Becoming a trusted advisor

The Trust FormulaHave you ever worked with someone you’d call a “trusted advisor”? I mean the kind of person who has a network of close relationships and gets business based on the trust they’ve earned over time. They get paid, of course, but you think of them as a partner more than a vendor.

Recently, I met with 2 small consulting firms, friends of mine, who are seeking to earn trust while they earn business. Distinguishing themselves is difficult and getting new business is even harder.

So we talked about how they could  accelerate the process of becoming trusted advisors.

“The Trusted Advisor”

In 2000, three experts in managing professional services firms wrote “The Trusted Advisor” which the Boston Consulting Group CEO described as “an invaluable road map to all those who seek to develop truly special relationships with their clients.”

With chapters like “The Art of Listening”, the authors give sound advice that would have resonated with Dale Carnegie. They break down the elements of trust and put them into a simple formula:

Trust  = (Credibility + Reliability + Intimacy) / Self-orientation

They note that “the most effective sources of differentiation in trustworthiness come from intimacy and self-orientation.” Trusted advisors, through their words and actions, showed that they told the truth, did what they said they’d do, and put the interests of their clients before their own.

Traditionally, this takes a long time. The trusted advisors I know took many years to build their network and earn the trust of the people in it. The small consulting firms I visited, still considered start-ups, didn’t have that kind of time.

Another approach

Fortunately, my friends already had the ability to amplify their work and extend their reach by Working Out Loud. They could make their work visible and expand their network in a way the authors of “Trusted Advisor” could not fully envision when they wrote their book. 

Here are the authors’ 4 trust elements and how Working Out Loud provides extra benefits.

“Trusted Advisor” 

Benefits of 

Working Out Loud


“Credibility isn’t just content expertise…We must find ways not only to be credible, but also to give the client the sense that we are credible.” When your work is visible on social platforms, the public feedback and discussion about your work enhances its credibility.


“Judgments on reliability are strongly affected, if not determined, by the number of times the client has interacted with you.” Interacting online gives you many more opportunities to demonstrate publicly that you follow up and do what you say you’ll do.


“The most common failure in building trust is the lack of intimacy. Some professionals … maintain an emotional distance from their clients. We believe they do so not only at their own risk but also their clients’.” In addition to what you say in client meetings, you can deepen relationships through small contributions between meetings. The ambient intimacy you can develop online will bring you closer to your clients more quickly.


“…self-orientation is about much more than greed. It covers anything that keeps us focused on ourselves rather than on our client.” Framing your work as a contribution and leading with generosity demonstrates both your confidence and your willingness to serve.

What should they do next?

The groups I spoke with believed in the need to build their network and that leading with generosity would be a way to do it. But they still weren’t sure what they would do next. So, in a condensed version of the 12-week program, we talked about the people they wanted in their network and, for each person, the contributions the individuals in the firm had to offer.

Want to help recent graduates you might recruit? Each of the analysts could write about what they’re doing and learning. That could help recruits understand what the work was really like and how best to prepare for it.

Want to help potential clients navigate the industry? Maintain a list of the people you genuinely believe are thought leaders and trusted advisors in your industry and then profile some of those individuals. You’ll benefit by association with such people and producing such a list will demonstrate your confidence and generosity.

Want to help clients understand the issues? Publish your work and your thinking that went into it. You don’t need to provide client details for this to be valuable. Dissect that strategy project you just completed, for example. Show what goes into such a project, cite your research, and point to case studies. 

Finally, we walked through examples of people and firms that do this well. All of the members of  Change Agents WorldWide Work Out Loud. Jeremiah Owyang did it when he was at Altimeter and does it now at his new firm, Crowd Companies. The venture capitalist Fred Wilson has been doing it for 10 years at Union Square Ventures. Through their contributions, they’re all demonstrating their trustworthiness to a much, much bigger audience than would ever know them otherwise. Just like them, each person in those consulting firms should be working in a more open, connected way to build trust both for themselves and for their firm.

As one meeting ending, the group decided to start by helping graduates as a way to improve recruiting. The CEO, a trusted advisor himself after decades in the business, said: “It could really bring our firm to life.”

That’s exactly right.

About John Stepper

Helping organizations create a more collaborative culture – and helping individuals access a better career and life – by spreading the practice of Working Out Loud.
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2 Responses to Becoming a trusted advisor

  1. Brendan Francis says:

    Hi John,
    Great summary of the role of the trusted advisor.
    In my business I am often approached by other companies who would like to leverage my connections to pitch to them.
    Most often that approach comes with a “if you introduce me to xxxx and they buy my product or service, I’ll give you $xx or %xx of my profit”.
    It’s not that I don’t have a business/profit mindset but my standard response will be, “tell me how your product or service benefits my connection and I’ll run it by them, if there is no current interest I will let you know and try to explain to you why, if there is I’ll happily make the introduction with no expectation of $ or %”.
    Personally I would feel conflicted if I was having an open genuine conversation with someone I know, about a challenge within their business, with the sole purpose of that discussion being to create an opportunity to make money from something that has very little if anything to do with me or my realm of expertise.
    In my opinion, the only way you can consider yourself to be the “trusted advisor” is to take a pragmatic approach along the lines of “Unfortunately I’m not the expert you need in this area…I believe I know someone that may be the right fit for you…here are their credentials…if it turns out you think they could be a good fit then I would be happy to connect you”.
    If it turns out well then both parties will appreciate the selfless introduction.
    If nothing comes of it, your connection/friend/client will appreciate that you are not pretending to be the expert and you made a genuine attempt to help.
    Any benefit that may or may not come down the line shouldn’t be expected and will take care of itself.
    My thoughts for what they are worth.

    • John Stepper says:

      Thanks, Brendan. You’re right that vendors will say yes to close the sale and trusted advisors will say no to do the right thing for the client. It’s not always easy to do when you’re scrabbling for business, but the long-terms benefits in terms of trust and reputation make it worth it.

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