You hear this a lot, especially from people who give advice for a living. Could be financial advice, health advice, get-your-kid-into-college advice, whatever.

“I’m a trusted advisor to my clients,” they’ll say, as if “trusted advisor” were printed on their business cards. It’s not, usually. And I’m not sure how many of the people who lay claim to that title really deserve it.

Trusted advisor is a label we have to earn, whether we’re independent professionals charging a fee for our recommendations or we’re advising our employer about our area of expertise.

And–good news for you, if you’re interested in being one—there is an actual formula for becoming a trusted advisor. It comes from David Maister at Harvard, who wrote a book called (guess what?) The Trusted Advisor.

Maister and his co-authors say this is the Trust Equation:


Credibility + Reliability + Intimacy


Credibility is about the words.

It has to do with your credentials and your Presence. Do you know your stuff? Do you look like you know your stuff? Are you honest? This is the most rational piece of the Trusted Advisor equation. We come to a pretty quick conclusion about whether someone is credible, based on what they say and how they look and sound while they’re saying it.

Reliability is about actions.

Do you actually do what you say you’re going to do? Do you do it the way you said you’d do it? Do you get it done when you said you would? In other words, when you make a commitment, can we count on you to keep that commitment?

Consistency is part of the picture here … it’s about experience over time. So, one interaction isn’t enough to establish a reputation for reliability. It takes the repeated connection between what you promise and what you do to become known for being reliable.

Intimacy is about emotions.

That means being open about your own feelings. It also means creating space for the other person to be open about their feelings.

Now this is a business formula, after all. We’re not talking so much about your private life—how much you love your spouse (or don’t) or your anxiety about your oldest kid. The focus is on feelings about the business issue at hand, whatever that might be.

If your client can feel comfortable expressing a strong emotion, you’re on the way to intimacy. Likewise, if you’ve spoken or written to them about your how you feel. In any relationship, one person has to take the risk of opening up first – if your goal is to deepen the relationship, that person is you.

Okay, let’s say you have credibility and reliability and intimacy in a business relationship. You’re on your way to being perceived as a Trusted Advisor.

And, there’s still a possible fly in the ointment when you look at the rest of the formula. That Trusted Advisor reputation you’re carefully cultivating can be divided, or diminished, by self-orientation.

Self-Orientation is about motive.

This is the minefield for those of us who want our clients’ or colleagues’ trust.

What is self-orientation? Basic selfishness or greed is a pretty obvious manifestation of it.

But self-orientation also shows up in the need to be right. And in:

  • The need to look right.
  • Having to be on top.
  • Name-dropping.
  • Wanting to have the last word.
  • Jumping right to a solution.
  • Concern with ourselves and our reputation.

So, in a conversation with a client, if we interrupt, if we finish their sentences for them, if we show off about how much we know or how talented we are … they’ll recognize our self-orientation. And they will be less likely to consider us their Trusted Advisor.

Often self-orientation is connected to arrogance or cockiness. (You may have pictured someone you know as you read the attributes of the self-oriented.)

But just as often it can stem from deep insecurity. The professional who isn’t quite confident about his abilities is likely to be preoccupied with how he’s perceived, whether people think he’s smart, whether people like him. All that self-ing undermines the possibility of being a Trusted Advisor.

Credibility, reliability and intimacy can be multiplied by Other-Orientation.

We manifest Other-Orientation when we:

  • Ask open-ended questions.
  • Invite them to talk about what’s behind an issue.
  • Listen closely, and check to make sure we really understand them.
  • Acknowledge their feelings.
  • Hold off on offering a solution until we deeply understand the issue.
  • Trust our ability to give them something of value after we’ve really heard them.
  • Give them the gift of our full attention.

In your conversations with clients and prospects, or with your colleagues, notice how much of the time your focus is on them … and how often you’re really focused on you. How you look, how you sound, the impression you think you’re making.

Pay particular attention to the way you ask questions. And especially to the way you listen to the answers.

Shine a spotlight on those interactions for the next few weeks. Keep the Trusted Advisor formula in mind, and you’re likely to spot opportunities to shift out of self-orientation into other-orientation.

When you do that, you’ll increase the level of trust people put in you. You’ll have a chance to deepen your business relationships. Who knows what other rewards will come your way? Maybe you could even put “Trusted Advisor” on your business card …

Already a Trusted Advisor?

Post a comment and share your experience …