Personal development
- Team-building capabilities
The two “biggies” in leadership for industry at large may be vision and alignment. Vision is critical for leadership in many businesses. Without the compelling vision of an original leader, what would have become of Apple, Microsoft, McDonald’s, Amazon, and WalMart? Roberto Goizueta, as Coke’s CEO, gave a perfect example of leading by vision when he spoke of “a time when every faucet is used as God intended.”
Alignment is the other major leadership theme – alignment of message, rewards, incentives, measurement, and examples of leadership behavior. This focus on alignment is similar to the focus on vision in one respect – each is about the relentless reinforcement of a single, central theme, critical to the organization and its strategy.
Pick your metaphor: leadership in industry at large is like a) turning an aircraft carrier, b) being trail-boss on a cattle-drive, c) playing 3-dimensional chess, d) all the above. Leaders combine high-level direction-setting with the coordination of tactical complexities – relentless reinforcement of a theme.
Are all those key? Yes – for industry at large.
WHY LEADERSHIP IS DIFFERENT FOR INTANGIBLE SERVICES
By contrast, the dominant metaphor for intangible services businesses is widely accepted – it’s herding cats. And that calls for very different leadership.
The list below itemizes differences between industry and intangible services. Leadership in industry, of course, focuses on tangible “things” – markets, products, technologies, competitors, market shares, brand images, placement, positioning.
But intangible services are about abstractions, and about managing relationships to get there. They’re about process, not endpoints. The focus must be more on client service than on market share or competitive triumph. Every product/customer experience is non-trivially unique. Perfection is not about zero-defects, but about unbounded excellence – and excellence has no upper limit.
The relevant sports metaphor is not football, but solo sports like baseball or basketball. Professionals are, by and large, more driven, intellectual, internal, needy, hard on themselves, abstract, aloof, sensitive, and neurotic than their general management brothers and sisters.
In industry, strategy generally drives organization. In complex intangible services, strategy is as much driven as driver. An accounting firm may “decide” to invest in M&A work; but the real driver behind the “plan” is inevitably a partner or two who have a personal passion for the work.
Visionary leadership is great for a Coke, GE, et al. “Be number one or number two in every business we are in” means something in a business like jet engines, where the top player of 3 may have 50% market share. It’s less useful in consulting, banking or law, where there are hundreds of competitors, where the professional is the product, and every client/professional experience is unique.
COMPLEX INTANGIBLE SERVICES: DIFFERENCES
- No physical product
- Smaller organizations
- Far greater individual autonomy
- More matrix or practice management
- Higher average salaries
- Professional/staff, not non-exempt/exempt
- Fewer direct reporting lines
- Lower levels of industry concentration
- Certification driven expertise (CPA, JD, etc.)
- Less history of branding
- Apprentice system of personal development
- Less functional specialization re selling
- More fluid, ad hoc teams
- No upper limit to quality (e.g. no 6-sigma)
DEVELOPING LEADERS FOR INTANGIBLE SERVICES
In complex intangible services, visionary leadership is overrated. The best leaders inspire not by the relentless reinforcement of a theme, but by demonstrating a passion for client service. A vision is an idea – client service is an attitude. Visions are about goals; client service is about mindsets.
Leaders in industry capture attention; leaders in intangible services celebrate paying attention. In this one respect, intangible services businesses are more values-driven than other industries. I don’t mean social virtues, but values like client focus and collaboration.
Measurement systems also matter less. When every client situation is unique, the apprenticeship model applies; leaders must focus less on refining measurements, and more on getting the right people to do the right things – often despite the measurements, not because of them.
Leadership is less systemic and more personal. Cats are un-herdable – that’s the point of the joke. But they can be led, precisely by appealing to their cat-ness. Great leaders help people to grow, to replace their fears by cultivating curiosity, to subordinate their egos to client service, to dare to be great and constantly challenge themselves – to gain the ability to trust, and earn the right to be trusted.
Finally, leadership in intangible services is mainly about personal growth. That is not a platitude. In a business where every client/service delivery event is unique, personal growth is a strategic sine qua non. Not growth as a generic leader – growth as a human being.
A leader of cats can’t just be the Greatest Cat: (s)he has the be the one who best understands cat-ness.
Lisa McArthur, one of our esteemed consultants, tackles the topic of Trust & Leadership and provides practical, actionable steps you can take today to start improving both.
Into every leadership journey a little rain must fall. At some point, numbers start to head south; that key project begins to miss critical milestones. It happens to all of us. And when that rain does fall, remember that as a leader, you are defined not by your challenges – but by your response to them.
For many, missed targets or milestones trigger the instinct to micro-manage. After all, the only way to make sure you’re on top of everything is to put it all under a microscope and leave no stone unturned. Only a clear command-and-control style of leadership can help right the ship. Right?
So tempting; and yet so wrong!
The solution is not to overrule your team, it’s to get it working. Trust improves teamwork. Full stop. More reports and checkpoints will may provide more data, but chances are it is breakthrough ideas and approaches that will get you back on course. You need your team to focus on new possibilities and collectively take calculated risks.
To put it simply, they need to trust each other. Sounds simple, but as a leader, what does this mean? How can you build trust within your team? The trust equation, normally a descriptor of personal attributes, has something to add to team analysis:
1. Start with Intimacy
For those not familiar with the trust equation, intimacy is about creating safety and building a safe environment. Put yourself in a team member’s shoes. They have an idea that could help bring things back on track. Should they take a risk and offer the idea up to the group? What kind of reaction will they face? In a safe environment, new ideas are welcomed and become the seeds that can germinate true breakthough thinking.
Be honest. How does your team measure up? Are new ideas welcomed and used as building blocks or are they generally dismissed? If suggestions are met with a “we’ve tried that before” or “It’ll never work”, ideas will slowly stop coming.
As a leader, how are you building a “safe” environment to ensure that your team’s ideas are heard? At your next team meeting, try starting from a place of vulnerability. Talk about the issues at hand and your role in them. By taking a risk and being vulnerable you are showing your team that it is safe for them to take risks too!
Next, ask for help. We often resist asking for help for fear of appearing weak – but paradoxically, asking for help shows vulnerability, equality and a desire for collaboration. You’ve taken a risk (again) and shown your team that it is okay to do.
The plus – most of us are hard-wired to respond to honest requests for help. Get the brainstorming started and then listen. Really listen! Ask engaging questions, clarify and let the team build on each other’s ideas. New and innovative solutions are far more likely when everyone is fully engaged and feels safe to contribute.
2. “Check your S”
The “S” in the denominator of the trust equation is self-orientation – and a high number is not good. As a leader, you have to model low self-orientation. Are you focused on what YOU need – to report on a project’s progress or the latest operational results – or are you focused on what the TEAM needs? Even those leaders with the best intentions can find this difficult.
Acting as an “I”, we start directing and stop listening. How often have you asked for the latest sales results or project update only to then provide clear and specific direction on what you think is required?
Change your focus to “we”. Instead of the “I”, ask what the team needs to be successful – and then whatever it is, do it quickly. By changing your focus to the team, your actions will show your commitment to their success. Your commitment to the team’s success, and only the team’s success, lower’s your self-orientation. Done authentically, your team will respond in kind, re-committing themselves personally to the task at hand.
3. Build positive momentum with reliability
The biggest part of Reliability is, simply stated, do what you say you are going to do. We are all familiar with Newton’s first law of motion; “An object at rest, stays at rest. An object in motion stays in motion until acted upon by an external force.” How can you, as a leader, get the ball rolling?
Start small. Have the team set small, incremental targets. It’s important that the targets are set on the team’s terms, not yours. Make sure the targets are attainable and then celebrate each success. Suddenly, you have shifted the focus from what the team can’t do to what they can accomplish. With each small win, the team builds positive momentum and once you’re moving, no one will want to be the reason things come to a halt.
At the same time, resist encouraging sandbagging, or in its more polite form, “under-promising and over-delivering.” It’s just another form of lying to your clients, and it undercuts reliability, since it literally trains your clients to expect a disconnect between what you say and what you do. Which was the whole point in the first place.
4. Be honest
As a leader, your words have power. Now is the time to focus on clear, concise messages that your team will understand and take to heart. Now is not the time for nuanced explanations.
Words matter. If you are not sure of an answer – say so (in fact, “I don’t know” is one of the most credibility-enhancing things you can say – no one will suspect you of lying about that!). You can always go get the answer, but you won’t always get another chance to prove your honesty.
In environments where things get tough or are moving quickly, even tiny errors in facts or judgments can create large ripples in the team and create that ominous “spin” that suddenly brings all activity to an abrupt halt.
Life is full of ups and downs and rainy days; leadership is no different. Strong leaders understand how to build trust and foster an environment that encourages each team member to contribute to their fullest potential. The next time your team struggles, remember – don’t take over the job yourself – instead, lead with trust!
Walgreens, the venerable (116 years old, second largest) US drugstore chain, has announced a new tagline as part of a new brand positioning strategy. No longer will it be “At the corner of happy and healthy” – the new mantra is “Trusted Since 1901.”
I wish Walgreen’s nothing but the best, and don’t doubt their good intentions. Nor are they necessarily wrong on the facts. And, Walgreens is hardly alone in wanting to trumpet their levels of trustworthiness, or their trusted relationships with customers.
However, the use of “trust” in corporate branding is problematic on at least three dimensions. Walgreens provides a good opportunity to explain why.
I always tell people not to call themselves a ‘trusted advisor,’ and certainly not to incorporate the phrase into their advertising. It’s like saying “humility is my best quality.”
Trustworthiness is something of a virtue, and calling yourself virtuous just explodes the claim. It’s wonderful when other people use trust to describe you or your relationship with them – as long as it’s them saying it. (“Trust me” may be the two most trust-destroying words you can say).
Calling yourself ‘trusted’ is also different from calling yourself innovative, or respected, or high quality. Walgreens might want to take note that none of the ”Top 10 Most Trusted Brands” brands incorporate trust itself into their taglines.
They might also take note of how it’s worked our for “The Most Trusted Name in News,” whose tagline allows Donald Trump a convenient foil.
Claiming to be trusted is a bit like the Gary Hart strategy – daring the press to find otherwise. It’s like a red flag to a bull.
How many people will manage to dig up the fact that Walgreens made a substantial amount of money and growth during Prohibition by selling (legally) whiskey? Or that the pharmacy business managed to quickly carve out a very liberal interpretation of “medicinal purposes” during that period? Sorry, Walgreens, it’s what you’re setting yourself up for.
History aside, stuff happens. Ask BP about oil spills, or the old Union Carbide about explosions. Or, closer to home, J&J about Tylenol redux. Mis-steps are magnified, and stay in the press longer, for those who claim to be trustworthy in the first place.
Corporations are Not People
This is the biggest one. “Trust” is a word with much contextual nuance of interpretation. But one thing we can say for sure: personal trust is richer and stronger than corporate trust.
We trust people on an emotional level. We trust people based on our views of their intentions, their transparency, and their willingness to trust us.
By contrast, corporations’ intentions are usually very much self-oriented; transparency is little-practiced; and rare is the corporation without legal disclaimers governing their customer relationships. That’s not a criticism (well, it is a little bit); but it’s mainly just stating the difference between protein-based and legally-based entities and the ways we trust them.
Most corporate executives would probably agree with this in the abstract – but they ignore the implications in the particular. If they really believed it, they would be spending money on becoming more trustworthy, rather than on PR campaigns to be seen as more trustworthy, or on reputation management to change perceptions rather than underlying reality.
So What’s a Company to Do?
A company that is serious about being seen as trust-based would start by recognizing – it’s personal.
Trust is not created by spin, advertising, PR, or taglines. It is created by the collective personal behavior over time of corporate employees interacting with customers, suppliers and each other.
This means corporate trust is a culture-and-values issue – not a process-and-marketing issue.
A company that is serious about trust will, among other things:
- figure out how to trust its customers and suppliers, often by taking some form of risk (because trust is reciprocal – we trust those who trust us);
- invest in customer service by focusing on effectiveness, not efficiency; by using ROI, not budget variances, to measure success;
- hire, train for, and role-model best practices for interpersonal trust, including emotional intelligence, strict truth-telling, and vulnerability;
- consistently prioritize long-term, relationship-based behaviors over short-term, self-aggrandizing behaviors, in its compensation and promotion policies;
- focus on ways to establish deeper relationships with stakeholders, rather than focusing on issues like NDAs, non-competes, or arbitration clauses;
- make heroes out of people who model trust-based behavior.
We trust those more who do not protest how much we trust them.
This week our very own Lisa McArthur tackles the weight of fear and the weightlessness of forgiveness.
Reading the story of Dean Otto this week, it’s hard not to reflect on the power of forgiveness. For those not familiar with his story, Dean was seriously injured when struck by a truck while riding his bike last September. He had no feeling from the waist down. Against the odds, last week Dean completed a half-marathon in under 2 hours. But what makes this story so unique is that Dean ran that marathon alongside his surgeon and the young man who hit him.
Even while sitting on the side of the road, Dean forgave the driver. “I accepted what had happened to me. I forgave the guy that hit me so I wouldn’t harbor any resentment and being able to do that has really helped me throughout the whole process.”
A poignant example of forgiveness overcoming fear. Fear holds us back and restricts us from working together and accomplishing truly inspiring things. The ability to be gracious, to forgive, to move forward past a challenging event benefits everyone involved. If Dean can forgive the driver of the truck that hit him…what’s stopping me? What grievances do you have in your workplace and what’s stopping you from moving past them? In a word…FEAR.
Fear makes us hold back, avoid situations and do nothing. But doing nothing has a cost a well. How do we move past our fears, forgive and build trust?
Step 1: Name your fear
Start by being explicit about what is holding you back. Here are 4 common ones:
- Execution fear – I might make a mistake
- Competence fear – I don’t how to do it right
- Outcome fear – Everything might not turn out the way I want it to
- Shame-based fear – They might not like or respect me anymore
Step 2: Write it, Read it, Say it
Once you can identify your fear, write it down, read it and say it out-loud. Don’t be tempted to skip this step. By writing things down and saying them out-loud, we move past our fight-or-flight emotional impulses and diminish the power of the emotion. I’ve often been in contentious meetings and have scribbled many such “verbalizations” in the margin of my notebook. Trust me…it works!
Step 3: What’s the worst that could happen?
Think about your next meeting or conversation? What will you say or do? What is the worst thing that could happen? Could you be challenged? Yes. Could you be embarrassed? Possibly. What else might happen?
For many of us, the outcomes will not be life-threatening. They may be unpleasant for the short-term but will be things we can overcome. Thinking about outcomes rationally can help us maintain perspective and take the fear out of the situation.
Step 4: Identify the other person’s fear
Put your fears aside and try to see things from the other person’s perspective. Dean Otto told the young driver to not let this define or haunt him. He recognized the fear and impact of the event on both of them. Think about your personal situation…what fears might be driving the other person’s behavior? How might you be able to help them overcome their own fears?
This serves two key purposes…it may help you find new win-win ways to deal with the situation…but most importantly, it changes the sound of that little voice inside your head and lets you move beyond your fear.
Step 5: Act
Most importantly, you need to act.
Understanding both perspectives, take honest stock of the situation, define what you can and cannot do, then take action. Remember, the fear of doing something wrong often stops us from doing something right. Be confident in your intent. As Dean said he “forgave…so I wouldn’t harbor any resentment.”
Team performance in any organization starts with collaboration. We must learn how to hold ourselves accountable to each other, get past our own fears and resolve conflict quickly. Fear holds us back and prevents us from working together. By acknowledging our fears and taking the risk of forgiveness, we create teams that can accomplish great things. What fears are holding you back from forgiveness and what risks are you willing to take to run your own version of a half-marathon?
You’ve heard, “It’s not what you know; it’s who you know.” You’ve also heard the reverse.
You’ve heard, “You’ve got a limited amount of time to impress them; use it.” But you’ve also heard, “Let the client do most of the talking.”
And you’ve probably heard, “You’ve got to be just a little smarter than your client.” But you’ve probably also heard, “Don’t think you know more about your client’s business than your client does.”
So, what’s the role of smarts? How important is it to be smart? And, by the way, what does that even mean?
Let’s be clear. I’m not talking about emotional intelligence, political savvy, or so-called street smarts. I’m talking about what we usually mean by “smart” in business, which generally boils down to three things:
- Native intelligence, IQ-ish talent
- Subject matter mastery
- Industry knowledge
But let’s also be clear: being smart is less about what kind of smart you are and more about how you use your smarts. And usage, in turn, deconstructs into timing, amount, and context.
Kinds of Smart
I’ll use “IQ” as shorthand for some measure of native intelligence, mindful that there’s a lot of debate about its validity. IQ is seen as an innate form of smarts—you’re supposed to be born with it.
People with high IQs tend to think highly of high IQs, but that doesn’t mean everyone else does. In fact, if clients perceive someone as more clever, sharper, quicker, adept than them, it can be perceived as a negative—particularly if you’re selling.
“Watch out for this one,” the client thinks. “He might pull the wool over my eyes and outwit me.”
Subject matter mastery is different. It’s not an innate kind of smart; it’s derived from experience.
“I could be as smart as him,” thinks the client, “if I had chosen to work in that area.”
In fact, it’s that mastery that clients seek. A client hires a lawyer who knows the law precisely because the client doesn’t know it as well. A subject matter expert with a slightly lower (perceived) IQ than the buyer is even better. They are seen as knowledgeable but unthreatening.
Like subject matter mastery, industry smart is derived, not innate. But unlike subject matter mastery, its presence isn’t a plus so much as its absence is a minus. Clients, particularly those in professional and financial businesses, look down on “generalist” subject matter experts and functional specialists. There’s a general feeling that “our people won’t accept advice coming from you unless you have industry smarts” (though the speaker usually refers to ‘our people’ and not to himself).
In general industries, it is believed that management is management and sales is sales, that the know-how is transferable across industries. That isn’t the case in the professions—rightly or wrongly. You won’t win fighting that feeling; it runs deep.
Timing: When to be Smart
The time to show your IQ smarts is before you meet. Show it in your resume, qualifying documents, and your website’s “About Us” section. That’s because IQ smarts are the only kind of smarts that are potentially embarrassing to the client. The client doesn’t want to be over- or under-estimating you in real time; they’d prefer to know what kind of person they’re dealing with up front, in advance of meeting you. That way they feel much more in control, which is a good thing.
Once you’re in a meeting or interacting with the client, never mention IQ smarts again. Don’t bring up your resume, your degrees, your globe-hopping upbringing, or the brilliant circles in which you travel unless, of course, you’re asked a direct question.
You also want to show a little bit of subject matter smarts and industry smarts in advance of a first meeting or interaction—enough to assure the client they won’t be wasting their time and that they might well benefit from meeting you.
In short: be IQ-smart before you meet. And in face-to-face meetings, be subject-matter and industry-smart.
Amount: How Smart Should You Be?
No one likes to feel condescended to. Fortunately, it’s easy to avoid being condescending in subject matter and industry smarts. The main place to worry is in IQ smarts. If you really think your IQ is so much higher than your client’s, remember that your client is likely to resent or fear you if you make a point of it. Go work on your emotional quotient.
For subject matter and industry smarts, there is no natural upper bound. You’re being hired in part for your expertise, and your client will respect high levels of knowledge of your industry without fearing it. Your biggest challenge here is to be gracious in revealing how smart you are.
Context: Being Gracious about Your Smarts
The single most common sales error regarding smarts that professionals make is to think they have to show how smart they are. They somehow believe that a goal of client interaction is to demonstrate how smart they are. This is almost always unfounded, and frequently it accomplishes the very opposite of what’s desired. It makes the client feel you are self-centered and ego-driven and that you’re only out to make the sale.
Instead, the rule should be to use your smarts as necessary in support of the right thing for the client:
- If it’s useful to mention that a particular recommendation has been followed successfully by three other clients, then say so. But if you say so just to demonstrate your clout, it’s better to leave it unsaid.
- If it might be useful to the client that you know so-and-so, a big industry player, then mention it. If you do it only to prove your industry smarts, don’t.
- If a question is asked to which you clearly know the answer, answer it. But if it’s another question that was asked, and you’re piling on to that question to answer another one, unasked, stifle yourself.
Following that simple rule demonstrates that your driving motivation is client service, not the pursuit of the sale and not your search for ego gratification. And if you’re worried about not knowing the answer to an occasional question, remember a client would rather hear an honest “I don’t know” than a transparent struggle to fake your way through an answer.
The smart call is to use your smarts only in service to your client.