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Articles and Interviews

HR People as Trusted Advisors

by David Creelman 2000

Appeared as “David Maister on HR as Consultants” on, August 21, 2000

David Maister is the leading authority on professional service firms and the author of several books, including the recently released The Trusted Advisor.

Continuing our commitment to help HR professionals understand the changing demands of their role, sought out Mr. Maister.

DC: We’ve spoken to David Ulrich about the roles of HR, and one of the roles he mentions is that of internal consultant. You are an expert on the consulting profession. Do you think HR should be playing this role?

DM: I don’t think it’s an issue for debate. You are an internal consultant if you’re in HR. In all cases you advise either top executives or middle-level executives. The simple fact is that whenever anybody has some specific technical expertise and is engaged in helping others, they are playing the role of a consultant.

DC: HR professionals generally feel confident that they are “experts” in HR, but your book The Trusted Advisor goes way beyond that. You discuss the consultant playing the role of a trusted advisor.

DM: If someone asks you for your advice, it is very easy to fall into the role of an “expert” who thinks “I’m now in charge and what I think will prevail.” The assumption is that the problem is solely within the technical domain.

Now technical expertise is a nonnegotiable entrance fee. However, as someone being advised, I rarely want you to take over my problem and decide for me.

Here’s a silly but real example: I don’t want a doctor to say, “I’ve done my diagnosis and I’m going to have your leg off.” I want the doctor to follow a simple four-step sequence starting with explaining the options to me. I am paying for the advisor, in this case a doctor, to help me take control of the situation.

Now that I know the options, the second step for the advisor is to help me understand the pros and cons, the costs and the risks. If I get an education I can make a much better decision.

The third step is for the advisor, drawing on his or her expertise, to give me a professional recommendation.

The final step is that the client, not the advisor, chooses what to do.

DC: HR professionals will be sensitive to the process involved, but in most companies they are still not seen as trusted advisors.

DM: Yes, I think that’s right. There are a lot of ways to lose that respect. What we say in the book is that there are four things you can do to develop that trusted advisor role.

One is credibility, which is where technical expertise comes in. I hope I’m clear. I’m in no way minimizing the import of high-level technical expertise.

The second element, and one that is also close to the rational part of the process, is reliability. Can people depend on you to act consistently, keep your promises and do what you say? These two elements are well understood. The last two points are where most of us struggle.

The third aspect of being trusted is intimacy. Do clients see us as dealing with them not as problems to be solved—do we enter their world able to deal with the emotions that the individual might have? You might think that HR should be naturally good at this, but I don’t think many people are naturally good at it.

Let me give you an example of intimacy. I was working with an executive committee trying to decide on a policy, and the room was very uncomfortable, very quiet. I said to the group, “What’s going on here?” They said, “If we go with this policy, then we seem to be asking some very powerful people to change.” I said, “Yes, that’s what we’re all saying, we should change the policy.” They replied that they were not sure they had the courage. They didn’t know who could confront those powerful people we would be asking to change.

Now to understand what is happening here, we need to recognize that there are all kinds of emotions involved, even among high-level executives. As an advisor in this kind of situation I have a decision to make. I can try surfacing those emotions and helping people think through the decision, or I can be uncomfortable and afraid and then somehow get through the meeting ignoring the emotions. If I take the latter tack, then I’ll get all kinds of stolen, whispered discussions at the coffee break. “Yes, we agree with the policy but…” The skill of raising those issues and helping people work through them is a skill that must be learned and is never taught to any of us.

To finish off the list, the fourth thing you must have to be a trusted advisor is a lack of self-orientation. When you are giving advice, does your listener think that you’re motivated by making yourself look good or do they really believe you are trying to help them? Do they react by saying, “Oh well, he or she would say that. He or she is in HR”?

The oldest joke in business is, “I’m from head office; I’m here to help.” No one believes you are sincerely trying to help. HR is usually seen as a policeman, or a nun with a ruler, forcing policy on people.

DC: At we have been saying that HR managers should understand business, but this goes one step further. You’re saying they need to understand it from the point of view of the manager they are serving, to put themselves in the manager’s shoes.

DM: That’s exactly the point. I hope no one takes too much offence (I only wish to give a little offence), but in my own experience most business problems are like losing weight. I don’t need another speech about why I need to lose weight. I already know the benefits; similarly, every manager in the world already knows the speech about needing to energize the staff.

We’ve already heard the advice “Eat less, exercise more.” Not only do we know what to do, we know how to do it.

DC: We’ve talked to Jeff Pfeffer about this problem. He calls it the “Knowing-Doing Gap.”

DM: Yes, and his book’s brilliant, but my own view is that Jeff missed this one slice of it. The reason we don’t act on what we know—and Jeff fails to stress this—is that we have to be ready to get on the diet. We have to be willing to live through all the short-term inconveniences to get the long-term benefits.

The biggest added value we can bring as advisors is not some intellectually sophisticated new HR technique, but to act as wise counselors, helping people to get on the diet and deal with the determination and self-discipline to stay with it. I don’t need the next brilliant idea that won’t be implemented. What I need is someone to help me implement what I already know.

The question you have to ask as an advisor is, “Can I help other people change their behavior?”

DC: Typically HR tries to change behavior by putting in some kind of training course or new program like 360-degree feedback.

DM: All absolutely useless. There are no more useless things in business than training and 360-degree programs, because the good content they offer is never followed up or implemented. You can’t lose weight just by getting on the scale more frequently.

HR needs to be able to work with an executive, to take something that is that executive’s idea and be available to them as they struggle with the picayune details of how they’re going to change their behavior.

DC: We were talking to Cliff Ehrlich, who used to be the head of HR for Marriott, and his approach to HR was based on simple person-to-person relationships rather than sophisticated programs.

DM: Yes. Let me give you a catchphrase: “The only management worthy of the name is one on one.”

One simple piece of tactical advice your readers can use is to telephone in advance everyone who is coming to a meeting to ask for their reactions and their interests so that when you get to the meeting you know where every individual is coming from. You’ll know when to ask a question and when to hold off so you can achieve consensus. It’s tempting to think, “I’ll just show up at the meeting and convince everyone,” but very few of us can pull that off.

DC: A problem we face in HR is that it’s hard to know who the client is. Is it our boss, the CEO, line managers or the broad employee base?

DM: Welcome to the real world. That’s the problem all advisors have. If you can’t learn how to deal with different constituencies, you’ll never be an effective advisor.

DC: How do I make sense of all the potential clients?

DM: The trick is very much like the tactic I just described for managing a meeting. You cannot represent that you will always be on any one person’s side or that their vested interest will prevail. What you must do is make each constituency believe that you are working very hard to be sure that their interests are understood and are part of the process. Even if you don’t end up on their side, you end up as a trusted advisor of the process.

DC: How can HR become an important trusted advisor when they are simply not invited to participate at the highest level?

DM: It cannot be done as end run. The answer is that you make the people you are currently working with admire your ability to help—not to be right; to help. Then you create advocates within the organization.

But notice the test. That they think you are smart does not get you invited. That they think you are useful does get you invited.

DC: I’d like to ask your opinions about the broader issue of social trust. Fukuyama, who wrote Trust, and Putnam, who wrote Bowling Alone, both talk about the importance of social capital, which relates to broad levels of trust across society.

DM: Yes, I’ve read them. They are very exciting intellectually. But I’m a very practical person, not an intellectual, despite all my intellectual training. I think the issue is simpler than they describe. Trust will always be an interpersonal issue—it’s not about institutions.

DC: How do organizations create a positive, trusting environment?

DM: You get to be what you are willing to enforce. Your strategy is not “what you plan to do someday,” but what you are willing to enforce today. I do know of institutions that have an incredibly high level of trust.

Now here is the issue: how do you create an organization where people feel that “people are treated with respect around here?” And here’s the answer: you fire anyone who doesn’t treat others with respect. Enforce that and you can achieve an environment of trust and respect.

I have statistical evidence in my forthcoming book [to be released in 2001] indicating that when people in an organization believe that “people are treated with respect around here” then the organization will make more money. Don’t just manage the money, manage what makes the money.

There is proof that the way to make more money is to treat people with respect. The way to get this is to enforce a standard of behavior. If management doesn’t have the guts (because it’s a short-term cash inconvenience), then you’ll never get there.

DC: This is consistent with the evidence that Pfeffer discusses in The Human Equation.

DM: Yes, but I’m going to disagree with Jeff in this one respect. Knowing about and encouraging a behavior is not enough. The important lesson is that we do not get the benefit from that which we encourage; we get the benefit from that which we enforce.

DC: Do you have any closing advice?

DM: In my whole career I’ve learned from the principle, “They are us.” If you want to understand why someone is responding in a certain way, think of how you respond in similar situations.

How they respond is how we respond. If you want people to trust you, ask yourself how you respond to people. How do I want someone to deal with me? It’s nothing more sophisticated than the thousand-year-old Golden Rule: Treat others as you wish to be treated.