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A Contingent Offer

It was a beautiful fall in Blacksburg…but I was quite nervous…my senior year in Mechanical Engineering at Virginia Tech was now underway and reality was setting in fast…I had to find a job.

I had racked up a massive $11,000 in loans for school from my Mom and Dad – I was expected to start paying it back right after graduation to help pay for my 5 younger siblings to go to college. On top of that, I was engaged to be married in July. I needed a job – I really, really needed a job.

I was nervous. Although the market for new engineering graduates was strong, I was unsure about my job prospects because…how do I say this delicately…I had not exactly distinguished myself academically.

There was not much I could do at this point to change my grades in Calculus or Thermodynamics…so I focused intensely on my job search.

I signed up for the usual campus interviews – but after the first round I was disappointed. I only received 2 invitations to visit plant sites for second round interviews.

My first visit to a company in West Virginia did not go well. A week later I received The Letter – Thanks but no thanks…dinged!! I was getting very nervous. I attended a “how to interview” session at the career center, where I learned I needed to sell myself and be confident – even though I was not.

On my trip to “Acme Chemical” in early November the interviews seemed to go much better – I was not that crazy about the company, or the job or the location….but I needed a job and was hopeful. In the meantime, my campus interviews had turned the corner – I had scored 4 more company visits after Christmas.

The Letter arrived from Acme…I opened it with caution – it was an offer! A very good offer – $17,800 a year! I was so excited….until I read further.

It was a “contingent offer” – contingent upon a position still being open at the time I decided to accept it. Huh??? I was quite confused. I called HR – they were going to hire 4 engineers and they made 7 offers. The first 4 to accept the offer got the jobs –and the other 3 would no longer have offers.

What?!! I had 4 upcoming interview trips with companies and locations I liked better than Acme. I did not want to accept this early offer and miss out on other potential choices. At the same time I really needed a job and $17,800 was a good offer. The job was OK, the location was not that bad…a bird in the hand; it was a real dilemma.

I decided to call Dad. At this point I had emerged from my “independent and confrontational teenage years.” But I could not say that Dad and I  were close; it was the first time that I remember turning to him for advice.

I explained my predicament.

Dad answered without hesitation, “Accept the job.”

When I started to explain that would preclude other options, 
he interrupted me.

 “No – it doesn’t.”

“What do you mean?”

“Accept the job – a contingent acceptance – contingent upon you not accepting another job someplace else.”

“Can I do that?”

“I don’t see why the hell not!”

“But what if they get angry and withdraw the offer?”

“Then I am not sure it is a place you want to work anyway.”

It was brilliant – my Dad was becoming smarter every day. I felt this huge burden had lifted.

First thing Monday morning I called up Acme and told them “I accept…” But when I added my conditions they were not happy. They said I was being “impertinent.” (I didn’t even know what that meant!)

They explained they did not accept my acceptance….they had recruited at the School for 10 years, and they were going to let the Dean know about my little stunt.

My cute plan had backfired; I was feeling sick again.

The next day I was summoned to the Dean’s office. I was fairly certain it was not because of my stellar academic performance.

The Dean was a scary man. He carried a permanent scowl on his face like Miss Gulch (Wicked Witch) in the Wizard of Oz.

“Mr. ____ – Acme has been recruiting here for years – I understand you accepted their offer contingent upon not accepting a job someplace else?”

“Yes sir, I did. I did not mean to be disrespectful but…”

“Excellent. They have no right pressuring my students. I let them know that either all 7 offers stand or they won’t be welcomed back.”

I walked out relieved and with a small measure of renewed confidence.

I ultimately had 4 job offers. I accepted a job someplace else and started calling my dad more often.

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.

Story Time: Innovation, Trust, and the Freedom to Fail

Our Story Time series brings you real, personal examples from business life that shed light on specific ways to lead with trust. Our last story proved that he who eats with chopsticks wins. Today’s shows how trust can impact innovation, productivity, and staff retention.

A New Anthology

When it comes to trust-building, stories are a powerful tool for both learning and change. Our new book, The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook: A Comprehensive Toolkit for Leading with Trust (Wiley, October 2011), contains a multitude of stories. Told by and about people we know, these stories illustrate the fundamental attitudes, truths, and principles of trustworthiness.

Today’s story is excerpted from our chapter on making the case for trust. It vividly demonstrates how providing the freedom to fail, take risks, and build on others’ ideas increases a team’s ability to innovate.

From the Front Lines: A Trust-Based Business Unit

In 2005, Ross Smith became Director of an 85-person software test team within Microsoft. His team had great technical skills, passion, and excitement, but felt underutilized and unchallenged. Ross set out to improve innovation and productivity. Exploring options, they ran across a University of British Columbia study by John F. Helliwell and Haifang Huang that equated the impact of high organizational trust to significant pay raises in terms of creating job satisfaction.

The team suddenly realized that innovation required freedom to fail, risk taking, building on others’ ideas—all behaviors grounded in high trust. That cognitive snap, that a high-trust organization would address underutilization and latent talent, was the beginning of the solution.

In a high-trust organization, individuals could apply their skills, education, and experience at their own discretion. They could take risks and change processes themselves because managers would trust them. The question was this: how to do it?

Ross asked the team to identify behaviors they felt influenced trust, positively or negatively. They realized that trust was subjective, situational, and very individual, and there was no single behavioral answer. As a result, the team put together a detailed playbook describing simple principles with discussion about how to implement.

They also modeled risk-taking and trust-building by using games to approach problems; everyone was allowed to play, experiment, and fail.

Microsoft is a heavy user of metrics, for Ross’s team as well as throughout the company. The first noticeable difference was a higher-than-normal level of retention. After two and a half years, other things started to change dramatically—new test tools and new techniques were developed, and a high level of collaboration and partnership was working. Productivity numbers started to rise. As the project finished, the team was rated at or near the top across virtually every Microsoft productivity metric.

When Ross and several others from the original team moved to another division, they set out to introduce the trust-building ideas and practices which had worked so well before. Once again, they saw a high retention rate, a broader application of talent, and higher productivity numbers.

The metrics followed the changes in mind-set and behavior—not the other way around.

—Ross Smith (Microsoft), as told to Charles H. Green

Find out more about Ross’s experiments in management innovation and trust, or read his blog on productivity games.

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Read more stories about trust:

Trust Tip Video: The Single Biggest Sin in Sales

A lot of things can go wrong in sales – and often do. But there’s probably one thing that stands over all the other as the Ur-error of selling. This particular error is baked so deep into our behavior that you might call it the “original sin” of selling.

In this week’s Trust Tip video, I examine what that error is, and why it’s such an egregious mistake. Fortunately, the solution is not that hard – as long as you remember to use it.

If you like the Trust Tip Video series and you like our occasional eBooks, why not subscribe to make sure you get both? Every week we send you selected high-quality content.  To subscribe, click here, or go to http://bit.ly/trust-subscribe

Trust Tip Video: It Takes Two to Do the Trust Tango

Establishing a trust-based relationship has always been a two-way street. Like a good Argentinean Tango, there has to be a routine where risk and reciprocation are involved. What can you do to build a more trusting relationship? How do you know which role you play in the trust tango? When should you lead, and when should you follow?

In this week’s Trust Tip Video, we discuss the difference between trusting and being trusted. The two work together cohesively; there is no trust without risk and no trust-based relationship without a first step.

If you like the Trust Tip Video series, and you like our occasional eBooks, why not subscribe to make sure you get both? Every 2-4 weeks we’ll send you selected high-quality content. To subscribe, click here, or go to http://bit.ly/trust-subscribe

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Many Trusted Advisor programs now offer CPE credits.  Please call Tracey DelCamp for more information at 856-981-5268–or drop us a note @ info@trustedadvisor.com.

Trust in the Search Business: the Bowdoin Group

The Bowdoin Group is a mid-sized executive recruiting firm based in New England. Sean Walker is a partner at Bowdoin, and heads their Information and Media Division. We met over seafood at the Oyster Bar in Grand Central a few months ago.

I’ve always felt that executive search is one of those “perfect” trusted advisor businesses – like pharmaceutical reps, wealth managers and client managers in accountancies. Perfect in potential, that is; perfection is not the norm in any of those businesses, and far from it in some.

Sean and Bowdoin look like exceptions: they “get it,” and practice the principles of trust, as you’ll see.

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Charlie Green: Sean, you just lost a big sale; you’re disappointed, but clearly not upset. What’s up with that?

Sean Walker: It’s not about the transaction, it’s about the relationship. We’ve got three other projects working in that organization, and they like us. This one just wasn’t right for them, hence not for us either.

Charlie: So how do you think about this business?

Sean: We don’t think of it as skills-based, and we don’t think of it as project-based. We have to have domain expertise – industry knowledge, networks and so on – but we equally well have to work the relationship. The most important thing we do – and often the hardest – is to approach this business strategically.

Charlie: Can you say more about what that means to Bowdoin?

Sean: It means some of what you write about; you never do a deal or a job or a project – you develop an ongoing relationship, which contains jobs along the way.

When we fail, it’s almost always because we started to follow our own agenda, falling in love with the results, the process. When we get it right is when we remember to listen and learn; to be a human capital advisor, helping them to build their organization.

And the funny thing is, the more you focus on the strategy, the better the tactical results happen to get.

Charlie: How do you deal with the fact that many clients are seeking you out as transactors, looking for a candidate, measuring your lead lists?

Sean: Some clients are like that, some are not, and some can evolve along with us. The client we just lost that project for is a great client – their sales guy wants us to partner with them to create a new organization.

And clients, just like us, can learn to behave more strategically. People can be very short-sighted, but if you take the time to understand the person you’ve got on the other end of the line, if you can get some one to be intimate and speak to you about their fears, you can solve not only the immediate issue in front of them, but you can understand both them and the company better. Then you can get to the core. And then it flows.

Charlie: You said it’s hard to keep focused; what are some of the pitfalls, or temptations, along the way?

Sean:  Oh gee, let’s see. Goals and targets, if you’re not careful. Clients that want to treat you transactionally, price-haggle, are short-term focused. An industry that, more often than not, thinks opportunistically–hopping from opportunity to opportunity.

Charlie: Where does trust fit here?

Sean: It’s all around. It’s the business, if you do it right. The fact that people let you in and give you that trust, it makes it all worthwhile.

Charlie: What do you say to those who say, “Yeah, that’s nice, but you’ve got to make money.”

Sean: They are so missing the point. This way of doing business is 100% more profitable – and it can make your job much easier. Because once you’ve proven yourself, the business comes back to you–you’re not always jumping from opening to opening.

If you take the time up front, it pays off all along the line, across multiple decision-makers. When we fall of the strategic trust wagon, that’s when our profitability goes wrong.

Charlie: Sean, it’s been a pleasure. Good luck, but I bet you don’t need it.

Sean: Thanks Charlie, it’s been a pleasure likewise.

 

Trust Tip Video: The Two Most Trust Destroying Words

What are the two most trust-destroying words? An interesting enough question by itself; but even more interesting is just why these two words carry such toxic power.

To learn both the words, and the source of their negative effect, listen to this week’s Trust Tips Video: The Two Most Trust-Destroying Words.

And for more information on this week’s Trust Tip Topic, you might also enjoy reading this blogpost.

If you like the Trust Tip Video series, and you like our occasional eBooks, why not subscribe to make sure you get both? Every 2-4 weeks we’ll send you selected high-quality content. To subscribe, click here, or go to http://bit.ly/trust-subscribe

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Many Trusted Advisor programs now offer CPE credits.  Please call Tracey DelCamp for more information at 856-981-5268–or drop us a note @ info@trustedadvisor.com.

Story Time: He Who Eats With Chopsticks Wins

Our Story Time series brings you real, personal examples from business life that shed light on specific ways to lead with trust. Our last story proved that trust is personal.  But what does it take to really close a deal?

A New Anthology

When it comes to trust-building, stories are a powerful tool for both learning and change. Our new book, The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook: A Comprehensive Toolkit for Leading with Trust (Wiley, October 2011), contains a multitude of stories. Told by and about people we know, these stories illustrate the fundamental attitudes, truths, and principles of trustworthiness.

Today’s story is excerpted from our chapter on the dynamics of influence. It vividly demonstrates how non-rational factors—like respect for tradition—can make or break a sale.

From the Front Lines: Decisions Aren’t Just Rational

Russell Feingold, now of Black & Veatch, recalls an early-career sales win.

“The client was a large electric utility in Hong Kong, and the project was complex. My company invested considerable time preparing our proposal, responding to questions, and meeting with the client face to face in Hong Kong. We won the project.

“However, it was during our working lunches that I really won the client’s trust—by my proficiency with using chopsticks. Quite simply, my clients appreciated my respect for their tradition, when even their own children were turning to Western ways of eating. To this day I believe my ability to use chopsticks not only ingratiated me with our client for the remainder of the project, but was a deciding factor in our being selected in the first place.”

—Russell Feingold (Black & Veatch)

What’s the most unexpected factor that’s won you a job?

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Read more stories about trust:

Trusted Advisor Inflation

The term “trusted advisor” has undergone some changes since I first co-wrote the book by that title 11 years ago.  Three changes, to be precise:

  1. It’s amazing how many more people claim to be one;
  2. It’s becoming clear that not every industry needs one;
  3. In the industries and functions that matter, the concept is gaining headway.

It’s the third point that’s most important, and most promising.

1. Grade Inflation, Title Inflation, Trusted Advisor Inflation

The United States has taken to heart Garrison Keillor’s fictional Lake Wobegon, where “all the children are above average.” That’s got to be the only sensible conclusion from the data, which show in-your-face grade inflation at the college and university level.

A couple of years ago, the Economist proclaimed that “Inflation in Job Titles is Approaching Weimar Levels.” (In case you’re not down with economist jokes, read here, and I won’t tell anyone).

So I guess it’s no wonder that we have “Trusted Advisor inflation.” I’ve sat in on several corporate training programs lately where generally mid-level attendees were asked to indicate whether they were operating at the “trusted advisor” level with their clients.

About 70% said they were. That may not be Weimar territory, but it’s Lake Wobegon for sure. I will tell you from experience: that was not the case 12 years ago, even in the same industries.

My conclusion? Not much, actually. We live in a post-Warholian age of hyperbole. “Friend” doesn’t mean what it used to, nor do “authenticity,” “talent,” or “good audio,” for that matter.  But it’s OK: it means what it means, namely how people actually use the term. Definitions are living things, captured only momentarily in dictionaries.

2. Not Every Industry Needs a Trusted Advisor

I had dinner the other day with an old classmate, a very senior advisor to a Very Big private equity fund, who keeps tabs on a dozen global retail clients. “So Charlie, tell me what’s up with Trusted Advisor Associates these days,” he said.

It was clear from his tone that he was skeptical about the relevance of the concept to his businesses – mainly B2C consumer-level chains in things like pet foods, electronics and sundries.

I could tell that because he visibly relaxed when I said, “Gary, I don’t need a trusted advisor relationship with the counter-guy at Dunkin’ Donuts. I love that he knows my order when he sees me come in – but that’s quite enough. It would ruin everything if we ever got past, ‘hi guy, the usual?’ And ditto for Starbucks.”

It’s true. There are whole bunches of roles and industries that don’t need to have trusted advisor relationships. Most B2C retail doesn’t need it. Traders don’t need it. Marketers don’t generally need it. Most non-client-facing roles don’t need it. Manufacturing roles don’t generally need it.

That’s not to say all those roles can’t benefit from the basics of curiosity, good values and manners. But, as per point 1 – let’s not inflate that into Trusted Advisor Status.

3. Those That Do Need It – Are Starting To See It

The term “trusted advisor” originated in high-end professional services and wealth management relationships and it’s still valid and well-understood there.

The biggest shifts I’ve seen since the original The Trusted Advisor in 2001 have come in four areas: sales, internal staff functions, leadership and the financial industry. (One industry that’s still a work-in-progress – pharma).

Sales. In the last decade or so, the field of sales has undergone a number of changes. Some – like Salesforce.com, Sales 2.0, Google clicks – have often made the function less personal, and arguably less trustworthy.

But others – like inbound marketing, complex sales, and the amazing transparency machine called the Internet – have made selling more personal, and often more trustworthy.

I like to think my own book, Trust-based Selling, published by McGraw-Hill in 2005, played a little role in that too.

Internal Staff Functions. The Big 5 staff functions – HR, IT, Legal, Marketing, and Finance ­– have made large jumps in many companies to realizing that their internal client relationships have exactly the same needs. How to get invited in before problems arise; how to get your advice taken; how to add value – these are all critical functions for an internal staff function. More about those functions here.

Leadership. Tons of things have changed with leadership. Let’s sum it up by saying leadership has become more horizontal, less vertical. That moves influence, persuasion and trust way up the required skills list for leaders.  Rob Galford wrote about that in 2003 in The Trusted Leader; Andrea Howe and I wrote about it in last year’s The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook: A Comprehensive Toolkit for Leading with Trust.

Financial Industry. Something is happening in the financial planning and wealth management industries. The line between brokers and fiduciaries is finally getting defined, and the balance of power seems to be shifting toward trusted advisor, client-focused relationships. (Some of you know this issue as fiduciary vs. suitability).

The issue is delightfully defined in a YouTube video about the difference between your butcher and your dietitian.  For more on this issue, read Michael Kitces, who writes well and often about it.

Just around the industry corner is Wall Street, investment banking, and the flap about Michael Smith’s Goldman resignation. Investment banking used to be a pure trusted advisor kind of business. People like Epicurean Dealmaker still speak eloquently about that part of the business.

But investment banks have more complex business models these days, and it’s far from clear (to me anyway) that all of those businesses should be built on the long-term, client-centric models required by true trusted advisors.

Conclusions:

1. Just because you think you’re a trusted advisor doesn’t mean you are one – Lake Wobegon is mythical, after all.

2. But neither does it necessarily mean you should be one. We don’t need trusted advisors on every street corner.

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and we should leave it at that.

Trust Tip Video: Trust Takes Time?

One of the more common sayings about trust is, “Trust takes time.” In fact, like several other truisms about trust, it’s far from true.

Moreover, the way we use that phrase–“trust takes time”–is often more by way of excuse than explanation.

To see why, listen to this week’s Trust Tips Video: Trust Takes Time? That’s a Cop-Out.

For more information on this week’s Trust Tip Topic, you might also enjoy reading Top Trust Myths: Trust Takes Time.

If you like the Trust Tip Video series, and you like our occasional eBooks, why not subscribe to make sure you get both? Every 2-4 weeks we’ll send you selected high-quality content. To subscribe, click here, or go to http://bit.ly/trust-subscribe