Being a Trusted Advisor – What Does it Really Mean?

by Hal Garyn

We go about doing our assurance work, and many of us take on advisory projects as well. And we like to view ourselves as competent business advisors on risk, control and governance, right? So, we got the “advisor” piece down. And there are plenty of materials, including Richard Chambers’ book, “Trusted Advisors,” available for reference on being a good “advisor” in an internal audit capacity.

But, what about the word “trusted?” What does being “trusted” really mean, and how do we get to be “trusted.”

Let’s start with an important truism ... just because you say you are something or want to be something doesn’t make you that. 

Let’s follow that up with another important truism ... we are not what we say we are, but we are a reflection of what we do.

So, I would suggest that being trusted comes from how we act, how we add value, how we handle confidentialities, how we have people’s backs, and how we collaborate to support people and the organization be successful. It’s not because we run around and say, “trust me.” (In fact, that is probably the worst approach because as soon as someone says “trust me” to me, my defensive guard goes up.)

OK, so you may ask, how do I get to be trusted? I contend it starts with leading with trust and, to the degree you are comfortable (and maybe even a little uncomfortable) being vulnerable. It is much easier to be trusted if you trust others first. If you trust them, and they truly believe that you do, then they will reciprocate with trust back. Yes, you might get burned a few times, placing trust where trust proved to be unwarranted. Fine, lesson learned. But that’s a small price you have to be if you want to be trusted. Lead with trust, lower your guard (a bit), and have your actions (you prove to be trustworthy) match your words (trust me). 

I know, you are thinking that adage of “trust, but verify.” That may be true when you have to stake an opinion of something, and that opinion requires verification (and validation). But, if you always trust, but verify, you won’t be trusted since you send the signal that you really didn’t trust. So, sometimes, as long as an audit opinion doesn’t depend on it, you have just trust. Full stop.

There are countless examples I could share but let me use this one as a case in point. 

You are assigned to be the internal audit representative on a major corporate change initiative. You don’t know any of the key players leading the project team. 

Do you just show up to the first meeting and wait for introductions as the “unknown quantity?” That could take some time to build up trust with these key folks.

Or, instead, do you schedule time to meet with some of them, individually, in advance, learn more about what they wish to accomplish, offer to help, leave with a follow-up or two, do those follow-ups, and add value immediately when the project meetings start. Which approach will gain you a “leg up” on the trust meter?

And, taking it a step further, meet with these key folks occasionally, individually, and discuss the project and offer both personal insights and observations in private and continue to offer to be of help. Using this example, you have made major steps on the path to being a true trusted advisor.

You must be trusted to be a trusted advisor. Otherwise, you are just an advisor, possibly with your advice not being accepted because you are not trusted.

Look, I get it, you have no reason to trust me. But from my experience, you can trust me (wink, wink).

Resources for your consideration:

Trusted Advisors,” by Richard Chambers:

Internal Audit Discussions: Are You Really a Trusted Advisor?

Internal Audit Discussions: Adding More Value and Becoming a Trusted Advisor

Navigating Culture and Organizational Politics

There Are Three Types of Internal Auditors: Which One Are You?," by Rainer Lenz

Certified Chief Audit Executive (cCAE) program: