Books We Trust: True North Groups, By Bill George

This is the seventh in a series called Books We Trust.

Bill George is author (with Peter Sims) of True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership. Part of the J-B Warren Bennis series, it has been widely read and praised. In his new book, True North Groups, he (with co-author Doug Baker) focuses on how True North precepts can get established for people and organizations.

Bill George is another small-town Midwesterner who made it (very) big. After punching his ticket in the McNamara Defense Department days, he eventually spent a decade each with Litton Industries, Honeywell, and Medtronic (where he was CEO).

These days he teaches leadership at Harvard Business School and serves on the Board of several Very Big companies. Click to his bio; you’ll be impressed.

Bill does not waste time; we got right into it.

Capitalism: Back to the Future

Trusted Advisor Associates: Bill, after your MBA, you spent decades in big-business companies that worked closely with government. How did you feel watching the progression of Milton Friedman, Michael Jensen, Ayn Rand, Alan Greenspan, and the doctrine of shareholder value—an ideology that pitted business against government?

Bill George: Michael Jensen has recanted; he’s writing about ontological leadership with Werner Erhard. Greenspan admitted the flaw in that ideology.

There’s been a total transformation. We have collectively realized the flaws in those old simplistic economic theories; this notion that people are motivated only by self-interest, this is simply not true. Mike Porter is another one, a brilliant guy who is now writing about shared value, not shareholder value.

There is a transformation in business right now of major companies moving away from that old paradigm.

Take Alan Mullally at Ford; he’s changing things there right down to the individual employee level. He is focusing on the long term, on sustainability.

Corporate CEOs today are the best I’ve seen, the best in my lifetime. Besides Mullally at Ford, there’s Palmisano at IBM. Steve Jobs rightly got a lot of credit. All the CEOs I know are moving away from shareholder value to values and vision. Paul Polman at Unilever says, ‟My job is not to serve the shareholder, but to serve the customer.”

TAA: That’s pretty optimistic. What do you think happened?

Bill: It’s just what’s happening, that’s all. These things only happen when you come to realize we were going the wrong way. Think Enron; that was a hugely emblematic event…there were 100 large companies with very large “accounting” problems.

You get a raft of major companies like BMS with a $1.5B accounting adjustment, and that’s not an accounting problem—that’s a failure of leadership. This went way beyond a few crooks; this was a business disaster.

But we’ve seen that. Outside Wall Street, there are a lot of really big companies that are just done thinking that way. Not going back.

Wall Street and Washington

TAA: What about Wall Street?

Bill: Wall Street never ceased. The problem is maximizing short term shareholder value―that’s the best way to go out of business. So it’s really not surprising Wall Street melted down.

Regarding Wall Street, I’m a wait and see guy. There are all new CEOs on Wall Street now―Jamie Dimon and Lloyd Blankfein are the old guys. The new folks are the ones who’ll have to make the call. A guy like Paulson can make $4B selling things short; that’s legal, he does it fair and square, but let’s not kid ourselves that’s value creation—it’s not.

TAA: What about Washington?

Bill: I’d like to see them lead, but we’ve got to take it out of the political arena: we’re just not going to get there via the politicians. They’re more interested in the parochial, ideological interests.

And that’s the greatest sin. We in business lost sight of why we were in business, lost track of the role of leadership in the first place.

Toyota and J&J took their eyes off the ball. Ford’s now beating Toyota, because Toyota took its eye off the long-term, culture/quality ball. And Ford rediscovered it.

I was on the board of Novartis. They always focused on a breakthrough drug to solve unmet patient needs―a drug that is going to advance medicine. Look at Ken Frazier at Merck, Pfizer vs. Merck, he’s pushed to keep up the level of R&D spending. Pfizer’s done the exact opposite. The short-termers keep citing Net Present Value as the driver of short-term focus, but the truth is they don’t know how to do the math right.

[CHG: An aside—read this WSJ article from February 4 of this year detailing Bill’s point: when the two companies announced their opposite strategies, the market drove Merck stock down 2.7%, while Pfizer saw its stock rise by 5.2%. That’s an 8% spread because of announced strategies.

Today, 8 months later, try comparing the two companies’ stock prices; they are back to dead even; the gap is gone. But Merck has the advantage of a tailwind in its R&D momentum; Pfizer gave it up.]

Leadership and True North

TAA: Let’s talk about leadership and bring it back to True North Groups. What should leadership be about?

Bill: Back in the day, HP was just a great company. Dave Packard totally practiced MBWA, management by walking around, a truly humble guy. Four successive CEOs now have gone the wrong way. Leadership matters greatly.

The key issue now is that the leaders’ job is not to exert power, but to empower people, including those who have no direct reports. You have to have an empowered group of employees that are excited about mission and values. If you only bring your head to work, you cut yourself off at the neck; if that’s all you can bring to the game, I’d love to compete with you.

The key issue in leadership is not to develop the next CEO, it’s to develop leaders all over the place. It’s not about developing a few good people at the top, but working on 10,000 or more.

The question is how to develop those leaders: you can’t do it through the old Darwinian GE model. Not everyone should be focused on getting Jeff Immelt’s job. That is just not where the traction is.

That’s where True North groups come in. Turns out that the best way to truly develop individual leadership capabilities is in small groups, made up of peers, of people who tell life stories, where people can find out who they really are. Because if they lead life as a fraud, thinking they’re impressing the world, it won’t work.

Steve Jobs’ most powerful message was to be who you are. Don’t let others’ opinions—Wall Street, recruiters—rob you of the courage to follow your heart. They used to snicker at me at Harvard Business School when I talked like that, but they don’t today.

TAA: How do you find a True North Group, and how do they get it right?

Bill: We found it happens in small groups. You see the success of this small-group phenomenon in affinity groups—AA, the YPO, breast cancer survivor groups, Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church—read Malcolm Gladwell’s explanation of it.

We tried to take this to people who don’t have an affinity group like that; people in business—what are they supposed to do? A great way to define a True North group is to ask yourself, “If I found out I was going to die, who would I talk to?” That’s your group.

TAA: What is it that True North Groups do?

Bill: If you buy the premise that we have to help develop people, this is the way to do it. You don’t go to Wimbledon to play tennis—you start years before. You don’t learn leadership by reading, you learn it by doing it—by living it, and talking about it. And then you need a way to process that.

There are several things we write about in the book that are critical to True North Groups’ success; I’ll highlight a few. One is non-judgmental feedback.The courage to tell it like it is—not ‘brutally,’ because that would come with judgment. Just speaking the truth, straight-up.

TAA: This is not leadership development ala Jack Welch’s GE.

Bill: A lot of people still want to use leadership development as a selection process; the big boss comes in and watches a while and says this guy’s good, that guy’s not.

Instead, you’ve got to have confidentiality and peers. This is a little hard for the leadership development people; a lot of them still like bringing people to Crotonville, but that’s too expensive.

You know the one thing we heard from leaders we interviewed? Loneliness. They’re alone. That’s true for middle managers too—the sandwich phenomenon, pushed from both ends. What’s the treatment for loneliness? A group.

People want to know, can I be real in the workplace? Is it OK? A group deals with that.

Making It Happen

TAA: You’ve actually influenced the Harvard Business School to do this, right?

Bill: My course on leadership uses small groups of 6 people. Half your time in this course is spent in authentic leadership development this way. 1,500 HBS students have gone through it—1,100 or so MBAs, and another several hundred from exec ed programs. About half your credit is for hanging out in that small group.

TAA: How well does it go over?

Bill: Neo-classical economists don’t get it, and neither do Wall Streeters—for the most part. Yet. But the rest do. It is quite significant that the Harvard Business School appointed Nitin Nohria as Dean. [Readers might also enjoy an early TrustMatters blogpost on the MBA Oath].

TAA: How does this play out for you?

Bill: Here’s the irony: all my life I’ve seen myself as a leader—because people followed me. Now I realize, that’s not what it’s about at all. It’s about empowering others.

I get to talk to all these great leaders—Mullally, and so on. I tell them all, ‘Just call me, let’s talk.’ Because we all need that. No charge, of course; we just talk.

TAA: This has been great. I will try and organize these notes into a coherent whole, and run them by you so you get the final word.

Bill: Nah, don’t worry about that. Just print it up.

 [CHG: And so that’s what I did.  If there were any mistakes made in summarizing our talk, I guarantee you they’re mine].

Impressions: An American in Denmark

It’s good for us Americans to travel—our views of foreigners come from our own little echo chambers filled with little real data. I’ve traveled to Denmark several times, though I wouldn’t say I know the country well.  Still, I’d like to share a few of my impressions from this past week’s trip.

The American geography sobriety test.

Socialist Economy.

Creativity—The cloth/paper carryall-bag.

Innovation–Cell phone Parking Meters.

Street-ready wheelchairs.

The Resistance Museum.

The American geography sobriety test. My U.S. brethren (and I) are often a little vague about points on the world map, much less their relative distances from each other. Try this test:  answers at the end.

  • Distance from Copenhagen to Rome
  • Distance from Copenhagen to Hammerfest, Norway
  • Distance from Copenhagen to Moscow
  • Distance from Copenhagen to Madrid
  • And, just for kicks, the population of Denmark

Socialist Economy.  My guess is that the average American thinks of Denmark as a “socialist” country.  Yet one Dane tells me, “I find that amusing; Danes would not consider our government or our economy socialist as such—we just (mostly happily) pay high taxes.”

According to the OECD:

US                        Denmark

GDP per capita                         $46,860               $55,986

Taxes as % GDP                        24.0%                     48.2%

Obesity rate                                30.6%                       9.5%

Divorce rate/ 1000 ppl            4.95                           2.81

Crimes/person                           80.1                         92.8

Murder w. guns/million ppl       30                           3

Life expectancy                           78.3                        78.3

CreativityThe cloth/paper carryall-bag. Your average American may believe that “socialist” economies sap the creative energy out of people. A moment’s reflection about Danish furniture (Americans well know the name Dansk) should give pause to that idea, but if not, here’s another.

I snapped this picture of a little bag they gave you at a coffee shop.  It feels half-paper, half-cloth.  It comes in packages of maybe 50, like paper napkins. Like a napkin, it lies flat on the counter.

But unlike a napkin, it’s cleverly slit—like a shark’s gills—so that when you pull up the edges, it becomes a 3-D bag, amazingly strong enough to carry several cups of coffee and various pastries.

Cell phone parking meters. Too artsy for you?  How about this…an entrepreneur struck a deal with the national government to combine GPS devices and a national database to bypass parking meters.

You find a parking place, text the service (which then determines the parking zone in which you’ve parked), enter the time you’ll be parking—and go on about your business. If you decide to stay an hour longer, no need to run down and get coins to feed the meter—just dial up and add an hour. The parking cops know you’ve paid—because they’ve got online access too.

No broken meters. No scrounging up coins or a credit card to buy a piece of paper, no going back to your car to put it in the windshield. Try picturing that in the U.S. Or in Manhattan. Heck, even just Syracuse. I don’t think so.

Street-ready Wheelchairs. Along with the Saabs and Audis and Citroens, you can see some fairly hefty wheelchairs moving along in the street in the right-turn lane. Not in the sidewalk, but out in the lane, not unlike bicycles (of which there are tons, of course).

I’m not sure what to make of it, just interesting.  Along with no obese people; I’m talking, none. Zero. Whatever they’re eating, we should too. (Me, I love herring!).

Or maybe we should exercise like the Danes. They walk like crazy, everywhere, have great posture, are slender, and very athletic.  Many smoke too, but only in moderation; the smokers also walk like crazy. They treat cigarettes like we treat espresso—a few a day.

The Resistance Museum. Maybe it’s my age, but I find history to be very helpful in understanding a country’s psyche. (If you get to Singapore, check out the National Museum of Singapore, you’ll understand Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and Singapore much better. And if you really want to get into it – Singapore is one of the most fascinating nations in the world – check out the aptly named 100 Best Things to Do in Singapore, from Jen Reviews).

In Copenhagen, I stumbled across the Resistance Museum. During World War II, Nazi Germany basically held a gun to the leaders Denmark in order to gain access to Norway.  With a population one-tenth the size of Germany and essentially no military, the Danes had little choice.  Their government agreed to be occupied by the Nazis, and yet be officially neutral. There are those who considered it collaboration; after August 1943, all cooperation officially came to an end.

The museum explains well this neutrality, as well as a real and significant Resistance. See for example the stories of The Torch and the Lemon, two courageous Resistance leaders.

When the Nazis threatened to round the Jews up, a great many Danes took serious risks to ferry the entire Jewish population across the sound to Sweden in just 10 days. The support was grassroots—as the word spread, people called up strangers with Jewish-sounding names in the phonebook to warn them.

When you occupy a border with the nation who invaded you and killed some of your citizens, you have some baggage to deal with. Younger Danes are quite forgiving and feel the Germans have punished themselves enough.  Older Danes make a distinction between the Nazis and the Germans, and seem to have come to terms with it in their daily lives.  But one senses they also have not forgotten.

Spending time in cultures other than our own is always enriching.  I find it also makes it easier to trust people.

One of the better things we Americans could do for ourselves and for the world is to loosen up on our restrictions toward tourism and immigration into the US; and also to invest in sending 100,000 high school students per year to a foreign country. That would go a long way in getting us outside our little echo chambers.
Answers to the American geography sobriety test:

  • Copenhagen to Rome: 952 miles
  • Copenhagen to Hammerfest, Norway: 1089 miles
  • Copenhagen to Moscow: 968 miles
  • Copenhagen to Madrid: 1289 miles
  • Population of Denmark: 5,529,270

The Dos and Don’ts of Trust-Based Networking

We’re pleased to announce the release of our latest eBook: The Dos and Don’ts of Trust-Based Networking.

It’s the fifth in the new Trusted Advisor Fieldbook series by Charles H. Green and Andrea P. Howe.

Each eBook provides a snapshot of content from The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook, which is jam-packed with practical, hands-on strategies to dramatically improve your results in sales, relationship management, and organizational performance.

The Dos and Don’ts of Trust-Based Networking reveals:

  • How trust-based networking is different from every-day business networking
  • Ten best practices for trust-based networking
  • Specific dos and don’ts for online networking

P.S. Did you miss out on Volumes 1 through 4 of The Fieldbook eBook series? Get them while they’re still available:

  1. 15 Ways to Build Trust…Fast!
  2. How to Sell to the C-Suite
  3. Six Risks You Should Take to Build Trust
  4. How YOU Can Raise Trust in Your Organization

Take a look and let us know what you think.

DRUMROLL PLEASE…Announcing Our Licensee in Scandinavia: Garde Inc.

Business is global. Culture is local. And trust is universally needed to do business in today’s increasingly impersonal world. So, it is with delight that I announce our new affiliate in Scandinavia, Garde Inc.

We met with the amazing folks of Garde Inc., a newly formed consulting firm, at one of our trainings in London earlier this year, and were blown away by the level of intelligence, energy and insight these folks bring to their work. All experienced consultants, they work to bring organizations both the knowledge to change minds and the practices to change behaviors–and all this shows up on their clients’ bottom lines. Garde Inc. brings the trusted advisor perspective into their consulting areas of Product, Projects and Process.

“Garde Inc. is a consulting firm specializing in behavior, execution and results. We help ambitious clients move from plans and talk to behavior and results. We help you get there faster and more efficiently.”

Their inspirations:

In Europe? Doing business in Europe? I urge you to give them a call:

Kristen Bernikows Gade 6

DK-1105 Copenhagen, Denmark

T: +45 2488 8608

[email protected]


Making a Trusted Advisor of the Procurement Function

Please welcome guest-blogger Bill Young, a Management Consultant. We have high regard for this person and we think you’ll enjoy the content.

The procurement function in an organization can play an important role—potentially both strategic and advisory. It can also, however, be dragged down into petty negativism. It’s in everyone’s interest to get it right.

Getting it right is the subject of a new article by the two of us, called The Role of Procurement as Trusted Advisor to Management. Link to a.pdf version here.

Following is a quick overview.

Procurement as Strategic Partner

Ideally, a firm’s procurement function helps broadly. Of course it manages the buying of commodity stuff cheaply.  It should also design good overall purchasing processes.  But ultimately it should also help an organization invest its expenditures wisely.

That last is a mandate most CPOs and CEOs alike would welcome—in principle. But they rarely get there, because procurement gets bogged down in a classic trust conflict: the conflict between transactions and relationships.

Procurement has pushed hard to attract brighter and better staff, but capability is not enough.  A genuine understanding of and concern for clients’ ambitions and goals is needed: procurement needs to be benevolent as well as capable in the way it works with clients.

The Transaction Trap

Most organizations measure procurement by how much they can cut cost.  This simple fact—the focus on cost savings as a metric—has outsized influence.  It means discussions are always about price—but not value.  Expenses—but not expenditures.  Cuts—but not contexts.

The cost savings focus drives procurement to excessively favor market-based, impersonal processes—which too often prevent the value of trusted relationships with suppliers. The transactional focus implied by cost metrics also favors explicit contracting, rather than the constructive use of implicit contracts on occasion.

This focus also leads to destructive gaming: you can’t prove savings if you’ve already cut the source of waste by strategically redefining processes, hence procurement organizations are tempted to “squirrel away” savings to appear the biggest.  The cost focus also means that purchasing’s clients know that ‘savings’ just means their budget is going to get cut.

The whole ‘savings’ focus drives dysfunctional, non-strategic behavior by everyone.  And it’s gotten worse since 2009: CPOs and CEOs alike, in a bad economic environment, have said, “Just go find some savings.”

The Trust Cure

It’s not often that we should start with metrics instead of strategy, but this may be the cart that should drive the horse.  Instead of focusing so extremely on cost savings, we suggest procurement focus on a Spend Control Index.  Details will vary by organization, but the gist of it is a unified scorecard that makes procurement accountable for all external spend—based on revenue, adjusted for items like salaries, interest, and above all, linked directly to strategic decisions.

Such an approach is easily linked to strategy; it enhances strategy implementation; and it is easily auditable. Most importantly, it allows for reframing of discussions between management and procurement; allowing the latter to behave like a trusted advisor.

Read the whole article here, or in .pdf form here.

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.

Trusted Advisors: Are You Joking?

A doctor, a lawyer and a rabbi all walk into a bar.

The bartender says: “What is this, some kind of joke?’”

Notice: It’s never a manufacturer, a schoolteacher and a dancer who walk into the bar and serve as setup-lines for our jokes.  Instead, it’s those who should be our most trusted advisors: doctors, lawyers, spiritual leaders.

Ever wonder why?

Untrustworthy Advisors?

I am one who trusts.  I strongly believe that the vast majority of people in each of these professions, or callings, can be trusted with my life.  And yet I still find the doctor-lawyer-preacher jokes pretty funny.  Which got me thinking about why these folks are the protagonists of so many stories and jokes.

Here are three reasons I came up with:

1. Because these are meant to be respected professions, it’s easy to laugh at the bad apples and contrarian behavior.

2. Because we need our doctors and lawyers and spiritual leaders to be truly trustworthy advisors, the experience of dealing with them can be pretty emotional.  We are, in many cases, entrusting them with our lives, our money, our most personal family matters and more.

Trust is risky – the very definition of trust means we are taking a risk in relying on the advice, actions or discretion of someone else.  And that can be scary.  With so much at stake, we need the release that humor offers when dealing with serious, scary themes.

3. Perhaps the greatest reason these trusted advisor are so prominent in jokes is that they represent different aspects of ourselves, internal paradoxes we are trying to manage and integrate.  The doctor –the body, or the physical; the lawyer – the head, or the intellectual; and the rabbi/priest/preacher —  the heart, or the spiritual. These jokes are a form of stories—metaphors for aspects of life.

My Musings and Yours

These are my musings about the doctor, lawyer and rabbi who just walked into my bar.  Seriously, now, let’s share a beer and talk this through.

Story Time: Leading with Trust in the C-Suite

When it comes to trust-building, stories are a powerful tool for both learning and change. Our new Story Time series brings you real, personal examples from business life that shed light on specific ways to lead with trust. Today’s anecdote zeroes in on being trustworthy in the C-suite.

A New Anthology

Our upcoming book, The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook: A Comprehensive Toolkit for Leading with Trust (Wiley, October 2011), contains a multitude of such stories. Told by and about people we know, these stories illustrate the fundamental attitudes, truths, and principles of trustworthiness. In the coming months, we’ll share a selection of stories from the new book with you.

Today’s story is excerpted from our chapter on selling to the C-suite. It vividly demonstrates the value of speaking directly, and asking questions that are simple and humble. (And if it leaves you wanting more, check out our eBook, “How to Sell to the C-Suite.”)

From the Front Lines: Asking a Simple Question

Paulo Novaes, a Senior Manager working in Mexico for a global consulting firm, tells a story about the power of asking questions.

“At the due diligence stage of selling to a global bank, I was gathering information on how they work: their existing skills and where the gaps might be. This was a company which traditionally did everything in-house, and we would be their first outsourcing partner.

“The executive in charge told me with great passion of all they had accomplished, the skills they had, and procedures they had put in place, and so on. It was impressive.

“I had to ask a simple, critical question: ‘Why do you need us?’

“Once the client recovered from his surprise, he came back with set of answers: ‘You have the experience, the methodology, the capability to add to all we have built. Also, yes, we are good, we are proud, and have reached a limit in efficiency, with what we can do by ourselves. We need an external partner to complement what we’ve done, who is able to design a solution to fit our needs.’

“The client sold himself on our services in that moment.

“What I learned: sometimes you have to ask basic questions. Simple and humble is often better. Rather than struggle to find what’s beneath the surface or between the lines, the best way to advance is to be as direct as possible—even at the risk of going against cultural norms. If you speak directly—in a polite manner and with respect—the customer will thank you. You are saving their time and getting a better result.”

—Paulo Novaes (Mexico)

That’s Paulo’s story. What makes a difference in the C-suite in your experience?

ACTION REQUIRED: Read my email PLEASE! (Part 2)

In my most recent post, I addressed an issue plaguing those of us who communicate by email – incomplete responses or the failure to respond at all.  In that post three experts shared their advice on how to improve the emails. If you’re following all the great advice, and the problem persists, what do you do?  I called those same three experts – Alesia Latson, Bob Whipple and Stever Robbins, and asked them:  “If e-mail senders follow your advice and e-mail recipients do not respond fully or respond at all, what else can you do?”

Experts Weigh In on E-mail Responsiveness

Here’s what they suggested:

Alesia Latson (Co-Author of More Time for You):

  • Give people the benefit of the doubt.  Assume positive intent.  All that happened is that you didn’t get a response – don’t make up any other story about what that means about you or them.  It means nothing in and of itself.    Simply follow up with a call or another message.  After 3 attempts drop it or escalate if appropriate.
  • Avoid long lists of things for people to do – it’s too confrontational and adds to their sense of being overwhelmed.  Keep it to two action items maximum per requests.
  • Try an opt in.  Say something like, “If I don’t hear from you in the next day or so – then I’ll assume that you’re ok with it,” or “I’ll follow-up with a phone call if we don’t connect via e-mail.”

Bob Whipple (author of Understanding E-body Language):

  • Establish ground rules within a group, including timing for response, and hold each other accountable.  Be aware that Gen Y and Gen X (think anyone under 35) are less likely to respond to email.  This is getting to be a corporate problem.
  • Try to keep emails readable in the preview pane (assuming it’s horizontal) – the start of the signature block should be visible on the first page.  It creates a psychological incentive to read the note. A note that goes “over the horizon” is often deleted before being read.
  • Keep emails simple – so they can be read and internalized in 15-30 seconds.
  • Note the pattern of communication for the person you are trying to reach.  Reach the person in the way s/he is most likely to respond.  It may not be email.

Bob also suggested looking at his articles – I did, and there are a lot more ideas listed.

Stever Robbins (author of Tips for Mastering E-mail Overload):

  • Assume they have too much email, and pick up the phone (you’ll be one of the few).
  • You may be being marginalized – poke around and find out what’s going on. If there’s no trusted person you can ask, then you may have your answer.
  • Learn the most important agenda of the person you are communicating with, and reframe to his/her agenda, rather than yours.

Applying Trusted Advisor Models

These are all great suggestions.  And there are some common themes:

  • Start from the other person’s perspective.  Each of the experts emphasized considering the recipient’s situation in reading and responding, rather than your own situation in needing a response.  This concept is the first of the powerful Trust Principles.

That is, focus on the other for the other’s sake, and determine how that person can and will actually receive and act on the message, and consider how to frame your message so it becomes important for that person to respond.

  • Pay attention to your own credibility.  If you are being marginalized, as Stever Robbins suggests as something to look at, perhaps there are things you can do to improve.
  • By assuming positive intent of the recipient, we are less focused on ourselves.  If we think “why didn’t she get back to me?” that could be an indication of high self-orientation, the denominator of the Trust Equation.   This type of thinking is a trap that makes it difficult to find a solution to a responsiveness issue, because instead, you are looking for someone to blame.

We’ve heard from the experts – now it’s your turn.  What have you tried that has worked?

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.