How are your clients grading you on your authenticity?

blacksmith-700In a recurring theme in our current election cycle, both major candidates are suffering low poll scores with their levels of authenticity, trust and transparency.

In the early 1990’s, I remember there was a university professor and consultant that my company used quite a bit to put on visionary discussions of what was then was called client – server computing. The fellow was quite charming, an accomplished speaker, and delivered a 100% flawless presentation. The explanations were crisp, the jokes were funny, and he never missed a beat. Customers loved it!

That all sounded great, until I took a second customer to one of his sessions. It was then that I realized that the sessions were 100% scripted. Every word and every joke came out sounding exactly like the first time I had heard him. I suppose that if I had only had to hear him once, that wouldn’t have been a problem. But when I realized how completely rote it was, he dropped down several pegs in my estimation of him and how much he really understood the topic.  One theory: If he knew it that well, he would not have had to so meticulously script it and rehearse it. Second theory (and the one I think is true): He did know the material, but he valued the flawless performance of the “show” higher than his personal authenticity. In his defense, because these were one-time marketing events, the sales people attending with their clients were really the ones bearing the burden for the longer term relationship. Maybe he made the right choice as a showman, but very few clients would have stood for that in someone they wanted to consider an advisor.

I think that scientists and technologists often fall into the same trap. They feel that their role as an expert compels them to be correct at all times and for their “performance” to be “flawless”.

I’m thinking that the only way someone could accomplish both goals, would be to operate well within their margins of safety, to take no bold or outrageous positions, and therefore to deny their client the very best of their thinking. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the author of the concept of “flow” (Csikszentmihalyi 2013 – a great TED talk) describes the phenomenon as occurring when you are performing at the very limit of your capabilities. It seems to me that that it would be very difficult to be operating at the edge, if we were afraid of straying just over the edge, and making a mistake or an overstep.

Being married to an expectation of 100% correctness makes us less willing to risk our ideas and statements being scrutinized and found to be faulty. That in turn prevents us from being fully present, fully engaged, and fully authentic. Clients expect our full engagement. Unless we have a terrible track record for making really bad mistakes, they will forgive the occasional error, because they know they are getting our best efforts and every bit of our creativity.

Said another way, we have to let go of our desire for perfection to deliver our best game and be considered real and authentic.

Experienced consultants know that the best customer relationships are often forged in the heat of resolving a missed expectation. For sure, when a mistake happens, there is a short term loss of trust and credibility.   What rebuilds, and ultimately deepens, client trust, is how the consultant owns the situation, how they react to it, and how they resolve it.  (In most cases, there is plenty of blame to go around, and the client knows it.) The client learns that regardless of who made the mistake, the consultant will do whatever it takes and bring whatever resource is necessary to resolve the issue at hand.

Three tips to becoming more authentic:

Don’t confuse being smart or “right” with being trusted.

Give your clients your very best, maybe risking a mistake or overstep, but in the process earning their trust and loyalty.

Immediately own (or gracefully share) the inevitable mistakes and resolve them without excessive focus on whose fault it is.

Epilogue:

In the words of Peter Block, “In the end, it is our authenticity, the way we manage ourselves, and our connection to our clients that is our methodology, our marketing strategy, and the fruit of our labor.” (Block 2011 )

Great Reads and Views:

Block, P. (2011 ). Flawless consulting: a guide to getting your expertise used. San Francisco, Pfeiffer, an imprint of Wiley.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2013). Creativity, Innovation & Managing “Flow”. TED talk

About Jim Cooper

Jim Cooper is a leadership consultant and executive coach. He is the founder and principal of Ascendent Leadership LLC. Jim focuses his work on helping firms to develop their leadership skills, team effectiveness, and emotional intelligence and to support that development with coaching. He is especially committed to helping leaders deploy coaching skills broadly within their organizations. Jim believes that world class leaders: 1. Understand that true success “is not just about the numbers” 2. Lead from a mindset of serving their teams and enabling their personal growth and success 3. Help their teams see their individual roles as critically linked to the success of the organizations mission, and the success of others that they care about within the organization 4. Focus their teams on building the commitment to excellence and personal growth that make success a habit and truly sustainable over their lives and careers 5. Create a sustainable coaching culture by broadly deploying coaching skills through their leadership ranks.
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2 Responses to How are your clients grading you on your authenticity?

  1. Jim, this is brilliant! I mean it. Well written, great messages and very clearly stated. As a Certified Master Personal Branding Strategist, I can say emphatically that leadership today IS about being authentic. Who wants to listen to or work with someone who is FAKE?! UGH.
    VALERIE SOKOLOSKY

  2. You are so right!
    Jim, big point!
    After 20 years I am still learning from you :-).

    Kind regards from germany
    Gujo

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