The Seven Disciplines of a Trusted Strategic Advisor

James E. Lukaszewski

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James E. Lukaszewski

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In 2008 when I first identified the seven disciplines of a trusted strategic advisor, my selections were based on more than 20 years of observing hundreds of inside experts and outside consultants give advice to leaders. What were the behaviors, what were the approaches that seemed to get the most attention? Of the hundreds of tips and techniques one could possibly include; the most meaningful and pivotal behaviors and actions that got attention, reaction, and action from the leaders; I settled on seven which I thought in sum were the crucial ingredients that take a consultant or expert to the level of being a trusted strategic advisor. I’ll talk more about that in a little bit, but first, here are the seven disciplines briefly explained:

  1. Be trustworthy. If you want to be an advisor at top levels, or at any level for that matter, you and those you advise must maintain each other’s trust. Being trustworthy is one of the foundation disciplines; it permits you to accomplish the rest of your objectives. The absence of trust means rejection, concern and distrust.
  2. Become a verbal visionary. Verbal skill is the main tool of leaders—speaking effectively, describing the future, giving instructions, and teaching and inspiring others. People exercise leadership mostly through verbally expressed ideas, concepts, and stories. Many elements of successful advice giving and advising also require excellent verbal skill. How are your verbal skills? This is a crucial discipline. Find out. Get coaching.
  3. Develop a management perspective. It has been my firm belief that all questions, problems, and issues in an organization are management questions, problems, and issues before they are any other kind of concern, including communications. The lesson is you must start where management is or you’ll never get to the same place at the same time ever. Communicators tend to make everything into a communications problem. Start where the leader is or always play catch up to others giving advice. You might think about writing this on the palm of your hand. Although it is certainly necessary to have an area of special expertise as a threshold requirement for becoming a trusted advisor, managers and leaders need counselors and coaches who can see the world from their perspective. Is the advice you give only from the perspective of your function, or can you truly see the world more as the manager or leader sees it? Study leaders, study leadership.
  4. Think strategically. Can you develop the mind of a strategist? Do you understand what strategy is, how it is applied, and why it is so essential to management and leadership success? This is the discipline of being intentionally different and intentionally memorable, seeing the world from unique and new perspectives, every time. The biggest challenge faced by the trusted strategic advisor is to be productively inconsistent, consistently.
  5. Be a window to tomorrow: understand the power of patterns. A crucial ingredient for successful advice giving is the ability to use your understanding of known patterns of events and circumstances to recognize or forecast the results of new actions and decisions. Are you a pattern analyst? Can you learn from your experiences or the experiences of others, then translate the key ingredients into lessons that leaders need to hear, from you? Pattern sensitivity helps you anticipate and answer questions about what your advice and insights are based on.
  6. Advise constructively. Can you give advice and share your knowledge in ways that leaders and managers understand? Can you channel your intuition and imagination in ways that make you understandable and your advice actionable, in an operational context? Advise with a management perspective first… provide options, rather than solutions, from which the boss can then choose the ingredients of the solution. This is one of the crucial ingredients for the advisor staying at the table, whatever the course decision making takes.
  7. Show the boss how to use your advice. This may be the most important discipline of all: teaching those you advise how to value, act on, and benefit from what you have to offer.

All staff functions seek to give advice at the highest level. The truth is, the higher you go the more rarified the atmosphere, the sharper the politics and verbal combat. The stress and pressure of being at these altitudes can surprise the newly arrived. Most senior leaders still are taught that the best ideas come from the clash of ideas and intellects.

These intellectual clashes do turn off interest, especially in communicators and HR advisors having to survive at these hyper altitudes of ego clashing, bashing, and competition between advisors. If verbal clashes aren’t for you, you need to look for another way to advance your career.

Ask yourself seven questions that will begin to prepare you for what the difference of being at the altitude of a trusted strategic advisor rather than just being a staff consultant or outside advisor is like. These are important questions and frankly I ask those who are new to this game to write them down and keep the list handy in their desk or briefcase. Better yet, write down your answers to these questions. I think you’ll see that if you do this over time you will perfect your ability to modify your answers and ideas on the spot.

  1. Why do I want to be heard by my boss? Seriously, why? What is it you can offer through language and behavior that will interest the boss, help the boss, is noticeably different from the other voices he or she’s already listening to. The boss is constantly evaluating those he or she listens to on a regular basis and, frankly, you should be prepared to answer the question if it is asked of you directly.
  2. Why should the boss listen to me about anything? What’s in it for him or her? In a way, this is the “what” part of the first question. So, what? There are many voices bosses listen to; paid consultants, not to mention friends and acquaintances; all of whom are pouring advice in the boss’ ear whenever they get together. Some have agendas, some don’t, some are looking for agendas or just a foothold. You need to be prepared to actually vocalize why the boss should listen to you and why it’s in their interest to be listeners and then to take action.
  3. What is not working now? Why? One area to focus on at that altitude is what this question is relating to. What is not working now and why? This is also a test question in the sense that if you fail to address this from time to time and promptly when issues arise, the boss may actually feel that you are withholding information from him or her and it’s a puzzle which will bother the boss but he or she may not ask about it. Be prepared.
  4. Am I ready for the risks that arise when I am heard? The active senior level is always a risky place to be, especially for communicators. That’s because everyone in the room is going to feel they are a better communicator than you are and at the top of the list is the boss themselves. This is just the natural outcome of being in this small group of individuals at the highest level. Where, in essence, the only place to turn is to a competitive point of view.
  5. Am I ready to begin being brutally honest with myself? This may be the most serious question on the entire list. Can you be profoundly honest with yourself and what you’re doing? If you’re not having an impact, you probably need to talk about why that is, rather than letting people speculate on why you’re having a less efficient week or day. If you’re asked in on a topic about which you know very little, be prepared to admit the limits of your knowledge but at the same time recommend resources from inside or outside the organization who the boss or the leadership team might want to use as references or advisors. This happens a lot. One of the greatest weaknesses of staff assistance, even at this altitude, is the fear of adding outside voices into a conversation which most everyone present wants to keep and control inside for their own benefit. I found that some of my most successful relationships with senior people are built on the notion that if there is someone better than me, the first thing I am going to do is recommend those people. Let the chips fall where they may. Bosses notice these kinds of risks. It builds trust.
  6. Can I train myself to focus on what really matters? Probably the most frequent question I ask in these discussions at this altitude is, “Does what we’re talking about right now really matter?” “To whom?” “Why?” and “What should we be talking about that is remaining on the table?” I find this approach helps steer conversations and decision-making processes back on track. Sometimes it turns out to be the most valuable question asked. “Does this really matter?”
  7. How willing am I to change myself to have more influence? Being at this altitude will require that you make changes in your thinking; your work habits; how you relate to others, especially those with competitive points of view. The biggest mistake at this altitude is walking in the door with the firm belief that what you have to say should dominate everything that everyone else is going to want to do going forward. All the bullets will be aimed at you.

The purpose of the seven disciplines is to demonstrate the most crucial truth of being a trusted strategic advisor: it’s better to be at the table consistently than to be right, even once. Being a provider of options for action, rather than solutions to be debated is what will get you to the table earlier, asked for your opinions more consistently, and trusted by the people who matter most.

James (Jim) E. Lukaszewski (lew-ka-shev-ski) ABC, Fellow IABC; APR, Fellow PRSA, PRSA BEPS Emeritus; America’s Crisis Guru® began his PR career in 1978, following six years in the Minnesota state government. He’s written 14 books, the latest is The Decency Code, The Leader's Path to Integrity and Trust, 2020, McGraw Hill. James is a powerful speaker, important author, inspiring teacher, and trusted strategic advisor, best known for helping leaders and their organizations prepare for, respond to, and recover from crisis. Corporate Legal Times lists him as one of 28 experts to go to,” when all hell breaks loose.”