Real People, Real Trust: Our Magnificent Seven

Over the past year, I’ve offered an insider view into the challenges, successes, and make-it-or-break-it moments of seven men and women who are making their mark by leading with trust—every day. In case you missed any of them, or want a fresh dose of practical advice (not to mention inspiration), here’s a recap.

  •  “I asked him what would make him feel like we addressed the situation to his satisfaction.” Learn how Chip Grizzard’s nonprofit marketing and fundraising agency retained a long-term client even after mistiming their direct mail campaign.
  • “I have never had someone say, ‘I wish you hadn’t told me that.’” Find out how Anna Dutton, Sales Operations Director, finds the courage at her educational tech company to be genuine, tell the truth, and say things that others might not agree with.
  • “My life philosophy is there’s plenty of everything—customers, money, everything.” Take a tip from entrepreneur and former bed and breakfast owner John Dunn on collaboration…and learn how he joined forces with other B&Bs.

The themes across these stories: transparency, humility, courage, and true customer focus.

Many thanks, once again, to these magnificent role models.

Real People Real Trust: Transforming a Business from the Inside Out

Ron Prater has worked in government consulting firms for almost 20 years, including three years with Arthur Andersen LLP. In 2007, he set out with partner Alan Pentz to create a company that would apply real entrepreneurial curiosity to find new ways to solve the U.S. government’s biggest problems. The result is Corner Alliance. Find out how this organization, triggered by a crisis in its formative years, applied the principle of collaboration to devise a new and different kind of corporate culture.

Leadership Lessons

Ron and I have known each other through other people for years. A few months ago I was talking with Corner Alliance Director Sarah Agan, a mutual colleague and veteran consultant. I was intrigued by the unusual ways she described a recent all-hands meeting. “We practice ‘inner voice’ all the time,” she said. “And we have an explicit value to eat our own dog food.” Needless to say, I was intrigued by Sarah’s word choice and even more so by her animation. I wanted to find out more. So I set up some time to talk with Ron and Sarah together.

Ron explained it to me, “‘Eating our own dog food’ means we operate the way we advise our clients to—we follow the same processes and approaches we recommend to them.” “Essentially, we practice what we preach. It can be harder than it sounds when you’re trying to balance helping clients succeed while also trying to grow a sustainable business. And it hasn’t always been that way, even in our company’s short life.”

Learning the Hard Way

Corner Alliance had some growing pains in its early years. “We had a really tough time a few years ago when we lost a project that led to a serious financial struggle,” Ron confided. “I, along with my partner, Alan, and our Director of Operations, Brandi Greygor, responded in typical ways. Privately, we talked daily about how much money we had left in the company’s line of credit and what to do if we maxed out what the bank would loan us. Publicly, we sent a general message to staff that we all needed to ‘increase billability’ but we were afraid to state the full reason.

“We thought we were doing the right thing by keeping the true stress from our staff. The MBA books say it’s important to protect the people from the stress of running the business. And the HR consultants told us we had to follow proper procedures to avoid lawsuits if we did have to lay people off. So we kept things hidden.”

Going contrary to conventional business wisdom, Ron and the other principals listened to their own inner wisdom. “It’s not how our guts said to handle it. We faced a real inner conflict every day for months. How do you form a company of trust and transparency when it seems like all the advice you get—from grad school, friends, lawyers, and more—says to withhold information?

“Looking back,” Ron said, “I grew more personally from that very tough time than from every great year I had. While it was hard, the learning from those six months led to one of the most positive and significant turning points for Corner Alliance.”

Eat Your Own Dog Food

Out of the crisis came a big transformation for the company. “With cost-cutting, along with full transparency with our staff, we managed to stabilize our operations,” Ron said, “And we realized that, on the heels of such a hard and painful time, we had a real opportunity to fundamentally re-think and re-vision.

“So Alan and I announced to our staff that he and I would map out a new company strategy,” Ron elaborated, “including our top three strategic priorities. We told people at an all-hands meeting that we’d start by focusing on which clients to talk to and what to offer them. That message landed with a thud. Within the first few minutes of the meeting it was clear we had made a huge mistake and needed to rethink the approach.

“Our people said, ‘That’s not how we advise our clients to develop strategy. So why are we doing it that way?’”

That uh-oh moment led to a dramatically different plan to create the company’s strategy. “We realized we’d be stronger if we engaged the whole company in the company,” Ron continued. “And instead of starting with what we do and where we want to go, we started with who we are and what we wanted to stand for as a company,” Ron explained.

Put Values First

The group put first things first. “We focused first on our values, and to do that we created a conversation rather than creating a task,” Ron said. “We also found a way to make it a truly collaborative process, not just a collaborative process led by one person. We’ve never been about one-person trust—not at our core—so we found a way to define our values that would reflect that we all have to trust everyone else in the company.

“Since we’re a virtual company with staff in five different states, we selected an on-line tool to help us create the conversation. Everyone could contribute real-time, see each other’s inputs, make comments, and vote.”

Take Your Time

The process of defining yourself takes time Ron learned. “We allowed three weeks to generate ideas, and it took us about four months to solidify our values. If we had tried to get results in a one-day strategy session, our output would have been more generic—even with everyone participating,” Ron added. “People needed time to digest and think through what they stood for and then internalize that in relation to the company. The elapsed time allowed people to contribute at their best, and allowed the most important things to materialize organically.”

They ended up with 10 explicitly stated corporate values that are the foundation on which Corner Alliance continues to be built. Not surprisingly, “Eat our own dog food” was on the short list.

It’s a value that Sarah especially endorses. “We live that value even beyond our approach to strategy development,” she added. “Everyone takes turns running our internal meetings—everyone. We share leadership that way, and expand our capacity as leaders and facilitators at the same time. People get to experiment, practice, and learn in a safe environment, and they get real-time feedback. Just like the leaders we serve, we have to be willing to take risks and make mistakes to learn.”

Sarah continued, “It’s okay for things not to go well. What’s not okay is not learning from it. One of the greatest gifts we give each other is feedback. We are deliberate about creating a culture where we all recognize we’re both perfect and imperfect, where we can bring our whole selves—who we are and who we aren’t.”

Tell It Like It Is

Financial transparency is another key value that emerged from Corner Alliance’s collaborative strategy process. “Alan was instrumental in moving us to open-books management,” Ron said. “We now share just about everything with all employees every quarter, the exception being salary information. We have bi-weekly company-wide calls where everyone sees each other’s billability, our revenue, where we are exceeding or falling short of revenue projections.  We don’t hide anything bad or anything good.”

Ron is clear that the effect is palpable. “It has made a massive difference in everyone understanding the business impact of their decisions,” he stated. “It also supports one of our other corporate values, which is sustainability. I believe the whole firm really understands the state of Corner Alliance and can see that we have a really strong foundation for growth right now.”

Be Bold with Clients

That kind of transparency also now extends to Corner Alliance clients—in a bold and differentiated way. The stated value “inner voice” is about people sharing their internal dialog as much as possible, recognizing that’s often where the truth lies. Corner Alliance staff is encouraged to not leave important things unsaid.

“This is definitely not easy,” Ron emphasized. “It takes a commitment to practice over time with our clients and with each other. We actually label it, as in, ‘Using my inner voice, I’d like to say I think there are serious organizational risks associated with what you are considering.’ This makes it easier to do and hear as the person listening now knows that the person speaking is taking a risk.

“Our people know they’ve got the organization behind them every time they venture into inner voice territory,” Ron affirmed. “As Alan points out about using inner voice, ‘It’s a personal risk to reveal what you’re thinking but not saying. It’s a risk to the organization if you don’t.’ But we all also recognize it’s important to apply this value wisely, appropriately, and thoughtfully.”

Perhaps the most unexpected result from this dedication to speaking the truth is that clients have begun to pick up both the practice and the lingo. Ron explained, “When our clients started saying to us, ‘My inner voice is saying xyz,’ we knew we were onto something bigger.”

Reap the Rewards

The list of indicators that Corner Alliance is onto something is long, and now includes growing staff, secure multi-year prime contracts in place, and work with key government executives who have budgets in the billions. “Corner Alliance is poised for an incredible year in 2012,” Ron said with pride. “Not only are we making a difference in the business of government, but we get emails from clients saying, ‘You’ve changed my life.’”

The focus for 2012? “Helping people thrive by doing creative, meaningful work, and living the life they want—not just the work life they want,” said Ron.

The Bottom Line

Ron feels very strongly that what Corner Alliance has created was not led by or done by one person. “Featuring me for this article is actually counter to our culture,” Ron stressed. “Corner Alliance has been led by a collaborative approach using values as our core, and that’s precisely what will lead us into the future.”

And a promising future it is.

Connect with Ron on LinkedIn.


The Real People, Real Trust series offers an insider view into the challenges, successes, and make-it-or-break-it moments of people from all corners of the world who are leading with trust. Check out our prior posts: read about Chip Grizzard: A CEO You Should Know; Ralph Catillo: How One Account Executive Stands Apart; Anna Dutton: A Fresh Perspective on Sales Operations; Heber Sambucetti: A Learning Consultant’s Approach to Leadership; Janet Andrews: What Trust-based Strategy Consulting Looks, Feels, and Sounds Like, and John Dunn: An Entrepreneur Wins with Partnership.


Real People, Real Trust: An Entrepreneur Wins with Partnership

John Dunn has worn many hats in his 25 years as a professional including consultant, change management expert, bed and breakfast owner, and most recently, screenwriter. Find out how John used the principles of trust-building to create a wildly successful business venture—strategies anyone can use to win business while making a difference for a community.

It Starts with a Mindset

John and I met a few months ago while working for a mutual client. Over lunch one day, I learned about his business ventures including the bed and breakfast he launched and ran from 2001 to 2006. I was immediately struck by his out-of-the-box approaches to developing a successful business—starting with a mindset of collaboration not competition.

“There were five B&Bs in the town we were serving, including mine. I suppose I could have looked at the other four as competition, but I believed there were an abundant number of customers and no way to accommodate all of them 365 days a year without leaving business on the table. I knew that the only thing preventing us from tapping into the full potential of the market was letting the public know about all of us. And I knew the best thing to do would be to have all five inns working together, viewing ourselves as a unit and viewing the hotels in town as our collective competition.

“My life philosophy is there’s plenty of everything—customers, money, everything. You just have to direct it to you.

“I’ve also been in business long enough that I know some people prefer data over a philosophy. So, I researched the number of people who came to our town and determined what we were missing in the market. The numbers showed clearly that if we created a strategic alliance and pooled our resources, we’d then have a competitive advantage over large hotels with big marketing budgets.”

An Offer to Help

John took a systematic approach to convincing each B&B to adopt his mindset and approach—first, he built trust individually, then he approached the group as a collective.

“Of the other four B&Bs, two were already established and the other two were in the process of opening. I took time to introduce myself to all the other owners and talked to each of them about what I believed was unique about my inn. I shared information readily and freely. Then I offered my help with anything they needed. For example, I had relationships with the city that could help the new businesses figure out how to comply with city codes. Once all the B&Bs were open and running, I went back and proposed my idea of working together to be stronger in the marketplace.”

Team Agreements

I asked John if he got push-back. “There was some resistance at first, and we had to have the conversation about how we could really collaborate rather than compete. One critical success factor was agreeing to be transparent. When we were upfront with each other we found we were able to make it work. We also decided we all had to be in full agreement to do something, and that we were all responsible for ideas on how to execute. For example, we decided that everyone would decorate for the holidays. Then someone came up with the idea of having a local florist put a uniquely decorated tree in every inn. One tree was raffled off and the others were available for sale. A lot of people benefited from the creative ideas that came out of our partnership—not just us.”

Systems Thinking

John says another key was in thinking of all the B&Bs as a whole.

“I’m a big believer in win/win. Sure, I would’ve loved it if my B&B filled first. But my over-riding belief was if we had 35 rooms and 50 people looking for rooms, even if mine were the last ones filled they’d still be filled.

“I kept reminding myself that the way you get more done is through leverage. For example, we could leverage money by collectively pooling our marketing budgets. So when the Chamber of Commerce held an event and wanted tables for all the inns, we had a joint table marketing all of us. That meant we could take turns at the event so we could all be at our inns keeping our customers happy. We instantly had 12 to 16 staff members to do marketing instead of two or three.”

Putting the Customer First—For Real

John and the other B&B owners consistently put customer needs ahead of any one B&Bs’ needs.

“We agreed that the primary way to differentiate from the bigger hotels in town was through our personal connections with customers and through exceptional customer service. So if a customer called my B&B and I didn’t have what they needed, I’d put him on hold and call each B&B until I found what he was looking for. Others did the same. We all viewed the entire inventory as our own, we knew it well, and we were committed to doing whatever it took to help our customers out.”

John’s mindset of “customer” extended to the community as well.

“I knew another way we could all differentiate was by promoting our historical buildings. So twice a year, in the spring and near the December holidays, we rented a trolley and opened up all the B&Bs to the public so they could take historical tours. I established a relationship with the historical neighborhood association for a nearby neighborhood so that our tours were timed to align with theirs, giving people more opportunities to see historical properties. And I partnered with the local historical museum by including admission into the museum as part of the tour ticket. All the pieces worked together and everyone gained something.”

“Real World” Application

The results John got speak for themselves: a 25% increase in occupancy rate over a year (which is a big number in the hotel business) and double the number of advertising impressions without any additional investment.

I asked John if he thought his approaches could create a similar return in the corporate world. His answer was a resounding, “Yes.”

“When you think about it, what we did was actually quite simple: we looked at ourselves as a unique product and created strategic partnerships that would create leverage so we could all grow and be better. Companies have been doing this for years. Take ERP implementations. I worked for a global consulting firm that had the capacity to build their own product, but instead joined forces with SAP. That partnership created a much more compelling value proposition for the customer. The key is to maximize opportunity with as few resources as possible.”

John emphasizes that the strategy isn’t viable without the mindset that goes along with it.

“I do a lot of consulting with nonprofits and the hardest thing to get through their heads is the notion of leveraging their values and products with others’ values and products. They have trouble with it because their organizations are built on a mentality of scarcity—they’re always fighting for budget, asking for money, and have a perception there’s never enough. So they naturally think, ‘I can’t partner with another because they might steal my donor list.’

“If nonprofits believed there was an abundance of money out there for everyone, then every single one of them would be successful. It really comes down to mindset, mental models and belief systems. That’s what I spend time on when I’m consulting with them.”

Dream Big, Win Big

There’s a unifying theme in all John’s endeavors: how to manifest the impossible with the possible. He’s jazzed about his new career as a screenwriter―three of his scripts have been optioned by known producers. John says, “Making movies is a way to interact with bigger and bigger audiences and change lives on a much grander scale.”

Here’s to big dreams with big results.

Connect with John on LinkedIn .


The Real People, Real Trust series offers an insider view into the challenges, successes, and make-it-or-break-it moments of people from all corners of the world who are leading with trust. Check out our prior posts: read about:

Chip Grizzard: A CEO You Should Know;

Ralph Catillo: How One Account Executive Stands Apart;

Anna Dutton: A Fresh Perspective on Sales Operations;

Heber Sambucetti: A Learning Consultant’s Approach to Leadership;

and Janet Andrews: What Trust-based Strategy Consulting Looks, Feels, and Sounds Like.

Real People, Real Trust: What Trust-based Strategy Consulting Looks, Feels, and Sounds Like

Janet Andrews is a senior-level consultant at SRA’s Touchstone Consulting Group, a strategy and management-consulting firm. Janet spends her days running from one U.S. federal government building to the next, working with executives on issues of national interest. Discover Janet’s six tips for building trust-based relationships while getting the job done.

A Matter of Focus

“Janet’s reputation can be described as polished, thoughtful, and methodical,” says Jen Vanmeter, a colleague of Janet’s who teaches Trusted Advisor programs in-house and who co-wrote this blog. “She’s known for her smarts, her work ethic, and her integrity—she does exactly what she says she’ll do, when she says she’ll do it.” Jen continues, “She’s incredibly busy, and yet she takes time to pay attention. Even in a quick hallway chat, she’s focused on you, not the meeting she’s dashing off to.”

Jen and Janet spoke at length about how to build trust-based relationships in the midst of demanding and high-stakes projects. Here are Janet’s six maxims for client relationships that really work.

1.     Know Yourself; Know Others Even Better

When Janet thinks about building trust in business relationships, she makes it a point to step back and think what is most important for the person she’s talking to.

“If you have a client who leads with social connection, then that’s where you need to put your foot out first. If someone is results-oriented, they might not want to chat—they want to know what we did for them today. This colors how I position things; it helps me think, ‘How do I start off that conversation?’ That awareness of my own style and preferences helps me see that what I want to lead with maybe isn’t what will work best for them.”

2.     Remember It’s Their Truth, Not Yours

“Sometimes your version of what is right isn’t right for your client,” Janet says. “When I want my clients to do the right thing according to me, rather than the right thing according to their reality, I can easily become frustrated and therefore less effective.

“When I view their world with a lens of objectivity and put aside judgment of ‘that choice is good or bad,’ then I can walk into conversations with a more open mind. And I’ve noticed that clients respond in kind. When I remember they’re the ones that are living it, not me, then I focus on doing my best to advise them. Yes, I’m trying to sway them, but I keep in mind the decisions and choices that come out of it are theirs to own.

“Am I disappointed sometimes? Of course. But I keep reminding myself that whatever conclusion they come to, it is their truth. It’s my job to give them my best thinking. Pushing them on something they don’t want—or don’t want yet—is going to break trust, not build it, no matter how ‘right’ I think I am.”

3.     Focus on the Dialogue, not the Difficult

While Janet acknowledges that there are always difficult conversations to be had in any business relationship, she says they don’t have to be personally difficult.

“Earlier in my career, I might have taken more of a defensive posture with clients whose style can be aggressive or combative. Now, I see a tense conversation as less of a conflict, and more of a dialogue. And when I feel less tense, my clients seem to also.”

4.     Bravely Go First

“If there’s an elephant in the room that no one wants to bring up, I take a deep breath and bravely go first—once I’ve put aside my own judgments. If you can somehow frame the elephant by thinking about the other person’s motives, viewpoint, and how they like to lead, it can bring down their barriers to listening, so a dialogue—not a stand-off—can ensue.”

5.     Slow Down and Listen

Janet emphasizes the importance of listening, which can be challenging in the fast-paced world of strategy consulting. “Learning to be less focused on dictating how the play is going to end, and more focused on listening along the way, has been a real shift for me in my career.

“I remember once we were working on a key deliverable for a client. We’d been back and forth a couple of times on drafts. The client was mad at our team for not taking her comments seriously enough, and the team was frustrated because they thought she was being difficult. All it took was a real conversation and some patience to break the logjam.  Slowing down to really listen made me realize that we were all arguing the same point. When I acknowledged that, she agreed and we were able to move on.”

6.     Don’t Sweat It When You Don’t Click

 “Not all my clients consider me their trusted advisor. That used to worry me—of course I want everyone to like me. Now I recognize that sometimes it’s not going to click. So part of being a trusted advisor is being self-aware enough to recognize when it’s time to pass that relationship off to someone else who might be better suited for the relationship.”

Janet’s self-knowledge, her commitment to continuous improvement, and her willingness to focus on relationships as well as results clearly make a difference—for her colleagues as well as her clients.

Connect with Janet on LinkedIn.


The Real People, Real Trust series offers an insider view into the challenges, successes, and make-it-or-break-it moments of people from all corners of the world who are leading with trust. Check out our prior posts: read about Chip Grizzard, a CEO You Should Know; Ralph Catillo: How One Account Executive Stands Apart;  Anna Dutton: A Fresh Perspective on Sales Operations; and Heber Sambucetti: A Learning Consultant’s Approach to Leadership.

Real People, Real Trust: A Learning Consultant’s Approach to Leadership

Heber Sambucetti is a senior learning consultant with Accenture, working routinely with some of Accenture’s most seasoned executives. Find out what Heber sees as the distinguishing traits of a trusted advisor, and learn how he has successfully turned the most challenging relationships into prosperous ones.


Heber (pronounced EH-ver) and I met in 2010 when I led a Being a Trusted Advisor program for the team he works with. I was immediately struck by his candor, caring, and professionalism.

I began my Real People, Real Trust interview with Heber in the same way I’ve done in the past, asking, “What does it take to be a trusted advisor?” Heber’s immediate response was remarkably similar to Anna Dutton’s; he said, “Above all else, you need to be sincere and genuine.”

Heber continued, “That’s the only way you can create the right type of environment for a business relationship to prosper. You need to come with a pure intent to help others, and truly care about the person across from you.

“Secondly, don’t be afraid to bring emotions to the business environment. That’s a necessary element to create a certain level of intimacy—and by that I mean a sense of familiarity, closeness, and an understanding of each other. That way, not only do people see who you really are, but it makes it possible for you to ask the tough questions and deal with the tough stuff when it counts. If someone’s angry, you should be able to address that—as in, ‘What’s got you angry? I sense frustration.’ Sometimes people are afraid to explore this side of things. Validating other people is important. Sticking to the task only gets you so far.

“Those are your foundational pieces—the genuineness, the pure intent, and focusing on more than just the tasks at hand. And then you need to be able to consistently deliver whatever it is you’ve agreed upon, and bring something better for their business. That requires understanding what success is for them. And don’t forget about what you care about too. If it’s a one-way relationship it will never work.”

Fighting Fires

During our conversation, I discovered that Heber was a firefighter and Emergency Medical Technician in a prior life—something I never would have guessed, having interacted with him exclusively in a corporate environment. I asked him what parallels he saw between the world of consulting and the business of saving lives.

“In the fire department, I really learned first-hand the importance of establishing an environment of trust. When you feel like you’re part of a family, then you don’t want to let the family down, and you genuinely care about people you’re helping. You’re taught how to bring the best of yourself every day. The consequences of failure are extreme—your team member or a citizen loses a life. There is an unwritten rule that you all go in and you all come out; you don’t leave anyone behind.

“Sure, the stakes are different in business—mistakes in the corporate world won’t cost a life, no matter what the pressures you may feel inwardly, and I remind my team of that every day. But I still live by all those principles: be of service and always give it your best.”

Surviving the Heat

I asked Heber if he had a “proudest moment”—a time when he knew something important had shifted in a relationship.

“Once I turned a relationship from the individual being incredibly chastising and critical of everything—someone much more senior than me—to that person being a champion and educator. One day, after a series of interactions, I just had to lay it on the table. I said, ‘If you want to make me feel like sh** and perspire every time I talk to you, then you’re on target. But here’s the thing: I think I can learn from you. It’s true I don’t know everything, and we have a common goal of success with this project, so I need you to teach me instead of criticizing me.’ The person was taken by complete surprise and the relationship took a dramatic turn for the better. It was an intense moment. I ran out of deodorant. But I just had to say what was there.”

Heber then made a point to speak about taking responsibility for relationships gone wrong.

“When a relationship isn’t working, it’s easy to approach it from the perspective that you’re not doing anything and this person is beating you down. The question I always ask myself is, what am I doing to make the relationship better—or worse? What’s my piece to own? How have I let it fester? Holding yourself and others accountable are keys to relationships that work.”

Best Advice: You Snooze You Lose

I asked Heber for his best advice for someone who’s trying to increase trust in a relationship.

“First, ask yourself why you want to improve the relationship with that person; what’s in it for you. Always ask why. If the answer is, ‘Because I need to make my numbers and have them sign on the dotted line,’ think again. Would you want someone to approach you that way? No. OK, then try again from a different perspective. Put yourself in their shoes.

“Most people have a gut feel for what others are thinking and feeling, they’ve just hit the snooze button on it. They don’t want to look at it—it’s too raw, too emotional, too difficult, so snooze it is. And then they’re surrounded by alarm clocks all on snooze. That’s not sustainable.

“This applies personally as well as professionally. If I ever hit the snooze button with my son, he tells me right away. Children have a magical way of reminding you straight out that you’ve hit snooze—‘You promised me we’d play soccer, Dad.’ ‘We’ll do it tomorrow.’ ‘That’s what you said yesterday, Dad.’

“So I do what I can to minimize how many snooze buttons I have in life.”

Warming the Heart

Heber’s approach to building relationships reminds me of Heber: straight up, wise, humorous, warmhearted.

I don’t know about you, but I’m glad to have the Hebers of the world to keep me honest and out of danger.

Connect with Heber on LinkedIn.


The Real People, Real Trust series offers an insider view into the challenges, successes, and make-it-or-break-it moments of people from all corners of the world who are leading with trust. Check out our prior posts: read about Chip Grizzard, a CEO You Should Know; Ralph Catillo: How One Account Executive Stands Apart; and Anna Dutton: A Fresh Perspective on Sales Operations.

Real People, Real Trust: A Fresh Perspective on Sales Operations

Anna Dutton is a Sales Operations Director for Blackboard, a company that brings technology to the world of education. Find out what Anna sees as the distinguishing traits of a trusted advisor, and learn two concrete steps she recommends for anyone who wants to bring more transparency and trust to their business relationships.

In a Word: Genuine

Anna (pronounced “Ahna”) and I met in 2009 when she was leading a team of 10 inside salespeople and wanted to share the principles of Trust-Based Selling with the group. In our exploratory conversations, Anna’s thoughtfulness, poise, authenticity, and commitment to people being the best they can be really shined through. Anna has the world at her fingertips— she has 15 years of business experience in roles as diverse as banking, tourism, and human resources, and she speaks three languages fluently. Yet she is as down-to-earth as they come.

I began my Real People, Real Trust interview with Anna the same way I began my conversation with others I’ve featured, by asking a simple question: What does it take to be a trusted advisor? Without a moment of hesitation, Anna said, “Being genuine.”

“Genuine for me means not being afraid to tell the truth, to say what you think, to say something that others may not agree with. It’s about really having integrity with the people you have relationships with.

“Most of my colleagues and former team members would probably tell you that I will always say the truth and not hide from it.  I want them to know they can rely on me, they can be honest with me, and that I always have their back. This extends into my personal life, too. It’s important for people to know where I’m coming from and that I will always meet them halfway.”

Delivery Matters

Anna emphasized the difference that delivery makes.

“Of course, I always consider how to say things. Delivery makes a difference. People have come to count on an expression I often use: ‘I’m sorry I just have to be blunt.’ They laugh now when they hear it, which brings some levity to what might otherwise be a tense conversation.

“Here’s what I’ve noticed over the years: I have never had someone say, ‘I wish you hadn’t told me that.’ I will apologize for being so transparent, but I will never need to apologize for saying the truth.

“I changed roles a few months ago, and had an exit dinner with my team. They said, ‘We trusted you; we knew you always had our back.’ The irony was that they further created that trust amongst themselves and strengthened their ties so much that they could focus on helping each other excel and succeed.  Projects and deliveries and tasks aside, this is what matters in life.”

The Courage to Stay the Course

Anna spoke to me in her characteristically frank way about the courage it takes to live from the principle of transparency.

“When you’re committed to telling the truth, you have to accept that some people won’t like it, and that not everyone will be willing to take the journey with you. Courage is being willing to take the risk and accept the consequences. Ironically, when you do that, you realize the consequences aren’t so bad. Truth-telling not only forges stronger relationships, but people respect you more, and ultimately, they thank you.

“I’m not saying it’s easy. I always have to remind myself that the benefits outweigh the negatives, and remind myself that I won’t stand for anything less. I definitely have my share of vulnerable moments. When I can remember what’s lost by not being genuine in this way, I know it’s worth the risk.”

The Journey

Anna attributes the learning of these important lessons to her own personal experiences, as well as people in her life who have served as role models, like one boss who stands out as a real trusted advisor. “I was so sad when he retired last year, but I take his lessons with me every day,” she says. Anna has also learned a lot from living and traveling all over the world.

“I had an atypical upbringing: being a first generation American and growing up in Italy, Spain, and the States.  I often related to different cultures, different people, and different perspectives.  I had to take risks to create relationships and to connect with my changing world. Life taught me many lessons, and I went from child afraid to say what she thought to someone who can, as a direct result of facing life’s challenges.”

Anna continues, “I also think that being great at relationships requires being a dedicated student of relationships. I’ve read a lot, learned a lot from experts, and I’m friends with people who are psychologist and organizational development experts. Our dinner parties are often marked by spirited and thoughtful conversations about human dynamics.”

(By the way, two books Anna highly recommends are A Fortune-Teller Told Me: Earthbound Travels in the Far East by Tiziano Terzani—a book that reinforces how just changing how you do things can cause dramatic changes in the world around you—and Type Talk at Work: How the 16 Personality Types Determine Your Success on the Job by Otto Kroeger with Janet M. Thuesen and Hile Rutledge, which emphasizes the importance of knowing your audience and how you communicate.)

Best Advice in Two Steps

I asked Anna what advice she had for anyone wanting to bring more transparency and trust to their business relationships. She suggested two concrete steps:

1.      Write down what you’re afraid of and really be honest with yourself. “Understand why you’re afraid of these things. Do whatever work you need to figure it out and address it—talk with friends, go to therapy, whatever. You have to understand what’s underneath it first.  You can’t create trust if you have fear.”

2.      While you’re figuring it out, just tell the truth for a week without coloring or altering and see what happens. “Worst case: you may annoy some folks, and see that they will not join you. I’m not suggesting you tell someone ‘You’re a horrid person’; you might say something like, ‘This situation is not working and this is why’ or ‘I’m nervous about this engagement and this is why.”

Anna says, “Being a trusted advisor is a process; it’s not like you learn it and then—boom—you do it every day. Plus as you evolve as a person, as you develop and grow, your approach may change. You’ll have bad weeks, and good weeks.  But more than anything, it’s a philosophy, an approach to life.”

Connect with Anna on LinkedIn.


The Real People, Real Trust series offers an insider view into the challenges, successes, and make-it-or-break-it moments of people from all corners of the world who are leading with trust. Check out our prior posts: read about Chip Grizzard, a CEO You Should Know and Ralph Catillo: How One Account Executive Stands Apart.

Real People, Real Trust: How One Account Executive Stands Apart

Ralph Catillo is an Account Executive with Gallagher Benefit Services, one of the largest employee benefit agencies in the northeast region of the United States. Read Ralph’s no-holds-barred replies to questions about what it really takes to be a trusted advisor—and how the lessons he has learned apply at home as well as at work.

First Impressions

I know Ralph because he was a champion for a Trusted Advisor immersion workshop I led for his company in 2010. The first time we ever spoke on the phone, I was immediately struck by two things about him: his humor and his candor. Within minutes of interacting with Ralph, it’s crystal clear that he has nothing to hide. You get the sense that he’s quick, yet not in a rush; he’s knowledgeable, yet more interested in what you have to say than what he knows.

I began the interview for this article by asking Ralph a simple question: What does it take to be a trusted advisor? With characteristic dry wit, he immediately said, “I show up with a brown bag full of cash. It’s all been laundered.” Then he got serious for a moment, because more than anything he’s a thoughtful guy. His answer was simple: it takes honesty and purpose.

The 1-2 Punch of a Trusted Advisor: Honesty and Purpose

“You have to be 100% transparent, and 100% with no agenda other than doing the right thing. That’s really all there is. If you put aside your agenda, and your role, and really just come from the perspective of what is the best thing for this situation, whatever it may be, then you’re on the right track.

“The challenge is, the best thing for this situation might not be clear from the onset. So you have to get comfortable being in a zone of not knowing, where others are sometimes uncomfortable, and just put it all out there. You don’t have to have the answer, and you definitely don’t have to be the smartest one in the room. Everyone—me included—gets tripped up trying to be the smartest in the room, as opposed to coming at it with open ears and eyes. The best idea usually comes when you don’t come at it from an angle.”

As for honesty, Ralph says, “We’re in the services business, so it’s all about relationships. You have to be yourself. When you’re not, it’s unhealthy and unproductive.”

I asked Ralph about the courage it takes to do what he prescribes. He laughed. “Courage? I think it’s a lot more courageous to try to skirt an issue or be someone you aren’t—you put yourself at much greater risk. If I put all my cards on the table and I don’t get the business, well, at least I know I did everything I could.”

Nature or Nurture

I asked Ralph if he came by his approach naturally, or if he had learned it over time.

“I’ve evolved to it. When you’re in school, you’re trained to get the right answer. No one teaches you how to have conversations and day-to-day interactions. Then you take that right-answer mindset into business and it doesn’t work. In fact, that’s why I think so many managers struggle and fail—because they try to force what they think is right on others.

“I’ve definitely butted heads with people a lot along my own learning curve. Fortunately, I had a great role model and mentor along the way.”

Mentoring and Stewardship

Ralph credits David Friedman with his mindset about building trust in relationships. David, who joined his father and a part-time secretary 28 years ago in a small insurance practice located above a storefront on Main Street in Moorestown, NJ, later became the company’s first and only President when they incorporated as RSI in 1994 (later merging with Gallagher). Ralph says, “My first foray into trust-based relationships was through the RSI Fundamentals, which David created.”

The Fundamentals, which have since been published as a book, are 30 tenets that inform every employee’s day-to-day behavior. They include directives like:

  • Work from the assumption that people are good, fair, and honest.
  • Create a feeling of warmth and friendliness in every client interaction.
  • Take responsibility.
  • Be quick to ask and slow to judge.

“Those 30 Fundamentals changed my whole thought process and approach. Because of the Fundamentals, we’re deliberate about the mindset we bring to our interactions. We use a common language. And we have the right people too—we’re careful about hiring.”

Ralph credits David for David’s personal mentoring and stewardship of Gallagher Benefit Services. “It’s thanks to David that our company has developed and sustained this kind of culture. I’m not a lone ranger in my organization; it’s a top-down thing. That doesn’t mean it isn’t sometimes a challenge. It’s still uncomfortable to walk the talk, and not everyone is great at it. But at least we have a shared understanding about what we aspire to.”

It’s Business; It’s Personal

Ralph sees a lot of parallels between trust in business relationships and in personal relationships.

“Consistency breeds trust. I see that as a professional, as a friend, and as a father. With my kids, all I want them to do is communicate, without fear of repercussions. That takes a lot of time and experiences and leading by example.

“Just yesterday my teen-aged son had his buddies over after school, before I came home from work. They’d come from the pool, and one of my son’s friends sat in my chair in his soaking wet suit. As soon as I got home, my son pulled me aside, told me what happened, and took responsibility for it. He was surprised when I thanked him for being up front and direct about it, instead of getting angry. I reminded him what I want more than anything is for him to just keep talking to me. A chair is a chair; it can be cleaned up. But the next time it might be something far more worrisome, like someone approaching him with drugs. I want to be a parent, and a resource, not the judge and jury.”

Keeping it Simple

Ralph’s perspective on leading with trust in all his relationships is a lot like the guy himself: uncomplicated, direct, thoughtful, real.

In the words of the famous artist, Leonardo DaVinci, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” Thank you, Ralph, for sharing your art with all of us.

Connect with Ralph on LinkedIn.


The Real People, Real Trust series offers an insider view into the challenges, successes, and make-it-or-break-it moments of people from all corners of the world who are leading with trust. Check out our prior posts: read about Chip Grizzard, a CEO You Should Know.

Real People, Real Trust: A CEO You Should Know

Chip Grizzard (@chipgrizzard)is the CEO of Grizzard Communications Group, a nonprofit marketing and fundraising agency. Chip is the fourth-generation member of the Grizzard family to work at the 91-year-old company. Discover Chip’s candid replies to questions about what it really takes to be a Trusted Advisor and how to create a company that leads with trust, every day.

Seven Key Traits of a Trusted Advisor

I first met Chip in January of this year when he brought me in to teach his top 35 leaders about Trust-Based Selling. It was clear from the moment we met that he’s a very principled man with a real commitment to being the kind of leader that others want to follow.

When I interviewed Chip for this article, I asked him what he sees as the fundamental attributes of a Trusted Advisor. His answers highlighted seven key traits:

  1. Keep your promises. “You gotta do what you say you’re going to do. So many times people will casually say, ‘I’ll send you that’ or ‘I’ll call you about this.’ I routinely make mental notes about how often people follow through on their promises. It’s about 50% of the time or less. That drives me nuts and definitely impacts my perception of someone else’s trustworthiness, so I work hard to be sure I keep my promises. I watch my words a lot and don’t make off-hand comments. If I say it, I’ll write it down or get a text message to help me remember. And then I’ll do it.”
  2. Focus on others’ success. “The only way I’m successful is if I make others successful. You can’t fake caring about what others think or what’s important to them.”
  3. Stay in it for the long haul. “You can’t look for a short-term gain; you have do to what’s right for the long-term. We have a 60-year client relationship in one case; other clients have been with us 20 and 30 years. This is unheard of in our industry. We give them all we have and they know we’re in it with them.”
  4. Treat people right. “It really is so simple. Just treat people right. It doesn’t get any simpler. If you do that, then great things happen. The day we’re fired from one client is the day we start working to rebuild that relationship and win that business back. We always end a relationship as positively as we can. Any time you take a hard approach, you burn a bridge. Some agencies in our space take the harder approach. They carry that with them forever. We always strive to be fair—to ourselves as well as our clients.”
  5. Persevere. “It might take ten years to fix something, or to win someone’s business. So be it.”
  6. Never compromise. “Compromise is not negotiable. It’s not even something I think about. Our industry is very small and people move around a lot. News travels fast about how you treat others. Personal integrity matters.”

Here’s the seventh, which I’m adding to the list on Chip’s behalf:

  1. 7. Modesty. Chip didn’t speak of this trait directly; he demonstrated it. At the beginning of our interview, this very confident and highly successful leader said, “I hope I can help you. Please don’t feel like you have to use my answers if I don’t give you exactly what you need.” An hour after the interview was over, he emailed me a note to thank me for my time.

Moments of Truth

I asked Chip to talk about tough times in Grizzard’s very long history of exemplary client relationships. He shared one particularly poignant story.

“We made a big mistake once. Our client had big media plan that coincided with our direct mail drop. Because of our mistake, the mail arrived in homes before the big media push. In the client’s mind, this hurt results. He called and said, ‘This is very disappointing. We’ve done all this planning and you’ve let us down.’ I asked him what would make him feel like we addressed the situation to his satisfaction. He said, ‘I don’t think we should pay for this mailing.’

“There was a fair amount of money at stake. Right away, I said, ‘No problem, done.’ As painful as it was, it was the right thing to do. Ten years later, he’s still a client, despite having moved around to different organizations and locations. And every time I see him—every time—he says, ‘Do you remember when we had the problem with that mail drop and you took care of it?’ It had a huge impact on him, and he became a lifelong client as a result.”

Creating a Culture of Trust

Grizzard was recently named “Top Workplaces 2011” in Atlanta. The evaluation for the program was based on feedback from a survey that 94% of Grizzard employees completed (exceeding the average company response of 55%). This top honor is a direct result of the honest feedback in a number of areas related to Grizzard’s culture, such as organizational values, strategic vision, leadership, operations, pay and benefits and overall work environment and experience.

I asked Chip to share any advice he has for executives who are trying to create a culture of trust in their organizations. His response boiled down to one thing: being a strong role model. And from Chip’s perspective, it starts with him.

A Matter of Personal Integrity

I never send a mixed signal related to integrity; my staff never sees me do it one way this way this time and another way another other time. Some people try to play both sides of the fence—to turn on the relationship charm and do the right thing at some points. But it’s not a part-time thing. You have to live it every day. It has to be real. And it’s not just a business thing.

“I just came back from a client conference where I saw people doing great things with clients during the day and crazy stuff at night with colleagues. Even if clients don’t see that, well, then your co-workers doubt your character. You can’t turn it on and off. You have to be consistent all the time—in your personal life, your social life, your professional life. I talk to my staff when I see them doing things outside of work that leave me concerned. Integrity applies to all aspects of your life.”

Teachable Moments

Chip made mention of a discussion his leaders were having during the program I led on Trust-Based Selling for Grizzard. The question on the table was, are there ever times when you shouldn’t tell a client the whole truth? Chip was in the room at the time (role modeling that he, too, had things to learn and it was worth his time to spend two days in a classroom). He reminded me what he said that day.

“My answer to that was simple: If you’re expending any energy on the debate, then it probably means you already have your answer about whether or not it crosses the line. I said it that day in front of all 35 of my leaders in the room, and since then I’ve heard two people repeating the same thing when talking to their staff. Teaching moments are key to living our values and our culture. They start with me.”

Recovering from Mistakes

I asked Chip what happens when he makes a mistake. Here’s what he said:

“I hope I’m not making a lot of integrity mistakes. I might make mistakes on how we’ve resolved a particular situation. In that case, I look back and acknowledge it, and apologize if necessary. I own it, try to explain it, and try to rebuild the relationship. I put in the time, the work, and the commitment to turning a situation around.”

Going the Distance

Chip is not only a leader with an impressive track record; he’s also an endurance athlete with a long list of sports accomplishments. Chip has competed in over 100 triathlons, including the Hawaii Ironman and Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon. I asked him what connections he saw between his athletic efforts and his success as a leader. His answer was inspiring:

“It’s very easy to not want to get up at 4 a.m. and go workout sometimes. If I stay up too late and do something dumb and I’m in the middle of training for an event, well, I get my butt out of bed and go suffer (laughing). On the endurance sports side, my work ethic and my passion make a difference for me. The same is true on the business side.”

May we all have the wisdom and tenacity to walk a mile—or run 26.2—in Chip Grizzard’s shoes.

Connect with Chip Grizzard on Twitter and LinkedIn.


This is the first blog in a series on Real People, Real Trust—an insider view into the challenges, successes, and make-it-or-break-it moments of people from all corners of the world who are walking the talk of a Trusted Advisor. Know someone you’d like to nominate to be featured in our next article? Email Andrea Howe.