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A critical part of your role as a Portfolio Executive is to build a relationship where you become the trusted advisor of the CEO. Sometimes your role won’t bring you direct access to the CEO, but you should still become a trusted advisor to whoever is your sponsor.
Moving from an Employee Mindset
What does it mean to be a trusted advisor? It is a big shift from the conventional relationship you may have had with your CEO. The best CEOs will collaborate and consult with their senior executives or leadership team but, at the end of the day, as an employee, you are engaged in the politics of the organisation. You can seem to be competing for the top job, budgets or pet projects. You may have deeply committed alliances with particular colleagues. They may be striving to keep you or lose you. They are less likely to trust that you are going to give them disinterested, independent advice.
Positioning yourself as a Trusted Advisor
As a part-time portfolio executive, you can be a little bit at arm’s length. You can build trust, so the CEO recognises that you are always working in their best interests and that of their business. And how do you do that? You need to develop a different kind of style; you need to position yourself as a peer. They may be the CEO, but you are the most experienced, expert, skilled, knowledgeable person about your area of responsibility. So, you are a peer. What is more, you have seen and continue to see similar situations in multiple organisations. You can see things that they are unable to see because you have a wider perspective. If you have always been looking to the CEO for direction, you need to stand on the professional responsibility you hold and adopt the attitude of a peer.
Shifting your Communication Style
The second thing that you need to do is to adopt a new style of communication. A consultant prefers to tell: present the facts, sprinkle some insights and recommend next steps. A subordinate prefers to ask for orders and direction. Neither of these will serve you well in the long term. The trusted advisor adopts a communication style where they lead with active listening. Using this approach the CEO will feel, through the way you interact with them, that you are hearing and valuing what they say; that you are deeply listening to them, not just the words that come out of their mouth but the underlying emotions, the body language, the need that is being expressed through the conversation that they have with you. To access a rich set of active listening tools, I have encouraged many of the portfolio executives I work with to have some coach training. You do not need to become a qualified coach, but you will learn the power of powerful questions. To deepen a conversation, ask more of the ‘how’ questions, more of the ‘what’ and the ‘when’ questions and less of the ‘why’ questions. As you bring your experiences to the issue, offer them in a way that they can be refused rather than telling them that this is what they need to do.
Adding Value as a Trusted Advisor
Becoming a trusted advisor takes time. But there are many ways you can add value to your client as you establish yourself as a trusted advisor. Consider how you can introduce your CEO to important relationships within your network. Look at how to help them recruit the right people into the team outside your function. Perhaps you can find a critical non-executive, or potential customers and clients. Maybe they will seek your views on areas outside your specialism. The best trusted advisor becomes the “go-to” person that the CEO looks to for anything that is important to them. As you become increasingly trusted, I encourage the portfolio executives I work with to see the CEO as a person, as a human being who needs relationship. They will have concerns outside of the business: with family or wider ambitions beyond their role. You should be ready to for them to start to share things beyond the business context. When they share things with you about the important relationships outside of work, when they share dreams beyond the business then you know that you have truly reached the role of a trusted advisor.
One crucial thing that I have learnt over the years is to avoid ask favours of your clients. It is remarkably easy to use the strength of your relationship to further your interests. If clients offer you favours, then I do not turn them down. But asking for favours can undermine carefully nurtured trust. CEOs have grown to expect that everybody wants something from them. They struggle to believe that any conversation is without an ulterior motive. So if you use that conversation to get introductions to something that only serves you, to influence something that only serves you, or to strengthen your position in the company then you start to reinforce that expectation that every relationship in the business world is a transactional “what is in it for me”, “what is in it for them” type relationship. You have a special opportunity to break that expectation.
The four ingredients of becoming a trusted advisor are:
1. Move from an employee mindset
2. Position yourself as a trusted advisor
3. Add value as a trusted advisor
4. Resist the temptations to break trust
If you can keep these four things at the top of your mind, then you will become your CEO’s trusted advisor. This will bring you a long term, sustainable relationship in the good times and the hard times. They will want to make sure that, whatever the state of the organisation, you are on board. Even when they move on, they will want to find opportunities to take you with them. When they appoint a full-time permanent salaried executive to replace you, they will want to keep you as their trusted advisor as a non-executive.
Charles McLachlan is the founder of FuturePerfect and on a mission to transform the future of work and business. The Portfolio Executive programme is a new initiative to help executives build a sustainable and impactful second-half-career. Creating an alternative future takes imagination, design, organisation and many other thinking skills. Charles is happy to lend them to you.