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The 5 key traits of trusted advisors

One of the greatest compliments is when clients consider us a trusted advisor. Recently, some encouraging words came from a client that was just getting used to a new accounting method. After working with this startup for months on an assignment, our consultant made them aware of an approach that would give them a more accurate view of their business. “My encouragement to you is to keep pushing us toward ways of working that would be better for us, not just the way we have always done them,” our client wrote in an email.

Not every client we work with needs to make significant changes to their processes, and we wouldn’t just go in and overhaul a client’s way of doing things (unless we were specifically asked to, of course), but there are times when employees and managers get stuck in their ways. We all do. Or we’re not able to see some strategic choices ahead. We all need trusted advisors who can pull us out of our rut, show us a better way, provide us with a new perspective, or just enlighten us on what others in our field are doing.

Similarly, many of us are in a position to be a trusted advisor. Whether you’re a CFO aiming for a tight relationship with your CEO, or a consultant wanting to be viewed as a business partner – and not merely as a “vendor” –  the term “trusted advisor” is a coveted label. It can take awhile to earn such a status, but once you do, you’ll have a whole new level of respect and a stronger working relationship that can lead to longer and better professional engagements.

Anyone who aims to be a trusted advisor and keep that status needs to have the following traits:

Altruism: Trusted advisors always put the clients’ needs ahead of their own. During RoseRyan engagements, we sometimes observe companies getting bogged down with manual processes that could be automated. We could keep our mouths shut about how the client can work more efficiently – and rack up the extra billable hours that result when things take longer to complete. But that is not what’s best for the client, and won’t earn us their trust and loyalty in the long run. By always viewing ourselves as an extended member of our client’s team, we are more likely to come up with solutions and processes that are in their best interest.

The ability to listen: A trusted advisor listens carefully to what clients say and don’t say. The client may not always know exactly what they need or the right questions to ask.  A trusted advisor is always asking questions, assessing the situation and offering recommendations. Trusted advisors are also listening for cues on the corporate culture so that they don’t overstep their bounds when it comes to how and when to make suggestions or implement changes.

A deep well of experience: Specific knowledge of a topic will get you only so far with a client. You may know the ins and outs of lease accounting rules, for instance, but what will really impress a client is your ability to confidently discuss how the rules have been implemented at other companies and play out in real life. Experience all feeds into my next point, as well; someone who has had practical experience and exposure to various corporate situations knows how to adjust to a client’s unique needs.

Adaptability: No client wants someone coming in from the outside with a big ego or an overbearing attitude who insists on doing things their way. This is especially true when a company is in the midst of a big change, like taking on new accounting software or becoming SOX compliant for the first time. Internal politics can really come to a head during such transitions, and stress levels can be high. A trusted advisor has a knack for understanding the politics, rising above it, and using a diplomatic yet direct approach to keep the client moving down the right path, in an efficient manner.

Candidness: Honesty is the best policy in any partnership, and that’s particularly true between clients and consultants. Being up-front with clients is a value we highly value here at RoseRyan, even when it involves awkward or tough conversations. If we have information that will help a client, we share it, hopefully with the right sense of urgency and diplomacy. For example, we pointed out to a finance leader when the privately held company’s finance department needed additional skills to transition the business to the public markets. We went above and beyond to help draft a new organizational chart, which incorporated the talents the company already had on the team as well as new ones to consider, such as people who had experience with SEC reporting.

Becoming a trusted advisor is a privilege that can easily evaporate if you are not careful. When you keep the qualities I mentioned in mind, you can differentiate yourself and become a respected partner.

The rewards of taking the time and effort to be perceived as a trusted advisor are too good to pass up. It engenders long-term client relationships with loyalty and repeat business. It can also lead to more challenging work, which we welcome wholeheartedly. We’re the type of people who thrive on a good challenge and love to have interesting work to sink our teeth into.

When one of your business partners has evolved into a trusted advisor, hold on to that person or firm and see what else they can do for you. They are not always easy to find.

Kathy Ryan is the CEO and CFO of RoseRyan. Since co-founding the firm in 1993, she has served as interim CFO at more than 50 companies.

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