In a recent article my colleague, Stuart Maister, challenged the concept of a Trusted Advisor first suggested by David Maister (his cousin) and suggested that success in building relationships should be based on a desire to become Trusted Partners.  In this article I am going to highlight some of the difficulties many teams and organisations find in delivering on either of these ambitions.

By Kevin Vaughan-Smith, Joint MD, Mutual Value

The Trust Model

 Our model for Trusted Partnership is very simple to explain. 

The start point is always clarity – of purpose, of intent, and the value you might create with your key relationships – backed up by the character to deliver what you define, and investment in the capability to support it. 

So, nothing on the face of it that any team would find difficult to implement. 

The reality, however, is that when they really try to define these dimensions, what’s required is a fundamental, cultural change, including for some a change in the way they recognise and reward team members.

Two books which identified the challenges

At the heart of the problem is in my view the fundamental lack of trust which is at the heart of the way many teams operate.  Let me explain by drawing on two influential authors, Stephen R Covey, and Patrick Lencioni. 

In his seminal work, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”, Stephen describes the foundation of trust and the ability to work with others as being winning ‘The Personal Victory’. He says this is achieved by the application of the first three habits.

These are:

Habit 1 – Be Proactive

This is the recognition that we are responsible for our lives and actions, as opposed to being victims of others needs, their emotions and their demands.  If we are proactive we decide what we need to do to be trustworthy and to build relationships.

Habit 2 – Begin with the End in Mind

If we (and our team) know we are responsible for our success, we can focus on defining what is important, and be clear about it when working with others.  The focus on shared outcomes is the basis of shared clarity.

Habit 3 – Put First Things First.

If we have clarity of purpose, understand the importance of being trustworthy and meeting our shared ambition with others, this habit focusses on doing those important actions rather than simply doing merely urgent things first. 

While he focusses on the individual, the same rules apply to the team if it wants to be effective as well.  But how many truly operate to these standards?  In our experience: very few.

As an example, let’s look at the habit of ‘Putting First things First’.

Too many organisations still work in a deeply hierarchical and siloed structure.  Strategies, goals and targets are handed down with little or no engagement or development with front line teams, who themselves lack the courage or proactivity to constructively challenge or test leadership thinking. 

A sense of powerless acceptance pervades many organisations, and enormous amounts of effort goes into producing results and reporting on activity which seems purposeless and pointless. 

As a result, the teams don’t really buy into what they are being asked to do, don’t have real clarity about the shared ambition or end in mind, and often feel that they are wasting effort. They are doing what they are told rather than what they believe is important. In other words, they are not putting First Things First.

Which brings me to Patrick Lencioni’s book,  “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team”.  In this work he points out that the fundamental issue for most teams is the absence of trust, and goes further in defining trust as the ability to be vulnerable with others about our own weaknesses, mistakes, fears and behaviours.  Ask yourself how often you see this standard being consistently applied in businesses you work with, especially where you have the hierarchical and siloed structure I have already described.

There’s no question people talk about this idea. But how often is it put into practice?

Fear is a barrier

In our experience what is lacking is the courage to be trustworthy.  Too many of us fear the consequences of being true to ourselves, our supposed values – and even our ambition. 

What might our boss say if we asked them to explain exactly what they want us to do differently to achieve their strategy rather than guess?  How might our client react if we share our high ambition for the relationship?  What if they don’t buy into it?  How might they react if we challenge their beliefs or understanding?  What if we make a mistake – should we admit it or cover up?

Often, we see this behaviour justifed by short term expediency. Some clients simply deny they can proactively test or challenge an idea, or they fall back on “we just have to do it that way – that’s what the client wants and we need the revenue”. 

This is a major leadership challenge.  Leaders need to demonstrate the value they place on trust by embodying it, discussing it, recognising it and rewarding it.  Only when teams see it will they believe it. 

Using our Trust Model, leaders can engage with others to build a shared ambition for the business and with clients, agree the behaviours expected and measured, and invest in the capabilities to deliver what’s promised. 

Having done so, it would be great if they are the first to demonstrate ‘vulnerability trust’ by admitting and owning their mistakes, challenges, fears or weaknesses – and being OK that everyone has them.

Does this resonate? If so, let’s have an open discussion about what this might mean for your business and what difference it would make for everyone to act as a trusted partner to your clients. 


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Let's have an open conversation about the value this can bring to your organisation. Contact to arrange a free video call with Stuart Maister or Kevin Vaughan-Smith.