(by Stephen Welch)

I’ve been on holiday in a remote corner of Western Canada. It was great to get away, but like many people in I find it hard to sometimes disconnect completely. On my way back, I couldn’t help wondering….

While I was away I flew on a lot of airplanes all led by different types of people. Suddenly it hit me: the different types of pilots I encountered could be linked to business and how to solve business challenges as strategic advisers. I discovered four different roles, which I have archetyped into some of my favourite songs.

“The London radar”

My first pilot flew the Airbus 380 that jetted us across the Atlantic. There was a very clear and rigorous process, some of it visible and some not. We saw, of course, the safety briefing, and the seat belt rules. But behind the scenes there were a whole lot of other processes and checklists – invisible to us passengers. Our pilot was an expert and she followed the processes to the letter: such as the allocated great circle lanes in the sky, or the navigation rules on final approach. These are essential advisory skills that remain hidden to the customer.

It’s akin to hiring an expert to solve a business problem. In this case, the strategic adviser solves the problem through expertise and process. In fact we didn’t even meet the pilot but we trusted the (often invisible) process, methodology, and the reputation of the airline to get us from A to B in a safe and predictable manner.

“On the edge of seventeen”

I’m sure glad I didn’t meet my next pilot until after we landed. It was a great flight but sometimes credibility is in the eye of the beholder. When the pilot came out at the end of the flight to greet us and say goodbye, my first thought was that: he looked ‘on the edge of 17’ and too young to fly a plane. Probably it is unconscious bias, but sometimes the challenge of advisers is one of visual credibility. Do you have enough ‘grey hairs’ or ‘miles on the clock’ to be a credible interlocutor?

The real question, though, is not about grey-hair-ness or crow’s feet. It is about how you establish your credibility. I know organizations who have a habit of hiring external consultants to tell senior leaders unpalatable truths because in-house colleagues were not taken as seriously. In psychology this is called ‘face validity’. How do you make the right impression so your advice is taken seriously?

“Hey dude, don’t let me down”

That sub-headline comes with apologies to two of the world’s song-writing heroes, but if you had met my next pilot, you would understand. Everything was ‘cool, man’. Confident, chilled, calm, casual. It is hard to be formal when you are flying a seaplane from a dock: “hi there: chuck your luggage in the back and jump aboard … we’ve got a tail wind so plenty of time, do you want to see the beach? … oh look, a whale … let’s dive down and watch it … we’re gonna drop down to 500ft so we can see stuff and stay below the fog … hey check it out … some sea lions ….”

The dude abides

Sometimes advisers need to show their humanity. Was it the Airbus experience? No. But there is time and a place for process. And a time and a place for humanity. He abided by the safety standards: and also showed flexibility and humanity and understanding of what the customer wanted in that situation. Airbus would not have countenanced that behaviour, but it made sense given the context. As a strategic adviser, how much do you think about context: what works in one situation doesn’t always work in another.

“Drop the pilot”

I’m right on target, my aim is straight. I then spent a couple of days in a place called Prince Rupert. There we saw expert pilots in action. Harbour pilots, that is. Their job: take control and navigate to a successful docking. They need to be right on target for the dock and have a true aim. They are local experts who understand the specific situation: the Captain of a large ship hands the controls over to them for the final, tricky, manoeuvre.

In this situation their credibility is built on professional credentials and specific know-how. Sometimes as an adviser your job is to parade your expertise. The Prince Rupert pilots have degrees and certificates and professional credentials. Everyone accepts those. As an adviser, sometimes you can rely on credentials. If you are a lawyer this is often your playground. But for other advisers: parading your expertise can work in specific situations but there other times to wear it lightly. How do you balance professional expertise and personal credibility.

“Where the streets have no name”

Ultimately, the challenge is about knowing what to do when there are ‘no named streets’. My holiday pilots showed some different approaches. Which appeals to you most?

If you’d like to explore other archetypes at work and how understanding them can help you and your team, get in touch. Also, do sign up for our regular updates via the sign up on the right.