Change Whisperer – Gail Severini, Symphini Change Management Inc.

10 tips for becoming a trusted advisor in change management

To be an effective change agent one needs influence in the organization. Influence is built on many dimensions of trust―trust that the change agent is legitimately qualified and experienced to execute the scope of work, trust that the change agent has the best interests of the organization at heart, and trust in the relationship with the sponsor.

This trust is earned, one relationship at a time, and that usually takes a lot of time. In transformational change, where time is of the essence, it is essential to expedite the development of trust.

In preparing for a panel, “Success Secrets of Trusted Advisors,” at the Association of Change Management Professionals on April 2, 2012, I spent some time meeting with four great co-panel members, reading thought leadership, speaking with a few colleagues, and reflecting. In the session, we had terrific engagement from a huge room of practitioners. The Open Space generated several topics and I wish I could have gotten around to all of them.

Many, many ideas and tips were shared. The following ten tips are the ones that really resonated with me—they reflect input from all of these sources. These are not meant to be prescriptive, rather many are aspirational for me.

Foundational mindsets

1. Trust yourself first and respect your own presence. Trust begins with trusting yourself, knowing both your capabilities and strengths as well as knowing when to go to colleagues and advisors for support. This kind of trust manifests itself in confidence; in turn, it inspires others to trust you.

This confidence is conveyed in our own “style” and each style can be compelling. Whether one is decisive, assertive, and bold; or thoughtful, deliberate, and soft-spoken, each has “presence.” The important thing here is to be authentic to yourself.

2. Serve, with discretion. Change agents serve the organization through the initiating sponsor. The mindset of service is a choice that drives specific behaviors, standards, and dynamics with the sponsor. And we all know that developing a great relationship with the “top dog” is motherhood, and yet difficult and complex.

Concurrently, keep in mind that sponsors have “face” within the organization and that the coaching we do should be done privately to help them shine in public.

One of the participants in the Open Space (my apologies—with the fast pace I did not get a name) re-framed this as “serve, don’t save,” which I really liked. We cannot take “ownership” for the sponsor’s work. This inadvertently usurps the commitment the organization needs from them.

Be consistently, and repeatedly, clear with the sponsors and others as to your role and priorities. Jim Bohn, Johnson Controls Inc., offered a phrase that really resonated with me—he suggested a candid conversation with the sponsor up front where we might offer “you can lean hard on me through this change.”

3. Invest in the mastery journey. “Masters don’t say, ‘I am a master.’ Masters say, ‘I am a student’.” (Daryl Conner, Conner Partners). This underpins the notion of the progression to “trusted advisor” status as a journey, a developmental continuum.  In Daryl’s paper, The Trusted Advisor, he notes five levels: Opinion Provider, Subject-Matter Expert, Valued Source, Influential Resource, and Trusted Advisor. Each level brings specific value and relates to degrees of empowerment, influence, and authority with the sponsor.

4. Sponsors are targets first. It may be tempting to think that leaders already “get it” (i.e., understand the change and have committed at the “get-go”). However, this is rarely true. In the sponsor cascade, every leader taking on this role needs an opportunity first to respond as an individual, in order to progress on his or her own adoption path. These leaders will experience similar concerns―and their questions and resistance must be surfaced and resolved before they can enroll their directs.

Furthermore, sponsors are often in the middle of the fray―they experience high levels of stress through the change and we are well advised to be sensitive to their wellbeing.

Acknowledging and supporting the sponsor’s own journey is an opportunity to earn their trust. It is a validation that we understand the process and how people might react.

5. Position your passion—practice “passionate neutrality.” Having invested so much of ourselves in learning and loving this discipline, it is easy to become an “evangelist” and to “oversell.” Find a place to express your passion in context.  (I think this tip comes from Mike Nestor, Bayer Group.)

“Passionate neutrality” is a term we use to describe balancing the polarity between investing ourselves and our experience in the analysis and recommendations with the explicit agreement to yield to, and fully support, the sponsor’s own decisions. It is critical in the trust equation for the sponsor to know that you will defer to his or her decision and support it 100%even if he or she chooses not to follow your recommendations.


6. Contract for conditional trust directly with the sponsors. The nature of working through change requires a lot of trust. No matter how much knowledge and experience we bring to the table, our effectiveness is bound in symbiotic performance with the change team and, in particular, with the sponsor. However, in many new relationships this will not yet have been earned. A “contract” serves as a proxy—permission to behave as if trust was in place, under specific conditions.

In “Addressing Sponsor-Agent Relationship Issues” on his blog, Daryl provides the Contract for Sponsor-Agent Working Relationships that we use. It tees up explicit roles and responsibilities. Negotiating it up front provides for a reference as we proceed. Remember, however, that all contracts are secured during the “uninformed optimism” phase so the party really may not know what they are agreeing to. Real contracting happens in the execution. The key is to review the contract in the moment and the test is whether it is accepted in real time.

It is critical to have direct access to all of the sponsors. Be sure to contract for this up front—make it a condition of your work. No agent can be successful going through a project manager or subordinate.


7. Be consistent and reliable. We all know people who show up on time and are prepared. While it may sound obvious, it is difficult to do this consistently in a fast-paced environment, yet it is foundational to building trust. And, it is actually neurologically proven. In “SCARF: a brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others,” David Rock identifies “five domains of human social experience: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Related, and Fairness.” He describes how each of these are drivers of social behavior and how “Certainty” works: “Meeting expectations generates an increase in dopamine levels in the brain, a reward response.”

8. Stretch but don’t overreach. Referring back to the concept of levels, where are you on the continuum with your sponsor(s)? Is the sponsor open to hearing your opinions on this specific change, on his or her performance as sponsor? This depends on the level you are capable of and the degree of empowerment you have earned. Be honest with yourself as to where you are on the continuum. If you overreach, you can lose credibility (Brian Gorman, Conner Partners).

9. Be direct about the risk of failure. Leaders are typically stellar performers in their operational roles―this often involves incremental or transitional change (modest, iterative improvements in systems, processes, etc.) and adoption can often be garnered through communication and training. Many such environments have a fairly “compliant” culture, so they have often been very successful with change—incremental change.

However, as change practitioners know, transformational change is radically different and is usually a shock to such systems. Leaders may underestimate the impact and the resistance that is impending. In this case, the change practitioner’s challenge is to re-frame the leader’s understanding of the risk.

One of the first things we do is an Executive Briefing on the nature of transformational change. More than 40 years of research and practice provides some compelling findings.  Understanding the patterns of winning and losing often helps leaders make choices that are more informed. The key lead-in to that conversation is a classic Dr. Phil: “So, in your organization’s recent history of implementing transformational change ‘How’s that workin’ for ya?’” (Many call any project that finishes a “success,” but the harsh reality is that many stall out or are displaced).

The tough part here is that inexperienced sponsors are often suspicious of our warnings. We cannot let that deter us from the most direct advice we are capable of. What we risk in credibility now we will certainly lose if we are right and too timid. Trust can only come through the provision of advice that we believe.

10. Tune in to the sponsors―bring resistance to the surface and provide positive feedback. Help sponsors surface their own resistance first (remember sponsors are targets before they can become sponsors). Help them to surface resistance in their teams. Probing this is part of our role and skillful navigation of these conversations will build trust. It demonstrates what we claim to know.

It should go without saying, but don’t assume that leaders are “all-knowing.” Leaders benefit from positive feedback and acknowledgement (privately) as much as anyone going through change. Furthermore, this reinforces that we are progressing together with the role and the work.

Kudos and huge thank you’s to my colleagues on the panel:

  • Liz Guthridge—Session Facilitator, Managing Coach and Consultant, Connect Consulting Group
  • Deborah Nystrom—Open Space facilitator, Owner/Partner, Reveln Consulting &
  • Jim Bohn, PhD., Global Director, CMO, Johnson Controls, Inc.
  • Michael Nestor, Vice President, Head of Change Management, Bayer Group

Thanks to Liz for the invitation and for all her insight and coordination. Thanks to Deb for the photos, including snapshots of the flipchart pages, here. Liz and Deb have also written blog posts about this subject and this event―they are here and here,
respectively. It is always a pleasure to spend time thinking with Liz, Deb, Jim, and Mike.

What do you think? Do you have more tips for becoming a trusted advisor?

6 Comments so far
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And, by the way, if you need to re-build trust here is a great post from “The Trust Ambassador” Bob Whipple:

Comment by Gail Severini ©


Didn’t read this post earlier this year, but a GREAT read to reflect on at the close of the calendar year, and to strive for in the engagements we undertake for the year ahead!

Best wishes for the holiday season


Comment by Jan

Thanks Jan! I am on a different panel for the global Association of Change Management Professionals ( conference in 2013 ““Perks and Perils: Optimizing internal and external change management” with four other great practitioners. I am looking forward to exploring this issue also.

Will you be there?

Comment by Gail Severini

[…] situation because you can’t make everyone happy.  I think this is why Gail Severini, aka the change whisperer, classifies empowerment as a mastery level skill. The leader’s change plan is too macro in […]

Pingback by Change Management: Tool of Suppression » My Website

[…] situation because you can’t make everyone happy.  I think this is why Gail Severini, aka the change whisperer, classifies empowerment as a mastery level skill. The leader’s change plan is too macro in […]

Pingback by Change Management: Tool of Suppression » Organizational Change Success

[…] situation because you can’t make everyone happy.  I think this is why Gail Severini, aka the change whisperer, classifies empowerment as a mastery level […]

Pingback by Change Management: Tool of Suppression » Organizational Change Success

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