The Gatehouse Blog

What Bananarama can teach us about being a trusted advisor

In this article, Gatehouse co-founder Lee Smith explores the much discussed but little understood concept of the trusted advisor, and how the IC masterclass Accelerate, run in conjunction with the Institute of Internal Communication, provides a simple framework for achieving your goals.

Over the past decade, the concept of the ‘trusted advisor’ has gained currency amongst internal communicators. Today, there are very few professional gatherings and even fewer senior level job ads that don’t mention it. But what exactly does it mean and, more importantly, how do we go about achieving this lofty status?

I first discovered the concept 15 years ago, during my time as an in-house internal communicator at EY, the global professional services firm. In a bid to get closer to my audience, I decided to immerse myself in the world of the accountant and try to tackle some of their recommended reading. One of those books was The Trusted Advisor by David Maister, Charles H. Green, and Robert M. Galford. Far from sending me to sleep, it was a revelation.

Published nearly two decades ago, The Trusted Advisor has become required reading for aspiring professionals in the fields of law, audit, tax and corporate finance. If you want to become an equity-owning partner, this is the book for you. But what does it teach those of us in the communication business?

The first challenge is to be clear what exactly we mean by a trusted advisor. I know what you’re thinking – it’s someone who gives good advice and can be trusted! Well, yes and no. There is no doubt you need to know your stuff and that has to be backed up by solid experience. You’ve got to be able to do the do and you’ve got to be able to deliver on your promises. But becoming a trusted advisor is less about sharing your professional knowledge – dispensing the medicine in a doctorpatient way – and more about asking questions and letting the client make decisions for themselves.

The eureka moment for me was the realisation that becoming a trusted advisor is not fundamentally about what you do, but rather about how you do it. No matter how good you are at the practice of internal communication (or law or auditing for that matter), that expertise alone does little to build your reputation as a go-to advisor.

Some years ago now, Bill Quirke penned his seminal book Making the Connections, where he presented the IC ‘roles ladder’. It suggested a progression from the entry level ‘crafter and drafter’ roles, to the pinnacle of professional achievement which he called the coach.

The coach is someone who not only communicates the organisation’s strategy, but directly contributes towards it. This is akin to the trusted advisor.

For many years,  we’ve talked about getting a seat at the table and shared our frustrations that, as IC professionals, that seat remains elusive. I would argue that carving out a reputation as a coach or a trusted advisor and influencing senior leaders is within reach for many of us – but we have to accept that the table is not always the best place to do it!

We also need to recognise that being a trusted advisor is not an excuse for ditching the basics. The very best IC practitioners are able to move up and down Bill’s ladder at will – they are able to roll up their sleeves and manage distribution lists or craft content, as well as gently guiding and supporting their clients. I have seen too many practitioners who think that landing a more advisory-focused role means they can just do strategy and forget the tactics. This is wrong – our reputations are built on our ability to make things happen.

In the words of US writer James Lukaszewski, being a trusted advisor is “about being the number one number two”. This mindset is critical – we exist to help and enable others, to provide guidance, to help unlock their ideas and to encourage their thought and decision-making processes. The client is king. In a trusted advisor relationship (and this is a really key word), the client retains full control at all times. They are the prime mover, not us.

“In the words of US writer James Lukaszewski, being a trusted advisor is about being the number one number two.”

So we have established that being a trusted advisor is about relationships, not expertise. Building a relationship requires many things, of course, but perhaps most important is an ability to listen and to ask pertinent questions. Some of the wisest people I have ever met talk very little, but ask killer questions.

In his book Why Should the Boss Listen to You?, Lukaszewski proposes a number of imperatives to moving into the advisory space. He advises us to “jettison staff-based assumptions” and “develop expertise beyond our function” – in other words, stop thinking as a communicator and start thinking as a business person. He urges us to “see the big picture” and “maximise our prerogatives”. As communicators, we are uniquely positioned to see the whole organisation and we need to leverage this.

In Accelerate, the professional development programme Gatehouse runs in conjunction with the Institute of Internal Communication, we share a framework for building trusted advisor relationships. Called the Consultancy Cycle, it helps you approach every project or communication deliverable as an opportunity to deepen your relationship with your client.

It starts with setting out your stall – being clear on why your role or team exists and what exactly you do and don’t do. Next comes the rather legal sounding ‘contracting’, which basically means being clear on the remit and scope and clarifying the client’s expectations. It then takes you through a number of steps to gather insights, diagnose the problem, come up with options and make things happen. The final stage – disengaging – is so important and so often forgotten. It is about taking stock, reviewing progress and performance against your stated objectives and discussing where to go next. This simple framework has been transformational for many, identifying multiple opportunities for strengthening your relationships and demonstrating the traits of a trusted advisor.

The point here is not that you don’t have to deliver good work – of course you do – but that being a trusted advisor is about much, much more than delivering a great solution. In the words of the 1980s girl group Bananarama, ‘it ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it. And that’s what gets results!

BIOGRAPHY – Lee Smith

Lee is co-founder of Gatehouse – an award-winning communicator who has spent more than half his life helping organisations engage their stakeholders. Prior to setting up Gatehouse, he held senior in-house positions with some of the UK’s leading financial and professional services organisations. He is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations and the Institute of Internal Communications and holds an MSc in Corporate Communication & Reputation Management. Find him on Twitter @GatehouseGroup.