Question Obsession: The Consultant’s Nemesis

Do you go into sales meetings – even meetings with your existing clients – with a slew of prepared questions? Do you constantly find yourself asking question after question in a meeting?

You may be thinking, “Duh, of course. Aren’t we supposed to? How else are you going to demonstrate value added, explore hypotheses, prove your expertise?”

But let’s explore this apparent no-brainer. The fact is, Question Obsession can actually be detrimental. Lets explore why and how.

Consultants and salespeople (especially consultative sellers and sellers of consulting) have learned one mantra, and we love repeating it. It is the mantra that says, “Listen first; talk later.” In other words, it’s all about the question. Ask a great question, the logic goes, and all else will fall into place.

That is the great lesson of Sales and Consulting 101. And I have no beef with it.  The problem is – if you never graduate from 101, you will end up in quicksand because an obsession with questions alone ultimately leads nowhere.

The Obsession with Questions

There’s good reason for the Sales 101 and Consulting 101 lesson of focusing on questions. Go no further than Neil Rackham’s SPIN Selling, in the case of sales, or Peter Block’s classic Flawless Consulting for consultants. Each one shows with wisdom and data that artfully posed questions generate dialogue and interaction, and that is always superior to pre-emptively beating up the client with the answer.

Of course, we often forget our 101 lesson and go into meetings with answers blazing. But that’s not what this article is about. This article is about the downside of obsessing with questions. It’s what happens when we turn the 101 lesson into a mantra, and we begin to focus on questions alone.

Is questioning an obsession? Try doing a web search on “Top Ten Sales Questions;” you’ll get millions of results.

Now ask yourself whether you recognize these themes:

  • Should I ask open-ended or closed-ended questions?
  • Should I ask about implications or needs?
  • Should I ask about the client’s opinions or offer “challenger” questions?

As one sales website puts it, “Get the answers to these questions, and take action based on those answers, and you’ll get the sale. It’s that simple.”

No, it isn’t.

The sales version of question obsession manifests in lists. The consultant version of question obsession manifests in the Great Keystone Arch Question—what is the central supporting element?

You can recognize this form of obsession because it leads consultants speaking among themselves to say things like, “If we can set the data up right, we can frame the discussion such that when we finally pop the Keystone Arch Question, the whole logjam will be released. They’ll feel the pain, envision the solution, and fall all over themselves in a rush to buy our solution.”

No, they won’t.

That’s because good questions are necessary—but not sufficient. You have to have them, but they won’t get you to the end zone.

If all you do is focus on questions, you’ll end up obsessed with yourself, with your solutions and products, and with how clever you are. That’s called high self-orientation, and it will kill trust and sales both. Question obsession is quicksand for salespeople and consultants alike.

Beyond Question Obsession

The narrow purpose of a question is sometimes to get an answer. But there are broader purposes to most questions, and certainly a broader purpose to the art of questioning itself. One is to create a greater sense of insight for the client. Two others are to improve the client relationship and to give the client a sense of empowerment.

These goals are best accomplished not so much by focusing on the “what” of the question but on the “how.” Some examples:

  • Questions to create insight: Consultants often come up with “insights” that only an MBA could understand or that leave the client feeling helpless. These are not useful insights. We don’t want to leave our clients saying, “Gosh, that’s really smart. How will I remember that?” Rather, we want them to say, “Oh, my gosh, of course! it’s so clear when you put it that way, isn’t it?” Our objective is to create insight, not to demonstrate that we have it.
  • Improve the relationship: The better the relationship—buyer/seller or consultant/client—the better everything else gets. Innovation, profitability, time to market, and insights all improve with relationships. Great questions allow the parties to get closer together, more comfortable sharing the uncomfortable, and more willing to take risks by collaborating. Questions such as, “Let me ask you, if I may, do you personally find that scary?” have nothing to do with “content” insight, but they are critical to advancing the relationship.
  • Create client empowerment: The point of all this questioning is not, ultimately, to understand things. It is to change them. And change will not happen if the client feels the insights are threatening, depressing, or out of his control. The key to action is to help the client see ways in which they can change, take control, own, and improve their situation.

It’s not what you ask; it’s how you ask it. All three of these broader objectives have little to do with the content of, or the answer to, a business question. Instead, all of them focus on the outcome of the question-answer interaction. From this perspective, it is not what you ask that is important, but how you ask it. We need to get past the Q&A outcome, which is just about knowledge, and focus on the outcome of the interaction, which is how we help our clients drive change.

Avoid the quicksand: get past questions for questions’ sake, and focus on real business outcomes.

Competing with Colleagues

When I wrote The Trusted Advisor with David Maister and Rob Galford, it became reasonably successful within several months. (Amazingly, it still ranks #11,014 – as of this morning – on the list of all books on Amazon. That’s all books, including Harry Potter (#218), Capital (#16,000), etc. I’ll take long-sellers over best-sellers any day of the week).

With its success came a happy problem: how to parcel out the leads between the three of us? Let me be clear, the book wasn’t drowning us in leads; any one of the three of us could have happily fielded all inquiries. And while we wanted to be fair to each other, we were also all of us very clearly in competition with each other.

So the question: how do you compete with colleagues?

Competing with Colleagues

What if one of us got a lead based on the book? Did we have any obligation to pass it along to the other two? If so, how?  Should we establish a quota system, whereby each of us would get every third lead?

Should we let the market dictate things, and let whomever the client had reached out to handle the response? What if the client had written to all three of us?  Should we all respond confidentially, or in some sense share our responses?

The problem was not unique to us, though it seemed so at the time.  You may face a similar problem within your organization – who gets the lead? Who gets to present?

Or, you may come face to face with an  old friend who has changed uniforms and now works for a competitor. In any case, the tension is much the same – the sensation of being a colleague feels intensely in conflict with the sensation of being a competitor.

How do you resolve it?

The Solution

The answer to the problem came to us fairly quickly, on reflection, and I documented it as part of the Four Trust Principles in my later books. The answer lies in true focus on client needs.

In our case: we agreed that we should all respond similarly to all client inquiries, regardless of to whom they were addressed. In all cases, we would say words to the effect of:

The Trusted Advisor was written by the three of us. I suspect that each of us could do an excellent job in response to your query, and each of us would handle the work slightly differently. You would be best served by having discussions with each of us, and making up your mind on that basis.

We will each be candid with respect to our own strengths and weaknesses, and answer questions to the best of our ability about the others. Each of us will respect your decision, and we are each committed to you making the best decision possible for you.

The best decision for you is what all three of us seek, and each of us will do our best to help you reach it, regardless of your choice.

This solution made everything easier. It kept our relationship collegial. It removed any awkwardness about responding to clients. It removed any awkwardness that clients might experience in choosing whom to talk to.

And, of course, it resulted in the best decision for clients, as each of us have our own particular skills and drawbacks.

So what’s the answer?  Grindingly relentless focus on client service, and the willingness to pursue that logic wherever it leads.

How You Use Your Smarts Is What Attracts Clients


“It’s not what you know; it’s who you know.”

You’ve probably heard that. But – you’ve also probably heard the exact opposite.

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? In fact – what does that even mean?

To define terms, I’m not talking here 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.

Living Inside a Pariah Company

A while back I wrote a very critical blogpost about Volkswagen. I was, of course, hardly alone in doing so; the scandal they incurred at the time created major tremors in the business world.

But in the years since, I’ve been trying to think in different terms – in particular, what must it have been like to be an employee of VW in those difficult days? What is the view from inside the glass, looking up and out? What tensions must it have caused people – and what could they have done?

The Pariah Organization

My good friend Matt Nixon started writing a book a year before the VW incident, tentatively titled “Pariahs: Hubris, Reputation and Organisational Crisis.”  I happen to be re-reading it now.

Matt has the credibility to write this book: an MBA, he spent over a decade in consulting (Accenture, Towers Perrin), then another decade as a VP at Shell Oil and later an MD at Barclays. He knows something about whereof he speaks. Combined with a classical English education and a wide network, the book makes for illuminating reading.

Matt suggests that being a pariah organization (think “outcast” and “exile”) is a phenomenon on the increase (just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you, it’s really true).  He also points out that pariah-dom is about much more than individual moral failings – it is trackable at an industry level (another gut feeling ratified by data).

He provides some diagnostics and descriptive models to identify and predict pariah-like conditions in organizations. Particularly telling is his critique of “false metamorphosis,” the consultant snake oil of “transformation” that has been overblown. True change, he suggests, requires a lot more, and is a lot more uncommon.

But what about VW’s employees? As Matt notes from other pariah organizations, a great many people in such companies feel bewildered and unfairly treated.  They see themselves, and their company, as largely ethical, and remain quite positive about staying with the organization they are part of.

The overwhelming criticism of their organizations feels like torches and pitchforks.

At a time of crisis, Matt suggests employees go through a predictable sequence of emotions – shock, followed by anger and shame, swinging back to resurgent loyalty, and ending in a blend of guilt, responsibility, and denial. He talks as well about three “tribes” of employees: Loyalists, Mercenaries, and Heroes. The three tribes react differently to the four phases.

What Can Be Done?

Matt’s book has some great insights for organizations and leadership. For me, for this post in particular, I want to focus on what an individual at VW could have been thinking about, what they could do, and what we could have done to support them.

Human beings are delicate creatures. We process information that is critical of us in very self-protective ways. We will take advice from a friend that we would never take from a stranger.

As outsiders, this means we have to temper criticism with the recognition that exceeding few employees assume personal guilt. The vast majority feel very little personal accountability for the sins of the organization, and personalizing accusations doesn’t help them come to grips with any objective truth.

The increasing demand for personal civil and criminal accountability of leaders in pariah organizations is, I think, a good thing. But it must be tempered by some focus on responsibility – our criminal justice systems are easily inclined to focus on the underlings, and not the leaders. Indiscriminate demonization of employees is counter-productive. In the VW case in particular, the role of culture and corporate environment seemed a strong contributor, rather than a simple case of “bad apples.”

As employees, the challenge is to see this as a “Santa Claus” moment: as in, “there is no…”

This did not happen in a vacuum; as Matt notes, the cult of leadership is partly to blame for obscuring the truth that corporate cultures “eat strategy for breakfast,” not to mention well-intended but impotent compliance programs. It’s critical to employees – for their own psychic health, as well as that of the organization – to be constructively schizophrenic.

They need to both feel secure in their own good intentions and, at the same time, be able to objectively see how things could have gotten to this point. As Henry Mintzberg angrily points out, this kind of phenomenon is best seen not as a scandal, but as a syndrome. And only insiders have access to the “real” story.


Moral outrage has its place in the reform of business. So does shaming, by bringing business issues outside narrowly proscribed economic boundaries and into the social realm as a whole.

But blame and shame are two-edged swords, and very hard to control. At a social level, their overuse just promotes entrenched ill-will; look no further than the current state of US national politics.

At an individual level, blame and shame keep us from seeing and accepting reality, as it is. In a very real sense, as my friend Phil McGee puts it, “Blame is captivity – responsibility is freedom.”

As we look at more recent scandals/syndromes, we need to balance our outrage with a sense of respect for other individuals, and our defensiveness with a willingness to see things as they are.

Best Practice for Opening a Sales Call: Bring a Risky Gift

How do you open a sales call?

Do you strive to establish credibility? Thought leadership? Make a positive first impression? Establish trust rapidly?

There are lots of answers to that question, and I’m going to suggest most of them are sub-optimal. And, I’m going to suggest, there is one single Best Practice way to do it. It’s called Bring a Risky Gift—BARG for short.

Why Your Opening Sales Conversation is Critical

First, let’s be clear. This question is more important than it used to be – not less important. Many sales authors are fond of noting that the sales process is becoming far more composed of pre-meeting interactions – collecting data from websites, emails, search engines and the like. They then draw the wrong conclusion – that the actual sales meeting itself is declining in importance.

The opposite is true. As long as complex B2B buying decisions are made by human beings – that is, protein-based entities who are the products of eons of emotional and social evolution – we require some kind of personal interaction before making a major decision. Let’s call that the sales meeting.

The fact that less total time is taken up by face to face meetings these days simply means that those meetings’ relative importance in the entire sales process has increased, not decreased.

A Metaphor

Let’s say you and your spouse or significant other are invited to dinner at the home of a business acquaintance. It’s your first time meeting them in a primarily social context. What must you do?

You know the answer to this one. On the way there, you stop at the liquor store and pick up a nice bottle of  wine. It’s what you do. The culture of gift giving in a thousand forms (including simple gestures of respect) is deeply embedded in every culture, including modern western business culture.

By doing so, you fulfill a minor cultural obligation. The host thanks you, and the evening begins on a fractionally higher note than before you walked in with the gift. But notice – this is more obligation than generous gesture. The downside of not bringing a bottle of wine is probably greater then the credit you get for doing so. You’re supposed to do this.

But imagine this. On the way to the liquor store, you say to your SO, “I think they went to northern Italy last year. What if we bought them a really nice bottle of Barolo, with an Italian looking gift card?“ and maybe you spend a few dollars more than you might have otherwise.

What happens when you present the gift? Notice – there is a risk here! It’s possible they are alcoholics. Or perhaps it was Spain they went to, not Italy. But here’s the magic: you actually get more credit for having taken that risk – even if you were wrong – than you get for buying the conventional, safe Napa cabernet.

What happens if your host really is an alcoholic? They are likely to say, “You know, we don’t drink, but that’s very thoughtful of you – we’ll save it for our next guests who do.“

And if it was Spain they went to? They are likely to say, “Ha ha, we used to confuse Spain with Italy too,“ or, “No, it was Spain, but with wines like this Barolo, we’re thinking Italy is our next destination – have you been?”

The point is: yes, you get credit for bringing any wine, but not much more than for fulfilling an obligation. You get serious extra credit for having been willing to take a risk – even if you’re wrong! It shows you are willing to be vulnerable in service to the client.

The act of showing vulnerability and taking a risk first means that you are playing the role of the trustor – the one who initiates a trust relationship – rather than waiting to passively play the lower-risk role of merely being trustworthy.

The possibility of being wrong is critical to that extra credit: it says to your host, “I may be wrong here, but I have put serious thought into this, and I’m willing to accept the gamble that I could conceivably be wrong; I trust that you will appreciate my well-intentioned gesture and the quality of thought that went into it.”

Now let’s see how that metaphor plays out in opening up a Sales conversation.

BARG to Open the Conversation

First, notice that you rarely get an opening sales conversation without already having established serious credibility. B2B buyers don’t waste their time, they’ve done their homework on you, and you have established enough credibility to get this meeting.

Do not waste their time by launching into a demonstration of how smart you are. It is annoying, and they’ve already acknowledged that point. Continuing to do so is all about you, not them. Worse, it’s rude. Any sales author who tells you you should open a sales conversation by establishing your credibility is oblivious to the serious emotional undercurrents happening in these moments.

That includes authors who suggest you should open with a breathtaking demonstration of how you are able to challenge their thinking. If that’s all you lead with, it is not only rude, it is insulting and arrogant.

Insights are great, but they must come well-packaged in the emotional wrapper of respect and etiquette. That’s where BARG comes in.

(It should go without saying that the wrong answer to, “so, tell us about yourself“ is to launch into your prepared deck about yourself. They were merely being polite by asking that question; you should not take it as any more than a pleasantry, which the rules of etiquette suggest requires only a 30-second answer.)

Here’s what you should say after the minimal pleasantries are complete:

Thanks for having us here. It is apparent to us, having looked through a lot of available information about you, that you are truly expert in [insert something] [insert something more]. It would be arrogant of us to claim that we know more about these areas than you do.

However— we do know a thing or two about similar situations, and one thought arose as we looked over your circumstance. It seems to us – please correct me if I’m wrong – that [X] might be a critical issue for you. Is that the case? And if so, could you tell us more about how X plays out in your business?

Two things: first, note that X had better be a meaningful, thoughtful insight.

But second, and frankly even more importantly, X had better be possibly wrong. If it is an absolutely 100% safe hypothesis, then you get no credit for having taken a risk. If you cannot be wrong in your hypothesis, then you are refusing to show any vulnerability. You are refusing to take the first step in creating trust. That is simply a variation on “I’m smarter than you are, and I’m going to start off by showing you why and how that’s true.”

There are two possible answers to your risky gift, and they are both good:

  • The first answer is, “you’re totally right – anything you have to say about that critical issue, we are very interested in hearing.”
  • The second answer is even better. “You know, most people think of X as the big issue, but the fact is – it’s really Y.”

In which case, you respond with, “Oh my gosh, I see it now – of course you’re right. Please, tell us more about Y, and how that plays out for you.“

And of course they will be happy to tell you about Y: because you have demonstrated vulnerability, you are showing sincere interest in what they have to say, you are focusing on them not on you, and you are demonstrating the willingness to learn from them.  At that point, the polite thing for the client to do is to answer your question of them.

If you think these rules of social propriety are vague and imprecise, think about how you respond when someone extends a handshake to you: how often do you spurn them and turn away with a cold shoulder? Pretty much never. You can make serious book on the hard-wired social responses of human beings in these situations – we are extremely predictable.

Insight by itself is worse than useless if not wrapped in the package of social propriety. BARG is that wrapper. It triggers hard-wired responses of etiquette, respect and other-focus in an ever-ascending spiral of reciprocating exchanges between two trusting and trustworthy parties.

To close the loop: should you open a Sales conversation with credibility? With a first impression? With insight? With rapid trust creation?

The answer to all of those questions is Yes. What’s critical is how you do it. And how you do it is BARG—Bring a Risky Gift.


Being Offensive vs. Being Offended – and Trust

When you offend someone, someone is offended. That seems obviously, trivially true. But the two are very different events – each touching on a part of the human experience, and each teaching us something about trust.

The Social and the Psychological

Disrespecting someone is a social violation: it is not a nice thing to do. It goes against the rules of etiquette and ethics (most of if not all ethical precepts have to do with our relationships to others). Every society has its rules about how to respect others, and to violate them is a serious matter.

To disrespect someone is a matter of one of two things – ignorance, or deliberate malice and rudeness. Both are matters of personal choice.

Being offensive and disrespectful, then, deals with the social side of being human.

Being disrespected or offended, on the other hand, is an intensely personal event. It is experienced one person at a time, as an interior phenomenon.

Being offended and disrespected, then, deals with the individual side of being human.

How do we integrate, as human beings, these two realms? Where are the ’shoulds’ in our social behavior, and in our individual behavior?

The answer is a little paradoxical: We should strive not to offend or disrespect others. At the same time, we should also strive to not feel offended, or disrespected, for long. In other words, we should strive to be kind socially, and to feel free psychologically.

We should respect others, yet not take personally others’ disrespect of ourselves.

The second is often the harder of the two. Here are a few contrasts to help make the point.

  • Religions teach us to be good to each other – the social message. Twelve Step programs remind us “pain is inevitable; suffering is optional” – the psychological message.
  • MLK fought for human rights – the social side. Viktor Frankl reminds us that “human freedom is not a freedom from but a freedom to” – the psychological side.

What’s Trust Got to Do With It?

Quite a bit, actually.

In contrast to almost all you read about ‘trust’ as some all-inclusive thing, keep in mind this simple fact, obvious to anyone on reflection:

Like tango, trust takes two. Trust is a relationship between a trustor and a trustee. The trustor initiates trust by taking a risk. The trustee then responds by being trustworthy. The roles then shift, and the players reciprocate. Rinse and repeat, etc. etc.

First, the trustee side: If you disrespect or offend others, then others will not trust you. You become untrustworthy. Disrespect and offensiveness affects the trustee.

Using the Trust Equation, you will have low Intimacy scores, because others will not confide in you. You will probably have high Self-orientation scores as well (a bad thing), because you’re likely acting out of willful anger or resentment, or willful ignorance – all of which are about you, not about the Other.

Being offended works the other side of the trust dynamic, that of the trustor: it renders you incapable of trusting others. You cannot initiate a trust relationship if you live in fear of being disrespected or offended.

Being chronically prone to offense means you are not free to act fully as a human. Rather than risk being hurt, you choose never to engage. You will never enjoy trust-as-relationship if you cannot trust-as-action. Victimhood destroys trust as much as  rudeness.

The Human Conundrum

And so the sociological and psychological, aka human, conundrum. You should never disrespect others. And you should never allow yourself to (remain) feeling disrespected.

You should always be trustworthy. And you should also never depend solely on the Other to initiate a relationship of trust.

May you not offend, nor be offended. And both are entirely your choice.



Why the Talking Stick Creates Trust

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.


Leadership, Trust and Intangible Services

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.


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.


  • Charisma
  • Coaching
  • Credibility
  • Expertise
  • Implementing consistent systems
  • Inspiring people to greatness
  • Integrity
  • Leading by example
  • Organizing for flexibility and responsiveness
  • Personal development
  • Story-telling
  • Team-building capabilities
  • Trust
  • Vision
  • Values

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.


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.


  • 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)


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.

A Better New Year’s Resolution

Eleven years have passed since I first wrote the following thoughts on New Years resolutions. Frankly, it was good. And frankly I haven’t been able to write a better one. Next year, maybe.
So, apologies to those who have read it year after year—though I suspect some of you won’t mind.

Happy New Year.
My unscientific sampling says many people make New Years resolutions, and few follow through. Net result—unhappiness.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

You could, of course, just try harder, stiffen your resolve, etc. But you’ve been there, tried that.

You could also ditch the whole idea and just stop making resolutions. Avoid goal-failure by eliminating goal-setting. Effective, but at the cost of giving up on aspirations.

I heard another idea: replace the New Year’s Resolution List with a New Year’s Gratitude List. Here’s why it makes sense.

First, most resolutions are about self-improvement—this year I resolve to: quit smoking, lose weight, cut the gossip, drink less, exercise more, and so on. All those resolutions are rooted in a dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs—or with oneself.

In other words: resolutions often have a component of dissatisfaction with self. For many, it isn’t just dissatisfaction—it’s self-hatred. And the stronger the loathing of self, the stronger the resolutions—and the more they hurt when they go unfulfilled.  It can be a very vicious circle.

Second, happy people do better. This has some verification in science, and it’s a common point of view in religion and psychology—and in common sense. People who are slightly optimistic do better in life. People who are happy are more attractive to other people. In a very real sense, you empower what you fear—and attract what you put out.

Ergo, replace resolutions with gratitude. The best way to improve oneself is paradoxical—start by begin grateful for what you already have. That turns your aspirations from negative (fixing a bad situation) to positive (making a fine situation even better).

Gratitude forces our attention outwards, to others—a common recommendation of almost all spiritual programs.

Finally, gratitude calms us. We worry less. We don’t obsess. We attract others by our calm, which makes our lives connected and meaningful. And before long, we tend to smoke less, drink less, exercise more, gossip less, and so on. Which of course is what we thought we wanted in the first place.

But the real truth is—it wasn’t the resolutions we wanted in the first place.  It was the peace that comes with gratitude.  We mistook cause for effect.

Go for an attitude of gratitude. The rest are positive side-effects.

Santa Does Trust-based Selling

Some of you are partaking in the annual ritual of watching Christmas movies – most notably the perennial It’s a Wonderful Life. This is not about that movie.

Instead, I want to remind you of an interesting lesson from the seasonal also-ran, Miracle on 34th Street.

Nominally a cute tale about the existence of Santa Claus and the power of belief (featuring a starry-eyed 6-year-old girl, and the comic relief of the US Post Office dragging in all those letters to Santa as proof-of-existence), it has a hidden gem buried within about the power of trust-based selling.


The “real” Santa (a kindly old man who is or is not deluded) is employed by Macy’s in its flagship store as, of course, Santa. Santa is nearly fired by a numbers-driven Type-A middle manager for suggesting to a shopper that she buy the toy from Gimbel’s across the street.  (The cynical shopper confounds the manager by congratulating him on “this wonderful new stunt you’re pullin’.”)

This “stunt,” of course, is the Acid Test of Trust-based Selling: the willingness to refer a customer to a direct competitor, if that is the right thing to do for the customer. But it doesn’t end there, with a whimsical sappy Santa.

Macy’s President happens along and instantly realizes that Santa’s customer focus is far more effective for Macy’s than the conventional approaches to sales.  He announces:

…not only will our Santa Claus continue in this manner…but I want every salesperson in this store to do precisely the same thing. If we haven’t got exactly what the customer wants, we’ll send him where he can get it.

No high pressuring and forcing a customer to take something he doesn’t really want. We’ll be known as the helpful store, the friendly store, the store with a heart, the store that places public service ahead of profits.

And, consequently, we’ll make more profits than ever before.


If you focus relentlessly on the customer, you-the-seller will do just fine. Even better “than ever before.”

The good news is you don’t have to believe in Santa Claus to do this. You just have to follow the Four Trust Principles:

  • Customer focus for the sake of the customer
  • Long- not short-term timeframe
  • Transparency
  • Collaboration

Sometimes we view this as a paradox: relentlessly focusing on the Other ends up serving You as well – but only if you do it genuinely, rather than as a means to an end.

Paradoxical yes, but a Truth well-known to most who delve into human relationships. You get back what you put out. Do unto others. Pay it forward. Be the change you want. And so forth.

Truly a message for the season. And not just for sellers.