Every leader at every level needs a few trusted advisors. Though I often serve this role for clients, I am not just talking about external consultants like me. I am referring to internal or professional colleagues outside your organization as well. One of the things that strikes me so often in my work is how isolated many executives feel. If they have done the work of building a strong, cohesive team, they have their “team one” and that is important because they are co-pilots in running their organization. However, there are times when we all need someone who is not on our team, does not report to us (directly or indirectly), is not our boss or board, who can serve as a confidant and guide.
What do I mean by “trusted advisor”? You may add to this, my list includes someone who:
Sometimes leaders think they have a trusted advisor and later realize that their advisor had their own agenda. We learn from this and become more discerning. The worst mistake I see leaders make is that they surround themselves with people who tell them what they want to hear. I get really nervous when I see this on the top team, and I often do. CEO’s in particular can get tired of being challenged, and hearing bad or difficult news. Managing a board, a boss (or several) and running a large organization is a substantial responsibility. If they surround themselves with people who tell them what they want to hear, it must feel like a relief. It can also be disastrous. They are already often disconnected from what is happening in key parts of their organization. They need trusted advisors more than anyone.
If you really just need some support and camaraderie, call a dear friend. But if you need help seeing around a corner, beyond your own blind spots, or need an objective and insightful perspective, find a trusted advisor. They help you see what you are too tired or too focused to see. They will challenge your thinking, mental models and expand your insight. You may ultimately disagree with them, and that is okay. Before you do, check to make sure you aren’t choosing the more comfortable, less controversial, short-term solution, when the more difficult one will create the outcome you need for your employees and business.
True trusted advisors are hard to find but worth the search. You will know them by the way they make you feel after talking with them: tired, challenged, supported in the truest sense and more aware, informed and clear on the path forward.
I admit up front that my argument in this post is somewhat circuitous. So here is my summary conclusion from articles I sight herein: the best companies attract the best (e.g., most skilled, highly educated, and nicest) workers. Civil, polite and nice people are more likely to make more effective leaders. If skilled people are such a business advantage (and the best companies know they are), then invest in and grow the talent you have.
Recent research is uncovering that much of the income inequality that is happening in our economy is due to “a gap in wages between companies, not within them.” And, “more productive, higher paying companies are hiring better workers.” ("Corporate Inequality is the Defining Fact of Business Today", HBR, May 2015).
In the article Nicholas Bloom, a professor at Stanford’s business school, comments, “Back in the 1980s, college graduates and low-skilled people would be in every firm. Today, much like our neighborhoods, companies seem to be more segregated by education and skill.” Dr. Bloom goes on to say that this seems to be happening for soft skills as well, “Nice, fun, polite people are sorting into some firms,” and jerks (I can’t use the word he uses) "are sorting into others.”
From a macro-economic, and “health of our society” standpoint, this research is worrisome. The data confirms another advantage of a more privileged background: better and higher paying jobs in the best companies. Thankfully, other research on the impact of what I consider to be “healthier”, more skillful leadership traits and the neuroplasticity of our brain confirms that we can change and learn new behaviors throughout our lives, regardless of where we start or where we work. From my experience, we can even learn to be nicer.
Studies by Christine Porath, Alexandra Gerbasi and Sebatian Schorch at the Grenoble École de Management, have shown that, “behavior involving politeness and regard for others in the workplace pays off.” At a biotechnology company, a study confirmed “those seen as civil were twice as likely to be viewed as leaders.” (“No Time to Be Nice at Work”, New York Times, June 19, 2015).
Morgan W. McCall Jr., and Michael Lombardo and others found from their research while at the Center for Creative Leadership, that “no. 1 characteristic associated with an executive’s failure is an insensitive, abrasive or bullying style.” (“Is Your Boss Mean?” The New York Times, June 21, 2015)
So if successful companies hire more skillful and nicer employees, they must see a return on their investment. Higher skilled employees, and this includes healthier, more polite and caring leaders clearly have a big impact on the success of your enterprise. If you can’t immediately attract or afford to hire the “best” leaders and employees, develop the ones you have.
I am an external consultant. As my bio says, for the past 15 years I have partnered with leaders in both public and private companies in many different industries. At this point this represents building relationships with a lot of leaders. So you would think when a chief executive that I have been privileged to work with for the past 3 years leaves his company, I would be a practiced pro. And I am. Yet on a Friday night I am writing this blog post because I don’t know what else to do with my sadness. My "go to” fix for all things emotional is to do something productive and thank goodness I have this blog otherwise I might have to clean the kitchen.
I know that I feel sad because work is personal for me and I think this applies to many of us. What motivates me to get up in the morning is working on interesting assignments with people I am committed to and about whom I care. Sometimes I think clients pay me for my work but they really can’t pay me for my care. That is the part that is not included in the invoice. Though I am a consultant I don’t think I am that different from people who show up to the same workplace everyday. Their level of engagement is largely determined by their passion for the work they do, how committed they are to those with whom they work and the clients they serve. For the most part this is the way we human beings are wired: for purpose, relationship and love.
I used to ignore this side of myself. When I was an operations manager I would relentlessly forge ahead and get stuff done. My days were largely measured by how much we (and by that I really mean "I") achieved. I thought my ability to put my feelings aside made me stronger, smarter and more objective. The truth is it made me less relatable, less broadly motivating, less effective and less liked. I was also suffering because I was ignoring part of my inherent intelligence. In my work and life I have endeavored to integrate and bring all of my knowledge, experience, and presence to my work. It makes me more effective and I have lots of data for this. It also makes my work more difficult when things change for my clients as they inevitably do. If you are lucky enough to have work and colleagues you care about, you feel it when a beloved colleagues leaves.
No doubt this is how my clients feel when their leader leaves. They wonder what will happen, how the business will continue and what it will mean for their role and work. Depending upon how they feel about their boss, they will be relieved, neutral, disappointed, concerned or sad. I try to “have tea” with whatever shows up because this is the nature of my work. I wish you the same. Ignoring the emotional side of work has too big a price and I am not willing to pay it these days. I hope you won’t either. This is the true mastery of change – to invite it in (it will enter anyway) and welcome it at the door so that you can give it the space it needs. Once you have done this, you may really move forward and do what needs to be done. Then, as a client of mine likes to say, “onward ho”!
Welcome to Moira's blog. I write a bi-monthly post about the work of building better people strategies, systems, teams and leaders.