Book Review: The Trusted Advisor

The Trusted Advisor, by Maister, Green and Galford

Last week I ran a workshop as part of the Young Actuaries Program at the Actuaries Institute on building relationships for both external and internal clients. In preparing for it, and talking to colleagues (especially Darren Robinson, who reminded me I had lent him the book years ago), I re-read the best book on this topic, from the professional services guru, David Maister (and two coauthors, Charles Green and Robert Galford). I liberally borrowed from it in developing my presentation, so time for me to return the favour here.

Maister, Green and Galford separately have long careers advising on different aspects of leadership, client service, and management. Green still has a business called the Trusted Advisor.  So when they found themselves presenting at the same conference together, they realised that they had a great combination of knowledge and experience to put into a joint book. It is a book for individuals; how to manage your own relationships and advice; but it is very relevant for those who are trying to develop a culture of trusted advice, whether for internal or external consulting relationships.

The core thesis of the book is all about the word trust. To be a trusted advisor, people have to trust you. Seems obvious, but it involves personal risk to open yourself up enough that people will trust you. The core skills that are explored are:

  • Earning Trust
  • Giving advice effectively
  • Building relationships
Much easier for a real person to be a trusted advisor than a robot

Much easier for a real person to be a trusted advisor than a robot

Becoming a trusted advisor involves moving up a ladder from being a subject matter expert. The ladder you are moving up towards a trusted advisor is both the depth of your personal relationship and the breadth of business issues dealt with. The young actuaries I was speaking to this week were a bit despairing at this point. How can they be a trusted advisor at a junior point in their career? They don’t feel like subject matter experts. But the important point is to expand the boundaries of the relationships you have both in breadth, and in building relationships. Moving from providing a valuation number, to advising the finance team on the way in which that number might change the volatility of the P&L doesn’t necessarily require any more technical expertise, but requires the ability to think from your advisee’s view-point, rather than just from what you know. The reward is that the work is often far more interesting, when you are answering questions that matter to others, rather than cranking the handle of a technical solution.

One of the best parts of this book is the checklists at the back. Find a particular issue you are worried about (say listening) and read the checklist:

What Great Listeners Don’t Do

  1. Interrupt
  2. Respond too soon
  3. Match the client’s points (“Oh, yes, I had something like that happen to me. It all started…”
  4. Editorialise in midstream (“well, that’s option’s a nonstarter”)
  5. Jump to conclusions (much less judgements)
  6. Ask closed-end questions for no reason
  7. Give you their ideas before hearing yours
  8. Judge you
  9. Try to solve the problem too quickly
  10. Take calls or interruptions in the course of a client meeting. (It seems so obvious, but watch how often it happens!)

And then you can go and read the relevant chapter to find the anecdotes that go with the pithy advice. Or some extra pieces of advice, like this one about managing expectations:

Always tell the exact truth about what you can (and can’t) do, and when you can (and can’t) deliver. Sometimes in an effort to get the work, we say yes to work that can only be completed (if at all) with great personal pain. It’s not worth it. Repeat: It’s not worth it. one more time, for emphasis: It’s not worth it.

While I did originally read this book in a sitting it is the kind of book that is useful to have on a bookshelf to dip into from time to time.  Various different chapters are great reminders of things like:

  • Re-earning trust when you’re not working on an existing piece of work
  • Dealing with clients of different types
  • The art of listening
  • Framing the issue

Recommended for anyone who would like to build and deepen professional advice relationships.

For those who have read this and struggle to put it into practice, Maister’s subsequent book, Strategy and the fat Smoker provides some great advice about how to keep taking the right actions.