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Advice On Building Trust From Business Advisors Who've Been There

Advice On Building Trust From Business Advisors Who've Been There

In consulting, we strive to achieve trusted advisor status – that is, building relationships where clients value and believe in our perspective and judgment to the extent they call us, rather than a competitor, related to issues even outside our scope of expertise. Frankly, this concept isn’t unique to consulting. Being a trusted advisor is a key to success in virtually any profession, particularly as someone moves into management and leadership roles.

There has been a lot published on “becoming a trusted advisor,” which typically covers tactics such as how to uncover and raise “unidentified” needs and then use communication and persuasion skills to convert those needs into business opportunities. Those are important skills, of course, but we won’t rehash those here. Rather, let’s highlight the less formulaic and more intuitive qualities that have helped us, as women, become trusted advisors in an environment where most of our colleagues, and often clients, are men.

We combined notes on our collective 30 years of experience and highlighted four qualities, outlined below, that are key to earning our clients’ trust.

1. Recognize that while communicating is key, listening opens the lock

It’s probably an overused metaphor, yes. But regardless of who you are, becoming a trusted advisor starts and ends with the ability to communicate genuinely. People want to know that you care about and value what they have to say. This – empathy – is one of women’s great strengths. Listening helps build a communication space that is accessible, comfortable, and easy for all discussions – even the challenging ones.

Ragan: Like most consultants, I have a type-A, get-things-done mentality. But when it comes to making sure my client is heard - I make time for that. It is important to me that I seek to understand more often than I seek to be understood. We will never have a trust based relationship if each of us is constantly preserving our own interest.

Julie: I think about how my communication will be received. Before I send an email message, I read it aloud to see how it sounds. When I’m with a client, I give my full attention. And before moving forward with something, I reconfirm that we are on the same page with respect to what’s next. Whatever communication I have with someone in the present sets a foundation for future interactions. If it doesn’t feel like we are getting it (communication) right, I will raise it and do something about it.

[Related: How to Create a Free Flow of Information Between Leaders and Employees]

2. Connect emotionally, but authentically

When you approach your work with the goal of building a relationship rather than delivering a service or selling a product, the results will follow. One approach to creating camaraderie and connections is to find common interests. Humor and fun, non-work topics can be good ways to foster connections. The key is taking this to the next level – and women are often good at doing that.

Ragan: Not only do I now know that you like the Dodgers, I am going to pencil a reminder on my calendar to reach out after the home opener. It’s a little thing that shows I really am truly interested.

3. Don’t be the “yes” man (or woman)

If we do only what our client tells us to do, we will never become a trusted advisor. We might become trusted for our ability to deliver, but not for our knowledge, expertise, and judgment – and those are the real qualities that compel clients to trust us to help move their businesses forward.

Ragan: When someone asks me to do something, I pause, put on my “big picture” hat, and ask myself, “Is this the right thing to be doing?” In other words, if I say yes to something that I don’t think is right, then why should the client trust me when I don’t trust myself to do the right thing?

Julie: If a client asks me for a report, I’ll ask, “What are you looking to get from this report?” If the client tells me to take a particular action, I’ll say, “Let’s talk about the next step and why this is your first reaction.”

Ragan: Consistency is paramount. It’s easy to fall back into “delivery mode” when we feel overwhelmed and just need to get things done.

4. Don’t make it about equality or fairness

The workplace isn’t always equal or fair. We know women earn only 79 percent of what their male colleagues earn, and it will take decades to close the gender gap. There are forums for beating that drum and building client relationships is not one of them.

Julie: Instead, I look for wins – such as focus on the value I’m creating – and start reinforcing those wins. You have a choice – focus on the positive to create change and make a difference.

This is not to imply that men are bad at this - far from it. But women do have some distinctive qualities that lend themselves well to building long-term, trusted relationships and we should take advantage of those qualities. Speaking from experience in the battlefield of consulting, they make a difference! And when we put them on display through our actions and relationships, we become role models who inspire and motivate other women to become trusted advisors.


Julie Meyer is director of Talent Acquisition at West Monroe Partners, she has twenty years of experience as a recruiting executive for leading organizations in the professional services, media, and insurance industries.

Ragan White is a manager in West Monroe Partners’ Banks and Credit Unions practice, she guides her clients in a range of areas including financial institution organizational change management, post-implementation integration, and program management.

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