The Real Meaning of L’Affaire Madoff

It is tempting to dwell on the horror of Bernard Madoff. (Thanks to Robert Scheer for teeing up this issue).  How could he have done it?  What kind of a man does that?  Is 150 years in prison enough?  And so on.

Tempting—but largely wrong. If we lay all the blame at the feet of one aberrant individual, then we avoid taking a hard look at broader issues of institutional trust. 

Remember: Madoff was once the Chairman of NASDAQ and served on SEC advisory committees—he was the ultimate insider.  So it’s relevant to ask: if Madoff was such Evil Incarnate, what does that say about the sea he swam in?

Is Madoff a Bad Apple?  Or From a Rotten Barrel?

Recently the former CEO of the National Association of Personal Financial Planners was sued by the SEC for participating in a kickback scheme.   The current president missed a great opportunity to condemn or announce new initiatives; instead, she sadly bemoaned the negative impression this might cause of the character of others in the profession. 

The bad apple argument begs the question: just who elected the Bad Apples head of the barrel?

One single piece of data convinced me that Madoff was not evil incarnate, but a cheap two-bit hustler who hit it big.  It was his taped conversation with Fairfield Greenwich feeder fund starting with, ‘First, this conversation never happened, OK?

What industry elects a man like that to positions of high influence? 

Some say financial excesses were caused by misaligned incentives.  But an industry doesn’t become trustworthy by un-tweaking incentives.  Remember Chris Rock’s statement of marital fidelity: “A man is as faithful as his options.”  There’s truth to that, but let’s not confuse it with ethics or trust.

The whole point of being trustworthy is that you have just enough moral backbone to resist temptation.  We expect dogs to eat the roast if left on the counter; fixing the Madoff issue by aligning incentives is the equivalent of moving the roast to the back of the counter.  It may save the roast this time, but the dog gets the message—we are now playing a game of “who gets the meat,” no longer a game of “don’t eat the meat.” 

Which is precisely the problem with too much of the financial sector—the proposed options too often suborn more untrustworthy behavior by focusing only on consequences.    

How Not to Fix the Barrel

The real drivers of trust have got to be the personal beliefs about one’s relationship to others.  Are you in it for them, or are you only in it for yourself?  Are you an individual existing in a state of nature with no obligations beyond self-aggrandizement?  Or do you feel some connection and obligation to others, to society?

If you believe others exist mainly for you to make money from them, then you will find ways to exploit them, within (or slightly outside of) the law.  You will devise short-term transactional behaviors to lower the risk of exposure to others, and to help you do unto others before they do unto you.  You will seek to hide, and to prevaricate. 

You will, in short, violate the (four) basic principles of trustworthiness.

But if you believe you and your business and your industry exist to serve customers, and that you too will benefit in the longer run by doing so, then you’ll behave differently.  You’ll understand the word ‘fiduciary’ is critical to trust. You’ll understand the connection between being trusted and being financially rewarded.  You’ll have nothing to hide because you’ll have no reason to hide.  You’ll welcome long-term relationships, because that’s what it’s all about.

And you’ll never begin a sentence saying, ‘First, this conversation never happened.’

How To Fix the Barrel, and Apples as a byproduct.

I have said before that mass, public shaming is a more effective antidote to low trust than most other solutions being bandied about.

Erecting more airport security measures, more Sarboxes, more Chinese walls, and aligning incentives are all ham-handed, expensive ways to reduce exposure to bad people.  They do nothing to exert social leverage to reduce badness itself.

Social virtues are built by societies.  If we limit our social solutions to imprisonment and walled communities, we’re using our social capital to create criminals.

Principled enforcement—surprise audits and large penalties–is one way society teaches virtues: the IRS uses it very effectively.

Public shaming has a great history too: the muckrakers and activists have achieved great things—think Sinclair Lewis, Gandhi, ML King, the kid in front of the tank in Tiananmen Square, and investigative journalism. All have called on our innate sense of goodness to cause change.

Trustworthiness worthy of the name is an internally felt response to an externally-taught relationship. Don’t cheapen it by just moving the cheese.

To Hug or Not to Hug?

I’ve had several awkward moments greeting several different clients in the past few months, where the unspoken question for both of us has been, “To hug or not to hug?” The question seems to arise with clients who fall in two categories:

1 – Business friends – these are clients with whom I don’t necessarily socialize outside of work, but with whom I have established a relationship that’s far more than strictly business — a relationship marked by candor, warmth, genuine caring, and the easy exchange of personal as well as business information.

2 – Personal friends who have become clients – these are clients with whom I had a personal relationship long before we did any work together.

The dilemma arises when a handshake seems completely inauthentic because it’s too formal and distant, and yet a hug seems out of place in a business setting. So what usually results is a really awkward, jerky-movement thing, like two chickens in a barnyard – one of us sticks out our hand while the other moves in for a light embrace, then we both pull back and switch, trying to match the others’ first move.

Trusted Advisor work teaches us to seek intimacy — not fear it – through emotional connectedness with clients; to dare to show clients that we care about them and that we see them more as human beings than walking, talking revenue streams. And yet the question, “To hug or not to hug?” raises all kinds of ancillary questions. Such as:

-What if my client doesn’t like to hug anyone, let alone his or her consultant?

-Should the rules be different depending on whether my client is a man or a woman? The same gender or the opposite gender?

-What if someone else who is “outside” the relationship is there to witness (or be left out of) the hug?

-What is the equivalent dilemma in a country with different cultural norms, where hugging might be completely off the table but kissing might not?

-How much is too much? Where do we draw the line?

Your thoughts?

Trust Me

Courtesy of The Financial Brand comes the story "A Failure of Trust:"

"On Thursday, September 4, an ad from Silver State Bank asked, “Why do so many of Nevada’s strongest businesses trust Silver State Bank?” The answer? “Security” and “protection.”

The next day, the bank was seized by federal and state regulators.…In the two months prior to the bank’s seizure, customers pulled $264 million of the $1.7 billion on deposit at Silver State."

There are no more trust-destroying words one can say than “trust me.” Googling “trust us” gets more than 5 million hits. Interestingly, well over half appear to be of the cynical phrasing, e.g. “Trust us, we’re experts: How Industry Manipulates Science."

In other words, most of us are “on” to the con.

Yet the self-delusion (and occasionally cynicism) continues. I periodically Google “your trusted advisor” to see who still thinks advertising “trust me” is a good strategy. I won’t name names—you can do it yourself: just search on “your trusted advisor” (don’t forget the quote marks), and decide for yourself whether the advertisers really are your trusted real estate agent, your trusted financial planner, your trusted land developer—or not.

Most people who use the term “trust” or “trust me” or “trusted advisor” in advertising mean well. In a few cases, they’re even right. But they miss the point.

The point is, it’s inherently contradictory to advertise your trustworthiness. It’s like bragging about your humility. Trust is supposed to be largely personal, and about serving the customer. Trust ads are intrinsically non-personal, and inherently self-serving.

George Burns once said, “Sincerity is the most important success factor; if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” The joke lies in the implausibility of faking sincerity. Ditto for trust.

Unsolicited testimonials are fabulous. Solicited testimonials, quoted in mass media, are quite another thing. The difference lies in the motives.

Talking internally about how to be trusted is great; talking to clients about it is good to the extent you do it one on one, in small groups, with blank notepads and a willingness to learn. Talking to clients about trust via statistically valid online surveys that don’t let you expand on the “other” checkbox and that are designed solely to be converted into incentivized behaviors—not so much.

Trust advertising is a personally critical issue to me, given the name “Trusted Advisor Associates.” I need “trust” in the name to describe my content and subject matter, but I have on occasion cringed when a client went off-script and introduced me at a speech as “the trusted advisor.”

Our website always says “we help build trusted advisors…” and never “we are trusted advisors.” Even with that, we get occasional snide comments about the insincerity of calling ourselves “trusted advisors.”

I don’t blame them a bit. The currency of language is frequently debased in business (think ‘loyalty,’ ‘customer focus’).

Given the current state of cynicism about trust, the best any of us can do is to be careful about our own language, and to let our integrity and trustworthiness be their own advertisement.

After all—that’s how trust really gets built.

Are You a Trusted Advisor?

The phrase “trusted advisor” has almost become a cliché. Since I co-wrote the book on the subject, I have some standing to say that. And to say a few other things about it. So I think I will.

First, ubiquity. Today’s “trusted advisor” of popularity metrics—a google word count—shows “about 706,000." Digg—the new kid on the block—shows 292 pages at 15 per page, for a total of 4,380 entries.

But that’s just mentions. When it comes to assertions that so and so is, or wants to be, “your trusted advisor,” it gets interesting. Let’s start with the oddity of a website, declaring to the indeterminate masses, that its author is your trusted advisor. Brings to mind such chestnuts as “I’m from the IRS and I’m here to help you…”

But boldly going where many have gone before, a full 39,500 Google entries contain “your trusted advisor.” Who, pray tell, are these noble souls?

Well, would you believe Rudy Giuliani? The law firm of Bracewell & Giuliani (when he joined in in 2005 it was Bracewell & Patterson) pens a newsletter called Your Trusted Advisor. It’s about things like estate planning. (I wonder if Patterson trusted Rudy…)

There’s Morales & Associates, an insurance broker-dealer firm whose website is called . The website (or Bob?) genially says, “Thank you again for visiting ‘Your Trusted Advisor.’” You’re welcome, uh, Bob.

FutureNow, a website design company, says, “An engine ‘hitting on all cylinders’ best illustrates the look and feel of the unique relationships we have with clients who have hired us as Trusted Advisors.”

Huh? You can hire trusted advisors? Apparently so. Craigslist has 80 job descriptions that contain “trusted advisor.” Tom Gegax says, “Retain Tom as your trusted advisor; Tom Gegax is a trusted advisor to CEOs and business owners around the world.” He must be, because he says so, and he’s a trusted advisor.

The Alberta Business Family Institute teaches a program called, fittingly, the Trusted Advisor Program. It “provides the skills and knowledge needed to enhance an advisor’s role to be the most trusted.” Hmmm, skills and knowledge. Kind of like getting a CPA, I guess.

An awful lot of financial people are your trusted advisor, but it’s not an exclusive club. GMAC Real Estate has 22,000 agents, one of whom is Brian Matthews, your trusted advisor.

You also have a trusted advisor in the feed business. And you’re in luck if you need someone to trust in broadband services.

Nobody owns the term, least of all me. But for what it’s worth, let me offer a few thoughts.

1. The two most trust-destroying words you can say are, “trust me.” Never say you’re someone’s trusted advisor, much less say you want to be, much less build an ad campaign around it. It is inherently non-credible and insincere. (I try on my own website—which of course uses the term—to say "helping people become trusted advisors"—and not to claim that I are one).

2. Trust worth the name has a personal component to it. Impersonal trust isn’t quite an oxymoron, but if it relies on credibility or dependability alone, it has more in common with predicting the weather than with being a trusted advisor.

3. The deepest trait of a trusted advisor is focus on the other, not on oneself. Low self-orientation. Not in it just for oneself. Driven by connection, not competition. Someone who actually, really, genuinely cares—just because. Caring, I suggest, is at the heart of the matter.

Care to rate yourself? Take the quiz here. Don’t forget to click on the “interpretation” button to see everyone’s results, and my comments on the test.

What do you think? What is a trusted advisor? Is the term getting overused? And what does that mean for trust?