What do the experts say about being a trusted advisor?

Our five-person panel for the upcoming 2012 Conference of the Association of Change Management Professionals (ACMP)  asked ourselves that question as we started to prepare for our 90-minute workshop.

For “Success Secrets of Trusted Change Advisors,” we’re featuring a panel discussion plus an Open Space Technology  session. The latter is designed to encourage peer-to-peer sharing.

We believe the Open Space Technology principles support what excellent trusted advisors do, including deal with the issues most important to their clients in a client-centered manner. As the saying goes, we will trust the process and believe that the participants who are most qualified and capable of addressing the issues raised will do so.

Nonetheless, the experts are experts for a reason. And they provide great value for learning.

At our ACMP session, we’re providing a two-page handout with one side summarizing Open Space and the other side featuring quotes from some trusted change advisor experts.

In researching the experts, I re-read quite a few of David Maister’s tips, primarily from his book, The Trusted Advisor. This 2000 classic, which he wrote with Charles Green and Robert Galford, contains so many succinct gems. (The authors carry this out even in the book’s title as the three word title stands alone without a subtitle. Lengthy subtitles seem the norm these days.)

Some favorite things from Maister the Master:  (These include reminders to keep your mindset and ego in check as well as suggest actions to take.)

  • “More value is added through problem definition than through problem answer.”
  • “The problem is rarely what the client said it was at first.”
  • “I don’t have to prove myself every 10 seconds.”
  • “I am not the center of the universe.”
  • “A point of view doesn’t commit you for life.”
  • “Don’t be insecure. Say to yourself: ‘Hey, if I don’t know the answer, and I’m a pro, then this is a really neat question; let’s get into it!”
  • “Don’t answer a question the first time a client asks it; ask for clarification.”
  • “Reach out to notice, and acknowledge, something that has been held back in or about the other person.”
  • “Who am I serving by my present approach?”
  • “Assigning blame will trap me; taking responsibility will empower me.”

Earlier in my career, I was lucky to work for David Nadler, who founded Delta Consulting. Like Maister, Nadler believes in being extremely client-focused. From their perspective, mastery of technical content is not nearly as important as the focus on building a trusted, collaborative relationship.

The best trusted advisors are not just SMEs (subject matter experts). Instead, they’re individuals who shine the spotlight on others rather than themselves and have an “attitude for gratitude.” They focus on other people, show a strong sense of curiosity and roll up their sleeves to help others see issues more clearly and take wise actions.

As an advisor who’s often brought in to counsel on change communication issues, I’ve also adopted Tom Sawyer as my role model rather than Tom’s creator Mark Twain. This mindset helps me avoid falling into the trap of wanting to offer subject matter expertise (SME).

Tom Sawyer comes into play in a couple of ways. First, Tom embodies the spirit of letting the other person do more of the work to get better results. For advising to be effective, the client needs to be an active participant: doing the deep thinking, getting the insights and determining the right actions that he or she thinks are most authentic and appropriate to take to move forward.

Second, as Mark Twain’s muse, Tom Sawyer speaks in “maxims” — using a minimum of sound to a maximum of sense. When Twain lived, sound bites—including phrases that are “succinct, specific and generous” as advocated by David Rock of the NeuroLeadership Institute (whom I studied with last year)—hadn’t been invented. Yet Twain infused these brain-friendly attributes into Tom and his other characters.

By being succinct, specific and generous as a trusted advisor, I’m better able to engage my clients in richer conversations and help them achieve greater clarity and credibility.

Thank you to all the David’s—Maister, Nadler and Rock—for your expertise. Thank you, Mark Twain! And thanks to my very talented fellow ACMP panelists!

If you’re coming to the ACMP conference April 1 – 4, please join us at our workshop and share your wisdom.

And if you’re a communication professional who wants to become more strategic and a more capable, confident and credible advisor, consider the Spring 2012 Strategic Action Group that starts March 30.  We’re now taking applications. It’s a great opportunity to expand beyond being a trusted SME to becoming a trusted strategic advisor.

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