No need to be a trusted advisor, put the power pants down and listen.

July 12, 2020

I have long railed against the term “Trusted Advisor”.

I think it verges on meaningless self-aggrandisement which flatters the title holder, but mystifies our colleagues who are not lawyers, while possibly diminishing the role of our other colleagues who are lawyers.

What is my status, I wonder, before I have climbed the giddy heights of being a (or is it “the”) Trusted Advisor? I have never seen a role advertised where the need was for “a lawyer with potential to become trusted”.

Other functions seem to survive without the epithet (no need for Trusted Finance, or Trusted HR), so I am a little perplexed that Trusted Advisor seems to matter to so many lawyers, even though it is a term used casually and defies precise definition. I decided therefore to reflect a little more on why the title seems to mean something and not just to rant about it, again.

My reflection is that the title is still misjudged and speaks more to the neediness of the role holder. However, I think I have understood better what it means and in this post I want to explore an alternative role to reframe “Trusted Advisor” so that it becomes more accessible, more inclusive and more relevant for today.

The self-importance of being earnest

Some lawyers are straining to make their advisory role sound more important. For some lawyers perhaps being just an advisor is not enough. Maybe it seems too passive, or too much of a secondary role. However, the focus on enhancing an advisory role with the prefix “trusted” feels flimsy.

In any corporate reality, no advisor role has the same power as that which is given to those who make the big decisions. Giving advice is also by its nature a rickety construct, often placed on uncertain and shifting foundations We all know the advice we can give is dependent on the quality of the information we can access, on how much time we have and, frankly, even our own mood. Our advice also requires a simplistic frame. A frame that tries to capture alternatives, but denies that everything is connected to everything.

On the one hand – this.

On the other hand – something else.

On balance therefore – that.

Most of the words of advice we have ever given tend to do this; it is less a distillation of wisdom, and more an over-simplification of reality. This is not a criticism, and it can be helpful, but advice wants to simplify a reality to create a well-intentioned, but unnuanced choice.

For those lawyers who want to be seen as terribly commercial and decisive, or other strong-jawed, legs-apart adjectives, to be just an advisor may feel a little lightweight. The solution, it seems, is to pull on a pair of power pants and adopt the Trusted Advisor pose.

It is this emphasis that grates. The right instrument perhaps, but the wrong tune. Playing the wrong tune more loudly only serves to make it more jarring.

The importance of being in the room when it happens

I believe if we could step aside from our insecure ambition, there is a truly critical role to play. It is a role that puts us purposefully alongside our colleagues.

As already described, we should first park the word “Advisor” because I do not believe it is our advice that is needed most.

Our most important role is the space we create for decisions to be taken. A space for calm, for reflection and for decisions to be made well. This is especially so for our executive colleagues, but also for all colleagues making decisions. The gift they need most is the time to reflect, for their thoughts to be heard, and to be constructively challenged.

Our most precious role is when we seemingly slow down time and pause with people. We are the brake on the relentlessness of rushing deadlines, and we create moments for people to hear their own thoughts. It is this unconditional, non-judgemental, seemingly indulgent gift of a reflective pause in which thoughts are listened to that truly matters. Not our advice.

I believe this unlocks so much for us. When we listen brilliantly, people become more vulnerable because they are heard. When we pause with people these moments can be more important and more intimate than any other. These moments affirm, encourage and give confidence to what follows. It is a privilege to be in the room when it happens.

It is not our advice that matters. It is not important that we are a trusted advisor. It is far more that we are a trusted listener.

If we were to focus on our skills to help create pauses, to listen non-judgementally, but to challenge constructively, what a difference we would make.

Be the role, not the label

The trusted advisor label is everything that does not really matter. A self-appointed, self-regarding title that may sooth a more fragile ego. However, if our value is not the advice we give, but the pauses we create for others to decide, then we need to focus on the value we bring not the label.

Becoming a great listener is everything that matters in the world today. A crucial low ego role for someone who is generous with their time, kind, respectful. A creator of pauses and a curator of a calming, gentle and safe place for thoughts to rest and breathe.

If that sounds too wishy-washy for our strong jaw-line alpha brethren, this is precisely the role needed for good governance, for executive accountability, for independent challenge, for ethical leadership and for doing the right thing, always.

There is no need for power pants. The joy of this discovery for me is how it opens opportunity for all of us to develop our credentials in this space.

To put it a little crudely, you must have some balls to state you want to be a trusted advisor. It is all about you, and it excludes and diminishes others who are more self-aware. However, we can all care enough for a colleague (whether they are more senior than us, a peer or junior) to let their thoughts breathe. It is not about us, but about the person listened to, and the space we offer for them to be heard.

And the wonderful irony of all this, is that when we listen brilliantly, we are often asked what we think too. Then, when we speak in these moments of reflection and pause, our own words have more resonance and carry their message more deeply and more impactfully.

I hope this helps. I hope the ambition for all young lawyers may be to worry less about being a trusted advisor, and to relish more the privilege of becoming a great listener.

Take care. Paul x

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