From order taker to influencer: Becoming a trusted advisor

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Vicki M. James, PMP, CBAP

Watermark Learning

We do not serve our organizations as well as we could when we assume an “order taker” role and simply implement changes dictated by others. A more productive role is that of “trusted advisor” or influencer. Being a trusted advisor is more beneficial to the organization and provides more meaningful and satisfying work for us. This paper contrasts both roles, provides a self-assessment to the reader, and offers suggestions and advice on how to move from order taker to trusted advisor using The Influencing Formula.

Order Taker Versus Trusted Advisor

An Analogy

What do you think of when you think of an order taker? Is it a waitress at a bargain restaurant chain? In this scenario, you go into the restaurant, look at the menu, and try to determine what will work well given dietary restrictions and food preferences, but nothing stands out. The server comes by the table and asks if you are ready.

You: I'm allergic to gluten and dairy. What can you recommend?
Server: <blank stare> Uh…our biscuits and gravy are good.
You: Do you have gluten-free biscuits and gravy?
Server: I don't know. Do you want me to ask?
You: Never mind. I'll take a ham and mushroom omelet, NO CHEESE, with hash browns
Server: What kind of cheese do you want in your omelet? Toast?
You: NO CHEESE! Do you have gluten-free bread?
Server: <blank stare>
You: Never mind. No toast for me.

Later that night you go to a reputable local favorite restaurant known for its charismatic chef, great servers, and fresh, local ingredients.

You: I'm allergic to gluten and dairy. What can you recommend?
Server: Well here are some of my favorites; salmon with rice pilaf, we can hold the herbed butter, or our steak salad is scrumptious. Our house made Thousand Island, vinaigrettes, and Russian dressing are all gluten- and dairy-free. I just want to double-check that egg is okay for you, as some of the dressings are mayonnaise-based. All of our food is fresh made and the chef is always happy to accommodate dietary requests. I think he enjoys the challenge of making great food even when his personal favorite ingredients are off the table. What are you craving?

Who is the order taker and who is the trusted advisor in these two scenarios?

Now think back to your most recent project. Are you an order taker or a trusted advisor? We'll explore more.

On Projects

When it comes to the projects we work on, we are the servers. The question is, what kind of server are you? Are you an order taker or a trusted advisor?

Being a trusted advisor on projects is hard. There are people above us in the project governance structure who have strong opinions and authority over us. They have expertise, experience, and education in the area under their domain. However, we have expertise, experience, and education when it comes to projects. We need to tap into and exert this expertise in order to be trusted advisors. The project, and the organization, suffer when we don't do this.

Early in my project career, we had a situation on a project. The project was to support all state agencies in developing their budgets. One state agency representative didn't approve of the interface to enter budget data. She indicated that her agency needed to enter data at a lower level of detail. The agency she spoke of was the largest in the state, so we gave a lot of weight to her “requirement.” I documented requirements and then churned out potential solutions. I eventually did come up with a complex solution to address the agency's need as it was refined by the development team. The solution took a lot of time to design, develop, test, and implement. Thus, the overall project schedule was delayed by months. The representative was pleased when the solution was released; however, her coworkers were less enthusiastic. The functionality was complex, difficult to learn, and hard to use. Years later, that representative retired, and the functionality was never used again. At that time, I was an order taker, not a trusted advisor, and the taxpayers of the state ultimately paid the price.

Maybe due to understanding my previous mistake in the situation described above, or perhaps just through natural maturity in the role, I began to question “requirements” much more thoroughly. At times I thought this questioning would get me into trouble. There was one project sponsor in particular with whom I felt I was always in conflict. It was challenging to elicit the true needs of the organization and the sponsor. Attempts to suggest alternatives felt fruitless. However, a pattern emerged in that I became that sponsor's “go-to project manager.” While we didn't always see eye to eye, she came to trust that I would challenge her in ways that could only benefit her projects. In other words, I had become a trusted advisor on her projects.

Trusted advisors help:

  • Save the organization time and money
  • Organizations make superior decisions
  • Influence better solutions that bring more benefits to the organization sooner

Self-Assessment

Where do you sit in the spectrum from order taker to trusted advisor? You can find out by taking our self-assessment that is included in Appendix 2 of this paper. This assessment looks at your skill in the areas of questioning, preparation, trust, and courage. Taking this assessment will provide you with some feedback on where you are now and how you can move forward into the sphere of trusted advisor. Be honest with yourself when answering the self-assessment questions in order to get the most out of the evaluation. A scoring sheet is also included. I recommend that you take and score the assessment before proceeding with this paper.

How did you do? Congratulations if you are a trusted advisor! If not, that's okay. Taking the assessment and reading this paper are the first steps in moving to the next level.

Building Trust

The key to being a trusted advisor is to be trusted. In this section, we will look at how you can build trust, become more influential, and be the trusted advisor that you strive to be. We are going to focus on The Influencing Formula as a means to build trust and be a trusted advisor.

The Influencing Formula

Figure 1: The Influencing Formula

The Influencing Formula was created by Elizabeth and Richard Larson of Watermark Learning. It is not a mathematical formula; it cannot be “solved” even by the most brilliant of mathematical minds. However, it will help you be more influential in your job and in your career.

Trust

Think or read back to the opening of this paper with our two restaurant scenarios. Which of the servers do you trust? This is the server you would consider a trusted advisor in your dining experience.

Here is a list of 15 ways to build trust:

  • Be honest and authentic
  • Act with integrity
  • Respect, value, and accept others
  • Respect differences
  • Laugh and eat together
  • Be “present”
  • Get input from others
  • Avoid having a personal agenda
  • Communicate bad news
  • Act consistently
  • Acknowledge mistakes
  • Acknowledge others’ contributions
  • Share information
  • Make and meet commitments
  • Be credible

You may be wondering about a few of these and how they will help you build trust. We won't discuss all of the items in great detail, but here are a just few that are often less understood and warrant further discussion.

Laugh and eat together – We trust those we relate to. When you laugh and eat together, you discover areas of commonality and get to know each other on a personal level. Even if you don't see eye to eye on the work, finding ways to relate in person will increase trust. You have to take the time and make the effort for this to happen. It doesn't need to be a formal lunch. Walking down to the coffee cart, grabbing a bite at the local happy hour spot, or even sharing pizza at your office table will go a long way toward connecting with project sponsors and stakeholders.

Get input from others – Nobody likes a know-it-all. The problem with the know-it-all is wondering where he or she got all of this knowledge. When someone wonders how you got your knowledge, he or she demonstrates mistrust of you. So unless you are really 100% sure about your point of view, consider involving others. Think back again to our servers in the beginning. How would your breakfast experience have changed if the waitress had gone and had a conversation with the head chef before responding to your questions? First, the answers would have been better. Second, the act of her conferring with someone else would have immediately established a new level of trust. Here is another example: After running a few tests, your doctor provides you with a diagnosis for some symptoms you have recently been experiencing. What would you trust more: a diagnosis based on his or her opinions alone, or a diagnosis after conferring with other doctors, ideally including a specialist? Just don't forget to acknowledge the contributions of others (another point in the list above).

We cannot be specialists at everything, so getting input from others gives us better information, builds our credibility, and fosters the trust that others place in us. Sometimes we even learn something along the way.

Communicate bad news – “How will they trust me if I have bad news?” The quicker and more candid you are to deliver bad news, the more you will be trusted. I had the pleasure of seeing Vivek Kundra, then CIO of the United States of America, speak at the PMI Global Congress—North America in Washington, DC in 2010. He said one thing that will stick with me forever, which I will paraphrase here:: “Don't tell me how good you are. I know you are good; that is why I hired you. Tell me what your barriers are so that I can help you break them down.” Don't carry the burden of bad news yourself. Others may be able to help by sharing insights to lessen the impact.

Either way, others will appreciate your transparency and trust you as someone who will share news, good or bad, in a timely manner.

Acknowledge mistakes - Perhaps the bad news is totally outside of your control. But even if it was a mistake on your part, remember that we are all human, and we all make mistakes. One of my favorite sayings by Bo Bennett is: “It is not our mistakes that define who we are; it is how we recover from those mistakes.” Hiding your mistakes breeds mistrust. Instead, acknowledge your mistakes. It will also help you maintain trust and credibility if you are prepared to demonstrate how you will correct the mistake.

“Transparency will establish trust fast.” –Stephen M. R. Covey

To sum up this section, re-read the 15 ways to build trust and identify the items you could improve upon. Now narrow that list to one or two items that you can take action on tomorrow, and then take that action!

Preparation

“Spectacular achievement is always preceded by unspectacular preparation.” –Robert H. Schuller

How do you prepare to advise someone on an issue? Do you prepare? Trusted advisors do one thing consistently. They prepare. Think back to some trusted advisors in your life. I am willing to bet that these people:

  • Always understood the situation at hand (Situation)
  • Analyzed the situation to understand the impacting factors and potential courses of action (Analysis)
  • Were comprehensive and firm in making a recommendation (Recommendation)
  • Had a plan of action to implement the solution they were recommending (Implementation)
  • Could tell you how you would know the action was successful (Evaluation)

We call this SARIE.

SARIE process

Figure 2: SARIE process

Follow these steps to fully define and articulate a situation so that your recommendation will be influential. Being prepared will increase the trust that others place in you. If you prepare more than the person you are taking orders from, he or she will have to take your recommendation seriously or risk a bad decision. You are no longer taking orders. You are now advising.

Do not forget to consult with others as you prepare. You will have better information, come across as more credible, and earn the respect of those you consulted.

Try this with something small to start. The process does not have to be long, elaborate, and formal. It just needs to happen. Apply it to bigger, more complex issues as you get more comfortable. Eventually it will become second nature, and you will be your organization's trusted advisor.

Courage

The final piece of The Influencing Formula is courage. I know first-hand how hard it is to find the courage it takes to be a trusted advisor. There is always the risk that our advice will be seen as unsolicited and unwelcome, and may not be heard. This is highly unlikely when you are fully prepared. Let me ask you this: Has anybody in your organization been injured as a result of making a recommendation he or she believed to be in the best interest of the organization? Fired? Berated? I'm guessing not. The worst-case scenario is that the recommendation is ignored or discounted. This happens even to the most trusted advisors. Do you always follow your doctor's recommendations? (Caught you, didn't I?)

On the other hand, think back to those in the organization who excel, those who get the promotions, bonuses, and raises. Are they order takers or trusted advisors? In a healthy, mature organization these people will be the trusted advisors—the people who were prepared, had the courage to recommend things that were contrary to popular opinion, and earned the trust of those in the organization. The rewards reaped by those with courage far outweigh any penalty they may have received over time.

Here is my advice to help you get started on finding and using your courage. Are you ready? Fake it until you make it!

Yes, it is a cliché, but it is true. No one needs to know how uncomfortable you are having the tough conversation, or even just asking for an audience, with the high-level executive. That can and should be your little secret. Prepare, practice, then do it. You won't die. You won't get hurt. You will be fine. Trust me (presuming you are dealing with reasonable people). Each time you step out of your comfort zone, you will stretch that muscle that has been holding you back. You will eventually find that it is no longer holding you back. It will be there, you will feel it, but you will know how to work with it. Performers know this. Ask any performer and he or she will tell you that he or she does get butterflies before a performance. The difference between them and us is that they don't let it stop them. They push through and accomplish great things. Get ready to perform.

Conclusion

We have a reached a stage in our professional careers where we better serve our organizations as trusted advisors than we do as order takers. Order takers perpetuate the status quo. Trusted advisors enable progressive changes. Job satisfaction is greatly increased when we can feel and see the impact that we have on the organization, and on the world.

The following table includes some differences between order takers and trusted advisors.

Order Takers: Trusted Advisors:
Eager, detailed questioners Consultative, probing questioners
Prepare by finding out the budget and end-dates for projects Prepare by finding out the business need for projects
Need to build trust with stakeholders; may overly please or be too persistent like a “bull dog” Have built trust with stakeholders; balance relationships with results
Often lack courage to question and recommend Have courage to question and recommend
May say or think: “I'm confused…” Say or think: “Here is what I know and here is what I need to know”
Ask: what do you want to do? Make recommendations (after analyzing the situation)
Tell people what they want to hear Tell people what they need to know

Moving from order taker to trusted advisor is possible. Remember:

Recap of The Influencing Formula

Figure 3: Recap of The Influencing Formula

Paper Take-Aways

Practice the following three things to help make the transition from order taker to trusted advisor:

  1. Take one item from the 15 ways to build trust and do one thing to earn the trust of those around you.
  2. Use SARIE to prepare a recommendation. Use it informally on a small issue to start. Practice using this to prepare for more complex issues.
  3. Perform! No one needs to know when you are stepping out of your comfort zone. Again, start small and build up from there. It can be an act as small as saying “hi” to a stranger in the grocery store, but step a little further out of your comfort zone each time.

Practice this advice every day and soon you will find that others are now coming to you for advice.

Larson, E., & Larson, R. (2012). The influencing formula. Minneapolis, MN: Watermark Learning Publications.

Covey, S. M. R., & Merrill, R. R. (2006). The speed of trust: The one thing that changes everything. New York, NY: Free Press.

Appendix 1: Self-Assessment for Trusted Advisors

For each item below, put an X in the Rating column that most closely resembles your preference or approach. Be honest and don't dwell on any answer. Try to put down the first rating that comes to mind. Scoring information follows in Appendix 2.

ITEM RATING

OFTEN

SOMETIMES

RARELY

1. I prefer asking detailed questions early in a project to prevent missing major requirements.

2. In meetings, people ask me what I think.

3. When assigned to a project, I work to find out the business problem that the project is intending to solve.

4. When assigned a project with a specific solution, I assume the deliverables have been adequately thought out.

5. When given a defined solution, I first strive to determine the complete requirements for it.

6. When given a tight deadline for a project, I don't waste time considering various alternatives.

7. When a project begins, some of the first things I like to know are the deadline and the budget.

8. I point out the risks involved in implementing a solution that my sponsor gives me.

9. I actively work to build trust with my stakeholders.

10. I prefer having a good relationship with my stakeholders versus needing to push for the best solution.

11. I find myself thinking: “Who am I to argue with the sponsor?”

12. I tend to make recommendations when I bring up problems.

13. When my recommendations are not acted on, I tend to feel discouraged.

14. I am quick to bring up problems with my manager so we can find a solution.

15. My recommendations tend to get adopted.

Appendix 2: Self-Assessment Scoring

Look back at your answers from the self-assessment and write the corresponding numbers in the Score column. Total the scores to determine where you are along the spectrum of order taker to trusted advisor.

ITEM RATING
OFTEN SOMETIMES RARELY SCORE

1. I prefer asking detailed questions early in a project to prevent missing major requirements.

1 2 3

2. In meetings, people ask me what I think.

3 2 1

3. When assigned to a project, I work to find out the business problem that the project is intending to solve.

3 2 1

4. When assigned a project with a specific solution, I assume the deliverables have been adequately thought out.

1 2 3

5. When given a defined solution, I first strive to determine the complete requirements for it.

1 2 3

6. When given a tight deadline for a project, I don't waste time considering various alternatives.

1 2 3

7. When a project begins, some of the first things I like to know are the deadline and the budget.

1 2 3

8. I point out the risks involved in implementing a solution that my sponsor gives me.

3 2 1

9. I actively work to build trust with my stakeholders.

3 2 1

10. I prefer having a good relationship with my stakeholders versus needing to push for the best solution.

1 2 3

11. I find myself thinking: “Who am I to argue with the sponsor?”

1 2 3

12. I tend to make recommendations when I bring up problems.

3 2 1

13. When my recommendations are not acted on, I tend to feel discouraged.

1 2 3

14. I am quick to bring up problems with my manager so we can find a solution.

1 2 3

15. My recommendations tend to get adopted.

3 2 1
TOTAL

Results

  • 15-25 Order Taker
  • 26-35 In Transition
  • 36-45 Trusted Advisor
This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

© 2014, Watermark Learning and Vicki James
Originally published as a part of the 2014 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Phoenix, Arizona, USA

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