Servant Leadership: From Consultant to Consigliere

By  Jonathan Scott  Sr. Program Manager projekt202

By Jonathan Scott
Sr. Program Manager

Being a consultant is tough, much tougher by comparison to being a contractor. A contractor is a hired gun brought in to do what he is told. A consultant is brought in to lead rather than to follow. With that said, being able to take that to the next level -- and move beyond consulting into becoming a trusted advisor -- is much more difficult. Consultants are hired for their skillsets, and asked to come into the organization and provide expertise in a specific area.

The goal of every consultant should be to move beyond the traditional consultant/client relationship, and to become a trusted advisor, a consigliere to the client.

A consultant is hired to come in and execute on a specific project, whereas a trusted advisor is able to leverage his or her expertise to help the client long-term on project after project. A consigliere is someone who has reached that status as a trusted advisor. The term is based on the Latin word consiliarius, meaning “councilor” or “advisor.” It’s someone who is able to put personal feelings aside and offer dispassionate advice based on what’s best for the organization. 

In movies and novels, the consigliere is portrayed as someone devoid of ambition and capable of dispensing that impartial advice. A good consigliere is equal parts sounding board and mastermind, and so, too, is a trusted advisor. When a consultant is able to put his client’s best interests first, and he is able to gain the trust necessary to become a reliable advisor, he is granted access to the type of long-term, strategic roadmapping that consultants can only dream about.

A trusted advisor is given access to key decision-makers and allowed to participate in mapping out long-term strategy for the client-stakeholder’s organization. Much has been written regarding servant leadership downstream to those you manage. It is my belief that these same concepts work just as effectively when consultants apply them upstream to those they consult for.

There are several foundational concepts of servant leadership, as outlined by Robert K. Greenleaf. However, for the purpose of helping consultants become trusted advisors, there are three core aspects of servant leadership I would like to focus on, while explaining how they help with becoming a trusted advisor.

Servant leadership is a philosophy and set of practices that enriches the lives of individuals, builds better organizations, and ultimately creates a more just and caring world.
— Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership


How servant leadership sees it:

Authenticity is one of the key components of servant leadership. Honesty. Integrity. Character. Authenticity means being real. It means your clients can count on you to give it to them straight and not pull any punches. This is a tough task for a lot of consultants and obviously runs contrary to the stereotype of the consultant as a glad-hander and back-slapper. The authentic servant-leader is a straight shooter. He not only lets his team members know where they stand, but his client as well. He honestly conveys progress, status, and team capabilities.

How a trusted partner leverages it:

Your client is relying on honest information. Bad news doesn’t age well. Many consultants will delay bad news, hoping they can get through the project before the news surfaces. This short-sightedness is a barrier to gaining a client’s trust. A servant-leader will give honest feedback and information, and the client appreciates this transparency, even when the news is bad.

In the Mario Puzo classic The Godfather, Tom Hagen serves as consigliere to Vito Corleone and is the ultimate “outside consultant.” As the trusted advisor, Tom is expected to deliver honest advice to the family, no matter how harsh. This includes pushing back against Don Vito when necessary. Most of all, Tom is expected to be loyal to the family. We see this when another boss approaches Don Vito with an offer. Don Vito rejects the offer, but, despite that, Tom argues passionately in favor of the deal.

projekt202 perspective on authenticity:

Being a trusted advisor doesn’t mean that your client will always take your advice, but that’s OK. More than once in my time at projekt202, I have seen our consultants strongly represent their positions, even when it means going against the prevailing opinion among the client stakeholders. It takes a lot of guts to argue an opinion you know your client will disagree with, but that’s what it means to be authentic. Done long-term, and with enough transparency, I have witnessed projekt202 clients build trust in us and learn to value our “Yes” more when they know we are also willing to say “No.”


How servant leadership sees it:

Clarity is all about open communication and transparency. Clear communication can head off a lot of problems before they even emerge. Moreover, clients are relying on that clear communication from their consultants to be able to plan and make decisions. The “clear” servant-leader knows it’s important to build relationships so as to get to know the audience. They are able to tailor communication to the audience.

They also leverage all possible communication channels while still prioritizing face-to-face whenever possible. The “clear” servant-leader understands that frequency counts and takes every opportunity to communicate.

It’s also important to understand that clarity in communication is a two-way street. It means listening as much as speaking, understanding your client’s needs, and clearly communicating advice. Clear communication is the key to project success.

How a trusted partner leverages it:

More than ever, communication today happens at the speed of light. Often, there is no time to rephrase or restate things. A trusted partner gets it right the first time.

Establishing a pattern of clear, timely communication builds trust. This trust means the client is more and more likely to come back to you for your thoughts. This gives you an opportunity to help shape policy and strategy. A trusted partner takes that clear communication and uses it to keep things tight, so as to allow for quicker decision-making for the client. To be able to reach that trusted advisor level, consultants need to be able to build trust through being able to clearly receive communication as well as give it. 

Thinking back to Tom Hagen in The Godfather, he is responsible for dispensing advice to the family. Their environment doesn’t allow for ambiguity. Tom speaks softly. He is never the loudest person in the room, yet Tom is heard because his advice is respected and communication is always clear and concise. Tom keeps a cool head and never fails to get his point across. Tom also establishes very clearly through his actions to all involved where his loyalty lies.

projekt202 perspective on clarity:

Our clients value our expertise as consultants. It’s why they bring us in. As someone with valued expertise, our client want our advice. projekt202 stresses the importance of timely, open, clear communication in every direction. From team-leads downstream to the team, upstream to the client, and everything in-between, establishing ourselves as consultants who are clear and open, and able to provide crisp, timely, understandable communication, has proven to be a huge step toward building trust and often sets us on our way to being trusted advisors.


How servant leadership sees it:

The final key to being a servant-leader that I would like to focus on is stewardship. Stewardship is the management of something which has been entrusted to one’s care. The steward servant-leader knows that being a good steward of the power and responsibility that has been granted is vital. Being a good steward means making decisions that are the best for the organization, then being accountable for those decisions.

As a consultant servant-leader, we need to ensure that our teams have embraced that stewardship as well. Development and design decisions should be made with the long-term benefit of the organization in mind. Teams should know that their leadership is not only a good steward of their client’s trust, but with their own as well.

How a trusted partner leverages it:

This is where trusted advisors really shine and differentiate themselves from consultants. The reputation of the traditional consultant is one of someone who is not in it for the long haul, someone who makes decisions that are beneficial short-term (i.e., while the consultant is engaged), but lack the long-term benefit to the client. Trusted advisors are able to show their clients how seriously they take the responsibility that has been placed in them and demonstrate that their recommendations are made impartially, with the organization’s best interests in mind. This can often come in the form of making recommendations that don’t benefit the consultant’s company at all. A trusted advisor finds ways to make clear to the client that the decisions, recommendations and advice are motivated by a sense of stewardship.  

Once clients realize that you have their best interests at heart, they will come to you more and more often. Clients will begin to loop you into conversations unrelated to your engagement, and will begin to ask your advice on areas of concern in other areas or divisions of their organizations. Given enough time, the client will begin to view you as an organization asset and will begin giving you a peek behind the organizational curtain. 

Going back to our example of consigliere Tom Hagen, Hagen is an outsider. Hagen will never be granted formal membership in the organization. Despite his continued status as an outsider, Hagen shows time and time again to be a dependable, impartial voice who cares deeply about the future of the organization, as well as the organization’s members. As the longtime trusted advisor of Don Vito, Tom is trusted with a high level of responsibility that grows as time goes on, including, at one point, being put in charge of the family of Don Vito’s son Michael. Eventually, toward the end of the series, Hagen is even made Don, leading as head of the family for a short time, in control of the entire organization -- pretty impressive for an outside consultant.

projekt202 perspective on stewardship:

As a consultant, there is a negative stereotype that needs to be overcome: that consultants are only interested in offering advice and recommendations that benefit themselves. projekt202 has found that, through embracing the servant leadership principle of stewardship, consultants can show their true motivation to be the same as their clients: the betterment of the organization. Stressing this fundamental has enabled projekt202 to put our consultants well on their way to being viewed as trusted advisors.

Final Thoughts

Embracing servant leadership principles can help a consultant become viewed by clients as a trusted advisor. The consulting world is tough. It requires a high level of expertise in your field.

Moving beyond your role as a consultant is even more difficult. Your clients know you are an expert in your field, but what they don’t know is where you and your advice are coming from, in terms of motivation. Through being authentic, providing clear communication, and being a good steward, consultants can begin building trust equity with their clients.

To become a trusted advisor, your client has to know you are authentic and honest. To be a trusted advisor, your clients have to be able to rely on you to be clear in your communication and clear in your understanding of their goals. Finally, trusted advisors have to show themselves to be good stewards of their clients’ trust, money and future.

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