Trusted Advisor


3 minute read


We see the year out – and what a year – in a fog of unreason and contrary forces: more rejection this week of the liberal establishment with the defeat by Italian voters of Matteo Renzi’s constitutional referendum whilst the Austrian electorate appoints an independent ex-member of the Greens as President. What is going on? What is going to happen next? All the pundits, all the pollsters – wrong as wrong can be, reputations in the dust. Who can you trust to call it right on what’s happening and what’s going to happen? Who are the real, much vaunted “trusted advisors” when all the experts have failed so miserably? Who are politicians going to trust now? And who is business going to turn to in this very uncertain economic climate? Because if you’re a CEO you need people around you who can think the unthinkable and say the unsayable – trusted advisors who will tell the inconvenient truth. And, crucially, help you work out what to do about it.

Over and again we hear professional advisory firms say they want to be a voice in the C-suite of their clients – the voice their clients listen to. To be the one who is listened to and who whispers in the ears of the great. What professional advisor doesn’t want to be primus inter pares? And what CEO doesn’t need that consigliere they can turn to in a crisis?

But what does it take – what does it really take to be this rarest of beasts: the trusted advisor?

For 99.9% of advisors – whether they be branding consultancies, lawyers, real estate agents, accountants, advertising agencies or management consultancies – they will never reach this status. You know why? Because it’s too damn hard. It takes too much energy. So they go on bleating that they don’t get heard in their client’s boardroom whilst wishing they did – it’s called velleity: the weakest form of wish – wanting something without being prepared to make the requisite effort to achieve it.

To be a trusted advisor – especially in uncertain times – you don’t just have to have the facts at your fingertips, to be able to speak the language of your client’s business (not just the language of your chosen specialist area as it relates to your client’s business, which is what most do). You have to have a brass neck. Chutzpah. Nerve. Balls. You have to be able to say the unsayable – to point out what no one else is willing to countenance. And be prepared to be hung, drawn and quartered, in public, for saying it and saying it relentlessly. You have to have the courage to say what needs to be said, to say what they need to know not just what they want to hear.

“Here I stand; I can do no other.”Martin Luther, German professor of theology & monk
To illustrate what I mean, here’s a parallel example from the wider world of politics. Michael Moore. The man who brought a choir of cancer sufferers into the lobby of tobacco companies in 2006 to sing carols through their artificial voice boxes to make his point. Well, it was Christmas. The man who knew – knew – Trump was going to win and all the liberal media chatterati had it totally wrong when he saw a group of TV political pundits rolling around in laughter that whilst Hilary Clinton was pouring funds into sophisticated digital and mainstream media campaigns, Trump was spending all his money on baseball caps to give out on the street – Make America Great Again. How ridiculous, the pundits laughed, to try and fight a tsunami of media messaging with a ‘ball cap. But Moore knew what they had missed – the ‘ball cap is America. Trump spoke to the American voter in American. Moore wrote 5 reasons why Trump will win months before the election – and, crucially, stuck to his message. He confounded everyone. He stuck his neck out. He was the voice of conscience, not of reason. If you want to be a true trusted advisor you have to be like him – unreasonable and persistent.

In an age when it is fashionable to want to measure everything – “if it can’t be measured, it can’t be managed” (that’s up in smoke now) – clients need people who can read between the lines, as well as add up the columns. They need people with judgement. Most of all, they need people who are fearless – people who won’t and don’t kowtow. In an age when only 23% of board members rate their own boards as being open and honest with each other*, companies need their outside advisors to be direct and brutally honest – to speak truth to power, to tell them what they need to know, say what no one else even dares think. To be candid. Radically candid. What they do not need is advisors who go native, who try and “account manage” the client to pacify them or who pull their punches. Unfortunately, this is the sort of advice that is mostly on offer. Every boardroom now needs a Michael Moore-like, incorruptible voice who says, Luther-like “here I stand; I can do no other“. As a CEO is that what you demand and allow to happen in your organisation? And as an advisor, Is that what you truly provide? We all need to wear baseball caps now.

* 2016 Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University survey


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David Kean
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  1. I think the most interesting point in your excellent article, David, is the implication that there can be within any ostensibly open society, organisation or peer group a fixed set of parameters within which it is acceptable to speak. In other words, there are certain things which, even if you believe them to be true, are positively dangerous to you on a personal level if you allow yourself to be associated with them. Plenty of corporate executives, sales directors and small business managers voted Leave, or for the Donald, in 2016 but those people knew they had absolutely nothing to gain by flagging that this was their opinion. Consequently, as rational practitioners of self-interest, they kept absolutely quiet… and the revolutions occurred, to the utter amazement of their noisier colleagues within the middle class ‘media bubble’.

    It’s probably easier than we think for particular opinions become dominant, to the extent that the opposite is seen as puzzling, immoral or actually indicative of low intelligence. If we’re not careful such conventions can actually become hardwired into our brains, to our detriment. I’ll give you an example. Ex Radio-4 editor Rod Liddle wrote an excellent Spectator article last year in which he suggested that broadly conservative thinkers actually possess superior emotional intelligence and empathy, when compared to broadly liberal thinkers.

    Many people I know will find this counterintuitive at first glance, arguably because we have been deluged with propaganda for years that suggests liberal, progressive thinkers are nice, people orientated types and conservatives are nasty, bean counting fascists. In contrast Rod argued that, generally, people holding conservative opinions (on the economy, on benefits, on migration or whatever,) hold such views despite being perfectly capable of understanding why other people might support socialism, or open borders, or whatever more liberal opinion applies. Conservatives understand liberals perfectly well, in other words – they just find them a bit naive or deluded.

    Liberal thinkers however, Mr Liddle persuasively claims, often literally cannot understand how anyone might hold a more right-wing view on any given subject. Just don’t get it. Even though such views might themselves be expressed perfectly rationally, the mindset required to accept them eludes the average Guardian columnist or NUS activist. We could see this failure in action in Britain, in the post-rationalisation of Leave votes by the Remain camp – effectively, Leave voters rapidly found themselves being told that they hadn’t voted the way they had for the reasons they thought they had, but for some other, quite separate set of reasons that fit in better with the Remain way of looking at things.

    A parallel for business is quite clear. We have probably all worked for large, blue chip companies in which particular ways of looking at business, at customers and at markets are taken for granted. Sure, people talk happily about ‘pushing the envelope’, ‘disruption’ etc – it sounds good and possibly a bit macho – but if you look carefully there will always be a ‘shibboleth’ or two that forms the basis of most strategic decision-making. Colleagues who ask genuinely awkward questions, or suggest that alternative, inconvenient opinions might be perfectly valid, are the exception not the norm.

    In my work in the automotive sector over many years, for example, I’ve regularly heard it acknowledged that many people buy cars simply to get from A to B. But, when it comes down to it, most people who have chosen to work in such a sector find it impossible to really think themselves into such shoes and thus never really confront what is implied in product or marketing terms. A more general example might be the Western office workers’ attitude that those who work long hours are dedicated and effective. There is plenty of evidence that fewer/more flexible hours of more focused work can achieve better results. It would however be a brave senior personnel manager in a large white collar company who would go to bat with a board proposal mandating shorter hours of attendance for the workforce. Her colleagues would pretend to listen… but they wouldn’t really get it and she would undoubtedly be damaged in the process.

    Perhaps a good exercise for 2017 would be a role-playing one. Find a set of attitudes that are the polar opposite of your own, on some aspect of your business that matters right now, and see if you can think your way into those attitudes, rather like putting on a coat or taking on a part in a play. Now think about your interpersonal issues with senior colleagues, or your customer challenges, with your new hat on. Could be very enlightening.

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