Strategic consultants help the company thrive and achieve marketing goals through identifying and analyzing business processes. That’s why this expertise is in demand in every business. Join Michael Zipursky and the Founder of Trusted Advisor Associates, Charles Green, as they delve into creating real and authentic conversations with real decision-makers and buyers. Starting with educational workshops to keynote speeches and coaching to being a trusted advisor, he discusses his professional journey and the lessons he carried with him throughout. In this episode, he elaborates on how he built his brand around the trusted advisor approach. Tune in to learn more about how you can become one.
I’m excited to have Charles Green with us. Charles, welcome.
Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here. I appreciate it.
You are an author, a speaker, a consultant and a seminar leader. You’ve done a lot over your many years in business. You’re also the Founder of Trusted Advisor Associates. Your client list includes many well-known brands like Google, Microsoft, Oracle, Accenture, and many others. You also co-wrote The Trusted Advisor. It’s an amazing book on this topic around consulting and positioning yourself as a trusted advisor to your clients and leading with this idea of relationships. Certainly, you’re much better at explaining what a trusted advisor means. I want to mention that these days, people throw around that word quite often. They say, “I’m a trusted advisor.” What does it mean to be a trusted advisor?
First of all, the one thing you should never do is say, “I’m a trusted advisor.” It’s great when other people say it about you, but don’t take on the mantle. If I had to pick one sentence, it is someone with whom a client can share difficult conversations and feel safe about it. It’s got a mixture of some expertise, objectivity and integrity. That boils down to someone with whom you feel has got your back and yet is objective independent and with whom you can have difficult conversations.
Is there a time or anything you’d point to in terms of when somebody might have or will have earned the right to either call themselves a trusted advisor or to use that labeling? In your perspective and opinion, when is it appropriate to use the word or term, trusted advisor? If you’re a consultant, should that be part of your vocabulary? If so, how might you use it?
I am dogmatic about it. You shouldn’t use it with respect to yourself. Internal to affirm, it’s great to talk about it as an aspiration. If you want to quote other people who have called you that, wonderful. Don’t stick it in your head, don’t lead with it. Don’t introduce yourself that way. It’s way too self-oriented.
I’m aligned with you on that. I appreciate hearing that from you. Let’s say that someone says, “I want to become a trusted advisor.” I’m not going to use those words myself, but I want to have that level of relationship and value exchange with my clients with those who truly want to serve. What are some of the best practices or steps that you would recommend to a consultant who’s working with clients? What might they do? What should they do to reach that level of trusted advisor status in the minds of their ideal client?
There’s a progression graphic that we have in the book. It’s not really a progression. You have to master a set of skills but then conversations go where they go, and they don’t proceed a lot along with some nice linear progressive thing. I articulated four different levels. One is subject matter expert, good and got great credentials and all those kinds of things. You have to have that. Another one is good problem definition skills.
What do you mean by that problem definition?The biggest problem in building trust with clients is rushing to come up with the answer. Click To Tweet
They’re skilled at coming together with a client jointly to agree upon what the problem is. My colleague, David Maister, the co-author on the book had a great saying. He said, “The problem is never what the client said. It was in the first meeting.” At first, I thought it was being hyperbolic, I’ve come to think he’s right about that. What a client will tell you in a first meeting is one thing and you should listen to it. You have to be respectful and responsive to it but also be suspicious, think, “I’m not sure if it’s that simple.” There’s art coming along with the client to the point where the client finally says, “Our real problem is this,” and you go, “That makes a lot of sense to me.” It’s basically the same skills as a shrink. In that regard, you want the client to discover the real issue. Once they’ve discovered it and anchored on it, you can be their will. You get some reflected glory for having been around when they came up with a brilliant idea. There’s an aspect of perspective and the ability to say, “This is how SAP does it. This is how Salesforce does it. This is how we think about it.”
Finally, there’s a pure trusted advisor level and the essence there is personal. It is no longer just business. It is no longer one company to another. You’re talking to a human being and the realm of business has the whole panoply, the whole range of emotional stuff that comes to bear outside businesses, right there in business too. Successes and failures, comings and goings, firings and resentment. It’s all there. If we neglect to acknowledge the humanity of the person that we’re working with, we’ll miss out on a lot, and you become much less effective. At a point in time, you have to operate in one of those four moments if you have to have the courage and the flexibility to hop back and forth as the moment calls for. That’s how I think of it.
Are there any ways to accelerate that path? For example, is there one exercise or one initiative or something that somebody could do that you’ve seen that if they do it, it typically can help them to get closer to that level faster than maybe slowly going through it?
The quick answer is no, but then in another sense it’s yes. I’m sorry for sounding weird. A lot of this is mindset. One of the big misses you hear about trust is trust takes time. No, it doesn’t. It takes courage. We’re presented with opportunities all the time talking with clients, so forth, and moments where the client will let something go that’s deeply personal, emotional or whatever to them. You have to grab onto those moments.
If you don’t, if you let them go, you’re missing opportunities. How long does that take? A nanosecond. How much training do you have to have to do that? I don’t know. On some level, we got all that training in kindergarten. We know how to do it. We get stuck in these models of professionalism or, “I don’t want to overstep my bounds.” It’s funny, we work with the Big Four and the biggest worry they all have is being inappropriate and overly emotional. It’s like, “Are you kidding me? You’re a Big Four accounting firm. You’re the last people to do that.”
Would you describe this idea? A lot of consultants are afraid or they’re hesitant to tell a client what they think in a situation where the decision-maker will say one thing, and the consultant doesn’t want to rock the boat. They don’t want to say, “That’s a bad idea. Here’s another way of looking at it. Here’s what we’ve seen somewhere else.” They accept it. To create that trusted advisor type of relationship is the best practice to not be hesitant to say what you truly believe. How would you assess if you approach that situation? Many people encounter that on almost a daily basis. What are your thoughts there?
I suspect with you. You do need to tell them what you think, but how you do it makes a huge difference. Don’t do it in front of a room of people. Do it one-on-one privately. There are a million forms of language that you can employ. You can play humble, “I can be wrong about this but it occurs to me,” or “With all due respect.” There are 1,000 ways to phrase it. It’s the art of dealing with other human beings. If you start backing off on truth-telling, you’re in trouble.
Your company does work around how to employ this framework or the Trusted Advisor Approach to sales and sales situations. What’s a mistake that you see consultants often making when it comes to sales? I’m wondering what would be a better approach based on using the Trusted Advisor Approach?
I point to two things, the biggest trust destroying problem, and we deal mainly with professional services and complex B2B organizations, you mentioned a few of them. The biggest problem is a rush to come up with the answer. All of us in this business we’ve been trained since second grade, “Me, teacher. I’ve got the answer.” The teacher calls on you, “Good for you, John. You’ve got the right answer. You get the gold star, the Blue Ribbon.” That works in second grade but when you’re dealing with clients, it comes off as depersonalizing, as arrogant, as not caring about the person.
The truth is people seek us out as consultants because they think we’ve seen it before. We’ve got expertise. We’ve got a track record, which is true but then once they’re asking for advice, they don’t want to hear, “You’re like the other 100 people. Here’s the answer.” What they want to hear is, “Tell me if it hurts when I do this.” Have you ever noticed that? “Given everything you’ve said, it seems to me that maybe it’s so and so.” That is received wisdom. All that expertise is necessary but it is not sufficient to get your advice taken. You are in the right to get your advice accepted by honing in personally on that person in front of you. That is relevant to business development quite a bit.
The other one, and maybe the biggest thing that I see, and let’s remember if you look at all the surveys of most and least trusted professions, salesmen are at the bottom. It’s not that the sales profession hasn’t heard this. It’s been true for decades. The basic problem is almost all sales consultants, sales books, or sales processes are all aimed at one thing as the objective. Get the sale. If I’m interacting with a salesperson that I know that his objective is to get the sale, I don’t particularly trust him. The paradoxical thing is if you can relegate getting the sale to an accidental byproduct, and if your goal becomes to help the client, and if you do that frequently, you’ll get more than your share but don’t make it the goal.
You know this better than I do. The whole mentality of the sales field is, “Here’s a better way to get the sale or close the deal, etc.” It’s totally selfish-oriented. No wonder people don’t trust salesmen because they’re operating from a mindset that essentially says, “How can I most efficiently get my hand into your wallet?” and they’re lying about it. They’re saying, “That’s not what we do. We’re client-focused.” Most of them are not. If you were truly client-focused, you would do a couple of things. Number one, you wouldn’t care and obsessed that you lost the deal because you’re bound to lose the field. As long as the averages are up there, you’re doing okay.
The other thing is, here’s a radical idea, you’d be willing to recommend a competitor if it were the right thing to do. A great story, I won’t tell the whole thing, but the essence of it is McKinsey did that once. They brought in the firm that I worked for because they felt we had expertise in a given area. We did the work, we said to the client, “Now you’ve seen what we can do, what do you think? Can we do some more work?” The client said, “You guys did great work. Thank you. We would never leave McKinsey because they were big enough to bring you in.” How are you going to argue with that? You can’t.If you neglect to acknowledge the person's humanity that you’re working with, you miss out on a lot and become much less effective. Click To Tweet
In the conversation, it keeps coming back to mindset. The first example you’re talking about it, rather than going in and trying to talk and say, “Here’s what you should do.” It’s backing up from it and asking great questions, which is at the core of being a powerful consultant, where you can engage and pinpoint what’s going on. Also, even right now, the mindset that you don’t have to rush to make a sale. It’s not a transaction. You’re building relationships. If you think long-term, there’s going to be enough opportunity, enough abundance, or whatever you want to call it to still create the level of financial success that you want, without having to try and pressure yourself to create a result in the short-term. I love that reframing of it.
The irony is the alternative, which is rushing to force and get this transaction. It doesn’t work as well. One of the big myths, and this isn’t just sales, it’s ramp in business, is the belief that we all focus on short-term metrics and data. It’s easy to come up with metrics, so we do it and we chase the metrics. One of the beliefs is if you’re going to focus on a short-term metric, then you should do some short-term behaviors to get there. Ironically, short-term behaviors don’t do it. We don’t want to deal with people who are chasing a monthly, quarterly metric. We want to deal with people who are principled, long-term, and relationship-focused. Those are the ones we buy from. The results show up in the short-term. Paradoxically, the best way to short-term results is long-term management, not short-term.
The biggest buck, Charlie, is July of 1995 or so, you were VP of Strategic Planning at Gemini Consulting. You left to start Trusted Advisor Associates. You’ve been in Gemini for many years. Why leave, I’m going to put words in your mouth and you can spit them right back out, a cushy and stable gig? You’re an executive level, I’m sure you’re earning a nice salary and making some bonuses, why leave that to jump into the entrepreneurial waters that could spin you around and spit you out to start your own thing? What was the driving force for you to do that?
It was twofold, to be perfectly honest. Number one, at that point, I was operating in a couple of staff positions. I’ve done every staff position except Head of IT, and I wasn’t qualified to do that. That wasn’t going to happen. On the one hand, there was nothing else to do there. I’ve been getting itchy and restless and to be honest, nobody’s ever asked me this, but I’ll tell you, the company was getting itchy with me too. We finally came to a mutual agreement. They gave me a nice package and I sailed off into the sunset. You can describe that in any number of ways, but I left. I didn’t exactly have Trusted Advisor Associates on my mind at that point. That came a couple of years later.
How did that come? What’s the origin story of Trusted Advisor Associates and even more, the concept of capturing this? You and I talked before in terms of where the term ‘trusted advisor’ comes from. You said, “It’s been used before we wrote the book and before we named the company around it.” Why did you latch on to Trusted Advisor and decide to build your brand around it?
Rob Galford is an old friend and one of the other co-authors along with David Maister. We’ve been doing some training. We both knew a guy who headed marketing in Columbia Business School at Columbia, and Kellogg at Northwestern had jointly been hired by Deloitte Touche, one of the Big Four accounting firms to do a two-year massive partner-level training program. The head of partner development there said to both schools, “We love you, guys, that’s why we hired you, but you’re all academics. You need to go find a few seasoned X consultants or something.” Right place and right time. The first night of the first session, that guy came to me and Rob and said, “One of the professionals missed his flight. We have an open hour tomorrow. Can you two throw together something on the idea of a trusted advisor?” We said, “Sure. We’re good consults, we’ll do a 2×2 matrix or something. Don’t worry.” We did an hour and it went well. He said, “What can you do with two hours?”
This went on for a few sessions, and we decided, “Maybe there’s a book here.” We bumped into Maister, who I’d known some years before at Harvard, and Maister said, “I’m working on the same book.” We haven’t had any luck with publishers or agents, they all said that we need a data-oriented book and we said, “It’s not a data book. It’s a wisdom book.” They said, “This stuff doesn’t sell.” Maister said, “I’ve already got 3, 15 or something books. I’ll solve that problem.” He picked up the phone, called Simon & Schuster Free Press and said, “I’ve got a new book.” They said, “Great.” David became the lead author, which he deserved and the three of us wrote the book. By the way, I don’t recommend three-author books. It was quite an exercise.
I was going to ask you what went down or how did that play out but you’ve answered my question, because I could imagine that being a little bit complex when you’re bringing three different people’s ideas to the table and has to be encapsulated in a book. We’re going to leave it there.
Maister basically played the role of project manager, which was good. We needed that. He’s done it before. Maister and Galford will probably never again speak in this lifetime. They’re different people and I always ended up being the one in the middle. I know and love both of them, and that worked out okay. The book was written and Maister went his way. Galford went his way, which was to be a board member and lots of different training sessions. I’m the one that said, “This trust stuff is interesting. Let me see where that goes.” I formed Trusted Advisor Associates, my firm, wrote another book on trust-based selling, and grew the firm over a while, and there it is. At any point in time, I would not have known what I was going to be doing five years since.
Did you have any challenges after you opened up Trusted Advisor Associates to get those first few clients and build a book of business? Were there any struggles in the early days? Was it straightforward for you because you had a network?
No, it was hand to mouth. We’ve got Towers Perrin, which doesn’t exist as Towers Perrin anymore, and we’ve got Deloitte. We kept doing some other standards subcontracting but the business was built and built. I’d say over 3 or 4 years, I began to be able to say, “We can do 100% of this stuff and there’s a good clientele for it.” It was rocky for a while.
When you look back, what was the turning point for you? When did you start to go, “We have a viable business now, I feel that we’re a more stable ground?” When did that tipping point get reached?
I don’t know. It was more progressive. I can’t point to a time. It was more of saying, “Thank God, I don’t have to go back to corporate.” We’re going to try a little while longer and progressively getting more and more comfortable and confident with it.
What were you doing in those early days from a marketing and lead generation perspective? The steps to create conversations with real decision-makers and buyers, what were you doing in those early days to create more conversations?
The book itself was a big help. It’s the best business card there is. It turned out that was a good title because the term was out there but nobody had staked a claim to it. The book helped some. We did have an in with Deloitte because of that work. I forget how we got into Towers Perrin but that was networked out from them. We did not do and still haven’t done much in the way of a new lead gen for cold calls or anything like that. It’s been much networking, referrals, references, following people going to other firms, and that kind of thing. It’s the occasional rifle shot.
When you say that the book was a big help, was it that the book was out there and people started contacting you? Were you leveraging and using the book to get in front of people?
Both. Mostly, the second. It was a hell of a calling card.
What were you doing? Were you identifying a group of ideal client companies, finding out who the decision-maker was, and sending the book in the mail to them along with a letter, and making a phone call? What was the process for you back then to be able to set up meetings with people using the book?
It was a little squishier than that. Remember, this is pre-internet and pre-Facebook. It was more like, “I know somebody at Deloitte.” He says, “You should talk to somebody at Accenture.” I’m like, “Give me their phone. How do I get in touch with them?” “Let me send you an email or something and introduce you.” You have a phone call, “Let me send you the book.” “I loved the book.” It was an incremental relationship hip-hoping.
Charlie, your firm offers assessments, seminars, coaching, training to organizations. When you start out in the early days, and I don’t necessarily mean day one but the first few years of doing business, did you have all the current offerings that you have? Walk me through. What did you begin with? What were the next few things that you added?One of the big myths you hear about trust is trust takes time. Actually, it doesn't. Trust takes courage. Click To Tweet
In our case, we began with workshops, exec ed stuff. Half a day, a day, occasionally, a two-day thing. It took a while, but I generated enough material that I could put together a solid 1 or 2 days if I had to. Which means I wrote a bunch of cases, developed some interactive, real-time exercises and did some thought development. One thing I did that was smart, I did a lot of things that were dumb, but one that was good was writing a blog early on. I forgot when I started it. It’s probably 2002, 1999, or something like that. I forced myself and had disciplined to write a couple a week.
We’ve still got 1,000 blog posts, 100 articles, and a bunch of stuff. It’s still up there and still is serving a good purpose. That’s the core repository. Chris Brogan pointed out to me years ago. He said, “You’ve got to think of that as the center of your ecosystem and everything feeds into it.” That concept may be fading away a little bit but it still worked. We developed a ton of content and constantly are able to go back to it and refer people to it. You can send an email and it would have 5 links to 5 different blog posts and they were good.
You started with the executive education workshops. What was the next service offering you added after that?
The next one was keynote speeches. The only logic for that is I wanted to do it. For some reason, I was a frustrated actor. I wanted fame or something but I put a lot of effort into development, and I paid for good coaching in keynote speaking. Coaching came along about the same time. I ran into a friend who said, “You’ve got to meet this guy.” He was indeed great and he continues, and his name is Steward Hirsch and continues to be our lead coach. That got added early on. We didn’t get online with virtual deliberative stuff for a while.
The self-assessment, the diagnostic tool that you mentioned, is the thing called the TQ, Trust Quotient, like IQ and EQ. That was an online self-assessment version of the Trust Equation, which was in the original book, probably the most popular part of the book. That came in about a few years ago. I was in a supermarket one day and at the checkout line, there was a magazine rack. There was Redbook, People, or something, and the banner headline on the magazine said, “Twenty questions. Rate your sexual life or am I an alcoholic?” I thought, “That can be interesting. Twenty questions, am I a trusted advisor?” I went home and threw together five questions on each of the four variables in the Trust Equation. I threw it up and we’ve had over 200,000 people take it. We’ve been able to develop some data and say some interesting things about what drives trust and what’s the most important part of it and that thing. That continues to be an important part. We don’t make much money on it but we use it in almost all of our sessions.
I was going to ask you, is that assessment mainly, as you’re working with your clients, you’ll have their team members go through it? Do you use it as part of your marketing as a tool to bring people into your world and expose them to earlier concepts of what you’re doing and follow up with them?
Both. More of the former. If a client hires us to do a series of workshops, we’ll say, “You want to start off with having everybody take the TQ. Here’s the pricing. It’s a little bit extra, but it’s not much. You can build it.” If they all take it and everybody loves to take self-assessments, and find out what their score is and so forth, so it’s not hard to get compliance. Early on, you can say, “Here are the results of lots of people who have taken the TQ. Here’s the average. Here’s what a military contractor looks like. Here’s what a law firm looks like and here’s what you guys look like.” It’s a great way to get people engaged. It does differentiate. You do get somewhat different results with different firms. It does give you some good insights into what they need to work on.
Are there any products or services that you’ve launched but later on cut because they couldn’t make it or didn’t work out well?
Yes. I’ve forgotten them now.
That’s how good they were.
We kept trying and trying. We made a lot of runs in going virtual and narrow chalk. I did a podcast for about two years and I stopped. I did a newsletter for about five years. Both of those had good runs. They were healthy. We were never able to make it stick. I had an email consulting. We were never able to make it stick to get a monthly subscription. Maybe we should take another run at it.
Like every entrepreneur in business, you try things and some things work and some things don’t. You have a leadership team. You have consultants that are part of the team and the network. Was that your intention when you started the business? Were you initially thinking, “I want us to be a solo independent consulting gig?” Did you have a vision from the beginning that you want to build out a team and make it much larger than yourself?
You hear a lot of people talk about, “I had this goal. I had this vision.” I didn’t have either one. I have always simply looked about as far as my hand can reach out and said, “That looks good, let’s go there.” I never had any particular aspirations of founding the company, much less get this big. I wanted to get paid for doing fun work. After a while, I thought, “I don’t want to do this alone.” We can segment, differentiate, we can specialize, and it grew a little bit. To this day, if it doubled, nice. If it didn’t, that’s fine, as long as I’m making some decent coin off it and still excited.
Who are your first few hires?
First of all, everybody has a 1099 relationship. There are no employees of Trusted Advisor Associates other than a few admin people. Everybody’s got their own little thing, so it’s a network. The first big one was a woman named Andrea Howe, who is still with us. She has her own firm but she and I co-authored The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook. She has been the co-thought leader with me.
What percentage right now of the Trusted Advisor Associates business or revenue comes from team members involved meaning, not just yourself? Is that the majority?
It’s the majority by a long shot, 80% maybe.
Even though you are the sole employee of the company, if I go to your website, you have a leadership team of a bunch of people. You have a bunch of consultants. These are all 1099s working with trusted advisors. They also have their own gigs but the business that Trusted Advisor Associates does is directly connected to your 1099 involvement in the business?
Why have you taken that approach? Why not bring people in full-time? Why is a 1099 structure not full-time?
Two reasons. Number one, I’m risk-averse. I like low-cost business, not fixed costs business. I don’t want to get stuck in a downturn. That’s the main one for not having people as employees. The other reason was, I don’t know everything and there are certain people that have different skills than I do. At least I’m good enough to recognize, “That guy can deal with Denmark way better than I can.” Partly because he lives in Denmark. I found some cool people. They love the ideas and we said, “Maybe we can do some work together here.”
Do you find that most of the inquiries come in because of the brand that you built and the book, so people come to Trusted Advisor Associates, and from there, you’re looking at your leadership team and consultants, and you essentially pick and choose the ones that you feel would complement or add the most value for that specific opportunity and project?
That’s exactly right. Most of the business still come in centrally branded around the book, the website, etc., and we parcel out work, “Why don’t you take this? Let’s you split this. You do the West Coast and you do Asia.”
You have your consultants, you have the leadership team, or at least a good chunk of the delivery on projects. What does your typical day look like now, Charlie?
I’m semi-retired now. I handed over the CEO role to Noelle Mykolenko, who is one of our associates. She’s doing a great job. I still have a retainer relationship with one of my clients and I have regular phone calls, not too many though, with Noelle and a few other folks. My regular week has 1 or 2 golf games. I don’t know if I can manage it.
What was that transition like for you to hand over the CEO reins to another person?
I had no trouble with it. Everybody said, “It’s going to be the hardest thing. You have to give up control.” I was looking forward to it, honestly. I said, “Whatever the results are, we work.” Noelle and I worked for months to come up with a nice way of managing relationships gradually, handing over ownership, etc. I had total confidence in her and I still do. I have absolutely no regrets. I don’t waste a minute of time looking backward and thinking, “I miss this.” I don’t. I’m happy to be doing what I’m doing.
With the benefit of hindsight, if somebody was in a similar situation, is there anything that you would advise them to pay attention to in considering that transition? Is there anything that you did that you think, “I could have done this better?” Any lessons you learned through this process that you think others might be getting close to that same opportunity or transition that they should know about?
It’s a process that should take some time. I went into it and we did it in about eight months. Probably you should take 2 to 3 years to do that. Think it through. Vet candidates and be more careful about it than I was. I’m an impulsive person, but that’s not a good model for most people. Take longer thinking it through.
How about from a compensation perspective? I’m guessing you likely consider different models or different approaches. Is there anything that you learned from a compensation perspective of how to compensate team members, but also a new CEO in making that transition? I’m thinking even for somebody who might want to bring in a new person for their leadership team and operations person to get them out of the day-to-day of the business. Is there anything that you’ve learned that you think might be helpful for them?Your goal should always be to help the client solve a problem and not just to generate sales. Click To Tweet
It was something I’ve learned over the last couple of years, which I believe strongly. Keep that stuff simple. If you’re tempted to add a little percentage override on a bonus for sales development or something, don’t do it. Keep it simple. You can complicate anything. I found that whenever you start complicating, it feeds on itself. It gets more and more complicated. We end up spending more and more time discussing how to do this and how to make sure that doesn’t incent people the wrong way. Keep it simple. I’ve been serious about that for a long time and I was right about that. The simple, the better.
Charlie, I want to thank you again for coming on here and spending some time with us. It’s been an enjoyable talk. I want to make sure that people can learn more about your work and the book. Where’s the best place for them to go?
The website, TrustedAdvisor.com. You can take a free version of that TQ thing. You can find all the blogs, articles, and everything. That would be great.
Thanks so much.