Practicing good habits as a leader is essential to success in your role. When you take daily actions to become a better manager, you increase employee engagement and create a positive work environment for your entire team.

I recently spoke with Andrew Sykes, the CEO and Founder of Habits at Work. He helps people create and master high-impact work habits. In part three of our four-part Thrive By Design: The Podcast series, Sykes describes the three habits that help you become a trusted advisor and why these habits are critical for managers to drive employee engagement.

In the previous two episodes in this podcast series, Sykes discussed three habits that make you a magnetic leader and three practices you should implement to prepare to perform at your highest levels in the workplace.

Read on for highlights from our conversation to learn the significance of becoming a trusted advisor and the three key habits that facilitate this role:

Andrew: A trusted advisor is someone who employees or customers willingly consult before they take action or decide on what action they will take. If you are in that position of being a trusted advisor for an employee or a customer, it’s really a high honor and takes a lot to achieve. What you can expect as a result is to have a seat at the table, so you’re included in conversations right from the beginning of the process. 

Don: Why is it particularly important as a manager to work toward establishing yourself as a trusted advisor? How does this help your organization?

Andrew: We know one of the greatest things that motivates employees is their perceived autonomy. People don’t like to be micromanaged because it is demotivating. Employees would rather have a leader who is there for them when they ask for that leader’s input on something. This leaves employees feeling that they’re trusted and they have the autonomy to act on their own. By preserving this autonomy, while ensuring your expertise and leadership is called on when employees need you, your trusted advisor status allows the business to progress with speed and efficiency.

Don: How can a leader become a trusted advisor?

Andrew: In previous episodes, we talked about the importance of habits like asking questions, listening empathetically, and asking for feedback to become a magnetic leader. That’s a great place to start, but once you have drawn in people who want to be in your presence, the question is: What do you do with that attention? That’s where the habits of being a trusted advisor come in. Trusted advisors excel in three habits: telling stories, presenting ideas, and building trust

Don: Can you take a deeper dive into each one of these habits? 

Andrew: Telling stories is the safest way to share facts, figures, advice, and direction without feeling threatening or argumentative to the person you’re speaking with. Facts and figures on their own often harden people’s pre-existing opinions because they see them as threats to what they already believe. But stories change minds.

If you’re familiar with that old Trojan Horse legend, I like to think of stories as if they are a Trojan horse that carries new ideas from one brain to another. More importantly, stories carry emotion, and we know that human beings make all their decisions emotionally. When we look back on a decision we’ve made, we tell ourselves we made it rationally by looking at the pros and cons. However, it’s our emotions that drive decisions. Stories are like feedback – a gift to other people that provides them with the emotion they need to make the right decision. The clarity and context that’s provided by the story helps them make the right decisions and have the motivation to act on those decisions now. It’s a guiding pathway for action. On the other hand, facts and figures seldom get that job done. 

Don: How does the habit of presenting ideas help leaders become trusted advisors?

Andrew: Think about the related habit of presenting yourself and not just an idea. You’ll be deliberate about choosing the way you dress, carry yourself, speak, and communicate. Those choices have a powerful impact on how people relate to you. We are very judgmental of each other and are prone to putting people in a box. How you show up as a human being is taking control of the box into which we are put. It’s the same with presenting ideas or, in a sense, dressing up ideas, so they are pleasing to look at, easy to understand, and compelling to act upon.

Storytelling is one way of presenting ideas, but it’s not the only way we can present ideas. Another example of presenting ideas is sharing interesting insights and the implications of that insight for a customer. I read a great article by Pinterest’s Global Head of Partnerships Jon Kaplan. He pointed out the inside effect that it’s not just kids and parents who have a back-to-school mentality at the beginning of September, but that many people share this reset mindset. It’s almost as strong as that New Year’s Day feeling when you set a new resolution. Kaplan calls it a back-to-life moment. That might be crucial insight to share with the CEO of a gym who’s seeking to boost memberships, for example. The idea I might present along with that insight is to invest heavily in advertising throughout August when competitors are focused on the upcoming new year.

Other approaches to presenting ideas include the use of analogies and metaphors. They are types of stories, but they have a simpler structure. Another example is how we present data visually, knowing that people process information and remember it much more powerfully when it’s visual instead of verbal. Most people are terrible at putting together slide decks and worse when they’re presenting them. By following just a few rules based on how people process information, we can radically improve our presentations. I always recommend to never have more than one number or five words on a single slide. Ideally, each slide should include a visual that brings what you’re trying to talk about to life.

Don: What does building trust look like in the context of establishing ourselves as a trusted advisor? 

Andrew: About a quarter or 25 percent of our most loyal customers become loyal as a result of how their complaint was handled. These are the customers who, at first, were upset, but by the end of the customer service call, they shifted to raving fans.

How did they go from being angry with the company to highly loyal? It happens when people own their mistakes instead of apologizing for them. That may sound radical because whenever we make a mistake, we want to apologize immediately. For example, if you’re late for a meeting, you would likely want to say, “I’m so sorry I’m late, and then add an excuse like “the traffic was terrible. That does two things: It makes you feel better, but, as a result, you’re inclined to take no further action. It also makes the other person feel worse because, from their point of view, you’ve just signaled that you didn’t care about them enough to take the extra time to plan for traffic.

Instead, if you’re late for the meeting and say, “I’m late and there is no excuse for that, you completely own your mistake. The impact of you being late for the meeting on the other person is that they’re inconvenienced and annoyed. You should follow up with a question like: May I ask what other impact this has had on you? Then, allow the other person to share how they feel and what impact your lateness caused them. When you do this, you signal a couple of things. One, you own your mistake, and two, you’re giving the other person the opportunity to share how it feels. We typically annoy people with our lateness or other mistakes, but don’t give them the opportunity to express that feeling and just rush to an apology.

Then, say, “I understand the impact that my mistake has had on you. Here are two promises I can make: Because I’ve inconvenienced you, I’m going to speak a little bit quicker, so that we can make up the time. And, from today, you can always count on me to be on time in the future, as I will make the effort to leave earlier to allow for possible traffic.

That’s a much more powerful way to take responsibility, and it’s much less dismissive than a simple apology.

The essence of building trust is around the act or habit of making, keeping, and restoring promises. There are three components to that. The first is to make big promises. That’s a declaration of intent, and it sets you up to become trusted. To create and build that trust, you need to keep those promises. The third aspect is restoring your integrity and owning the break in your performance when you do break a promise. You may ask: Why don’t you just make sure to never break a promise? If you never break any promises at all, you’re probably not making big enough promises in the first place. My advice for building a trusted advisor status is to make big promises and try to keep them. But, if there are times that you don’t keep a promise, don’t simply apologize. Clean it up, discover the impact, and make a new promise.

If your employees and customers talk with you before they make decisions and before they act, you have influence. In my view, influence is more important – and always better – than having actual power because trusted advisors have a chance to use their influence to help employees and customers make better, more-informed decisions. That’s what we really want as leaders anyway, which is why becoming a trusted advisor is a status that is so important to achieve.

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Key Takeaways:

  • A trusted advisor is someone who employees or customers consult before they take action or decide on what action they will take.
  • To become a trusted advisor, it’s essential for leaders to strengthen the habits of telling stories, presenting ideas, and building trust.
  • A trusted advisor plays a critical role for employees and customers because they have a chance to use their influence, leadership, and expertise to help these people make better decisions.