If the cap fits – the role of the trusted advisor

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.
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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