“Our distrust is very expensive.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

The sponsor-agent relationship is so important that just about everything we can hope to accomplish hinges on it. Without that relationship, our knowledge and skills are underutilized, poorly allocated, or worse, not called on at all.

It’s true that we work with and support the targets of change initiatives. We also work with advocates who want change but don’t have the ability to make it happen on their own, as well as with other internal or external agents. While our relationships with people in these roles are necessary and valuable, our key function is to serve the sponsor.

I recently wrote about the relationship challenges that change agents can experience with sponsors. In one post, I drew a distinction between being seen by sponsors as a partner, versus merely a vendor. Here, I want to say more about partnerships. Specifically, I want to talk about the upper end of the partnership scale—the trusted advisor.

As practitioners, we can relate to and partner with a sponsor at many different levels. There are five that I feel represent the least to the most influential. Each level adds to and builds on the level beneath it.

  • At the very bottom of the partnership scale are the opinion providerschange agents who offer a view based on their knowledge and experience, but without being given credence from the sponsor. The practitioner means well, but doesn’t have much influence, so his or her opinions aren’t very valuable to the sponsor.
  • At level two are the subject matter experts (SMEs), who provide “technical” perspectives and recommendations related to change facilitation. As long as SMEs focus primarily on technical issues (processes/procedures to follow, tools to use, techniques to apply, etc.), their opinions typically carry some weight with sponsors. SMEs offering guidance outside their narrow domain of proficiency, however, usually find a cool reception. 
  • Next come the valued sourcespractitioners with more reputation and prestige than SMEs. They are respected for their change expertise to the point that they can exercise a great deal of impact with sponsors. Inside their sweet spot, they are routinely deferred to by even experienced sponsors. Their influence is more persuasive than that of a person just offering an opinion, or someone serving as a technical SME. However, if their perspectives or recommendations are too far from the ordinary, sponsors often want additional confirmation from other sources before their ideas are acted on.
  • Above valued sources are influential resources. These practitioners raise the persuasive bar yet again by fostering such respect and admiration for their opinions that their counsel is highly sought after. Their views are considered the standard by which others are measured. It is common for them to be referred to as masters of their craft, and as such, their advice is often acted on by sponsors without much deliberation or debate. Here, the power to persuade reaches heightened proportions. Because of this degree of credibility, sponsors seek out and highly value their evaluations and conclusions when there is significant risk to a change endeavor and the price for a misstep is costly.
  • At the top of the partnership scale are trusted advisors,  who reach the pinnacle of credibility and reliability in their sponsor relationships. They incorporate all the respect and confidence granted to an influential resource, and they are also considered an integral part of the sponsor’s ongoing decision-making process. Both their proficiency in change facilitation and the practitioners themselves are viewed as essential to the sponsor’s future success. As such, the sponsor typically maintains an ongoing dialogue with the practitioner (frequency varies widely) rather than waiting until a change-related problem arises to call in the expert. In addition, this kind of access is often associated with a personal chemistry and comfort that adds a coaching/mentoring aspect to the relationship.

Every level provides value, if applied appropriately, with the exception of opinion provider, which falls below the threshold of influence necessary to offer meaningful advantages to a sponsor. At each new level, the practitioner’s ability to be persuasive with a sponsor increases significantly, with the trusted advisor relationship representing the highest level.

In this series, I am focusing on what’s entailed in being a trusted advisor to the sponsor, but this type of relationship is also appropriate with select change agents, and maybe even with a few targets and advocates. Trusted advisor relationships are powerful ways of connecting with clients, but they are also resource-consuming (for us and those we work with). It is impossible to have this kind of association with everyone, so we must be choosy about who we extend ourselves to. For this reason, most trusted advisor relationships are limited to sponsors and several key agents.

Because this kind of relationship is rare, it’s important to exchange as much as possible with each other about our experiences as trusted advisors. I invite you to share what you have learned here so we can further our individual development and advance our craft in general. I am sure the collective wisdom of this blog community can help all of us raise our game to new heights. 

Next: Are You a Trusted Advisor?