Strategic advisers: five perspectives.

In our Corporate Snakes and Career Ladders events, one of our goals is to combine fun with practical tools to help participants reflect on their personal advisory style and think what it means for their own behaviour, and how they work with others.

One of the most popular tools we have helps people think about what type of adviser they are. In fact, being a ‘strategic adviser’ comes in five different flavours.

So what are the five? And which one are you?

Imagine you are walking into an expensive restaurant for a date with the one you love. You will encounter several different people — all experts in their own field, and all ready to give you advice on how to have the best possible experience. But they will all do it in different ways.

Nvospersfnls_Cards1 copyIn fact, maybe your first adviser is one you encounter before you get to the restaurant. You meet a previous customer (or read an internet review): “Aah, you’re going to ‘Augustus’ for dinner! Wow! You must totally have the ‘Barcelona Chop’. It’s their speciality. Divine. And for dessert? There is only one choice. Of course you need to order the ‘Caramel Salée With Meringue’. It’s to die for.” This adviser’s heart is in the right place, and they generally believe that those choices are the best for you. But they have jumped to solution and ‘yelped’ it out before even having a detailed discussion. This is a great approach in a crisis: ‘just tell me what to do’. Yelping out the solution immediately they can save time and make your life easier. But the challenge for this type of adviser — the yelper — is that jumping straight to solution or action sometimes works but is not always the best approach.

Nvospersfnls-02As you enter the restaurant, you will meet your next adviser: the maître d’. Let’s call her Martha. Her main job is to ensure you have a good experience, and to marshal a team of specialists to meet your specific needs. Martha is supportive, helpful and attentive. She knows her stuff but doesn’t parade her knowledge. At times, she will bring in experts to enhance your experience; at other times she will develop a relationship with you to understand your needs in more detail. If you are a looking for a quick transaction, go to a different restaurant. Martha will ensure you feel better after leaving; and will place your needs above her own. As you share a taxi home with your loved one, you probably won’t even remember her name: but she’s the one who made it all happen.

Nvospersfnls-05After Martha shows you to your table, you’ll meet your waiter, William. This is the third adviser archetype. His job is transactional. His job is to give you a menu of options and then write down what you say. He’ll deliver whatever you ask. Maybe there will be a little conversation about options, but essentially the waiter’s job is to deliver. Sometimes as an adviser, that is what you need to do. A senior leader needs something and you need to deliver. There is a time and a place for this approach. But doing it too often is career-limiting.

Nvospersfnls-08As you choose your meal, you’ll maybe want some wine. Enter Salma, your sommelier. As your adviser, her job is to have a conversation to understand your needs, the context (the meal you have already chosen; your budget; your tastes) and then make a recommendation. At the beginning of your conversation, she doesn’t know your needs, your context, and there is no clear solution from her list of hundreds of options. If it was a crisis and you needed immediate wine, then the yelper is the adviser for you. But the sommelier will explore the issues, make recommendations and guide you towards a good outcome.

Nvospersfnls-07Your final archetype is Christiane, the chef. She’s the super expert — and has the Michelin stars, certificates and qualifications to prove it. In her hands, the mundane becomes dynamic. Her technical expertise is second to none and if you need an expert to solve your problems she’s the one for you. Like some chefs, she can be hard to handle. Unlike the maître d’, she doesn’t need interpersonal skills. In fact, you probably won’t even meet her. But her solution will be the thing that you rave about later. As an adviser, she’s the expert and the one that will go away and build a solution to meet your needs.

This typology may be a bit of fun, but it comes in useful when diagnosing business partnering relationships. One of the big challenges in consulting or business partner relationships is that the ‘buyer’ and the ‘seller’ can sometimes have different ideas of why the partnership exists.

Successful business partners will make sure there is an alignment between three components of the relationship:

  1. What does the buyer want? Sometimes, actually, it is a waiter problem, pure and simple. Just do it. Going in with a sommelier approach is just going to annoy people.
  2. What is the job? This might be a job description, an RFP or just an email request from one of your colleagues. You need to identify what type of response is needed.
  3. Finally, as a person, where do you get your energy? Plenty of people ask me, “how do I become a maître d’?” but actually when I quiz them in detail it is apparent they are most happy being a chef.

The trick to successful business partner relationships is ensuring an alignment between what the customer wants, the job requirement and where you get your energy.

And this applies not just to those in marketing or PR but also to professionals in other fields such as HR, Legal, IT etc. In fact, we regularly sit down with the other functional leaders in my business where we explore these issues and think about what that means. (Perhaps the same is true in your organization – how often do you sit down with your peers from other functions and think about what your organization really needs from its functional experts?)

If you would like to hear more about this methodology and how to move from one archetype to another, come to one of our workshops or get in touch directly.

Perfectly you

Last Sunday, in the Qantas business class lounge in Singapore, I spotted the cover of Time Magazine. It read “Perfectly Serena” and had a picture of the most famous working mum of the moment. Unsurprisingly, because I think of you often, my mind turned to my closest strategic advisers. You know who you are, you have helped me harness my professional reputation while choosing what was best for Globocorp: paths that are sometimes — but not always — mutually exclusive.


Serena’s path, since her return from maternity leave, has been both bumpy and stellar. On the court, she’s had some losses and has yet to return to her flawless self. But off the court, you cannot find a better example of owning her story and making an asset of her flaws. Her patchiness makes her authentic, her ups and downs anointed her as the comeback queen, the poster girl for working mums and second chances. 

As I kept reflecting on her story, it made me think about yours. There is one thing that distinguishes the good advisers from the absolutely indispensable ones: authenticity. There is a certain wisdom and gravitas that come with owning your weaknesses and sharing how you overcome them, however imperfectly, whatever your gender or circumstances. 

Serena Williams, in every game and every business move, is selling a 21st century commodity that is so hard to grasp and yet impossible to resist: human reality. Don’t misread me, we still have to wear our work personas. But they are no longer wearing the 1980s power suits or playing unbreakable alpha heroes. It is much more complex than that. Today, we must ace this balancing act: be professional, deliver, be human, be authentic, fit in and stand out. This is the paradox I face as I travel the world and guide my company’s corporate affairs. 

So let me finish with a challenge to you. Be like Serena and bring some personality to the court or your team, leave the personal drama at the door. Inspire me with your humanity but try not to drop any balls while you’re at it. How? I have no immediate answers. However, I think I know where the next Corporate Snakes and Career Ladders scenario might be. If you want to play or, even better, help me develop it, let’s connect on twitter @CarmenSpinoza11.

What happens when the lemonade turns to brine?

All of us who have been to business school know the classic case of the lemonade stand. But what happens when your lemonade sours – or becomes brine?

My friend Josie Bartlet had a dilemma recently and her challenge raised some critical issues about being a strategic adviser. It’s a dilemma we all sometimes face as strategic advisers. Stick or twist? Imagine this….

Put yourself in Josie’s shoes….

Imagine you are a senior adviser to your leader. You have clear divisional responsibilities. Your team supports you to deliver on a clear agenda. You think you know what is right.

Last week, you attended an away day at your boss’s country house. She gets paid the big bucks and so recently bought a Tudor villa in South East England. It’s full of draughts but that’s by-the-by. Your company faces a serious strategic dilemma for which there are no good answers.

Activist investors – such as ‘Go Mergers’ Capital – want a new plan, but getting top team alignment around the plan is proving difficult. Hence the top team retreat.

After a long, fraught, day, you finally come to an agreement on the future direction of your organization. Despite lots of opposition. Some leaders were happy with your strategic alliances, others want a more stand-alone strategy. But finally, the team agreed on an compromise approach. Everyone has nodded their heads in acquiescence. Or did they?

Your (Josie’s) challenge is this:

You are part of a management team and a key adviser to the leader, but you disagree fundamentally with the outcome of the team away day.

What would Josie do? What would you do? Which of these three is the ‘right’ answer?

Option A

Although you don’t agree, you have a collective responsibility as a member of the top team. You are not convinced it is the best outcome – but for the same of commercial interest and corporate harmony – you decide to toe the line. When it comes to strategic alliances with overseas partners, you think you could get a better agreement but decide to play for time. Besides your end of year bonus will be good.

Option B

The money may be good but you decide that your reputation would be best served by leaving. You have lots of allies in the market – headhunters have tipped you for a more senior role – so now is the time to go. You’ve been loyal for long enough but this is the final straw – when the CEO makes a decision you fundamentally disagree with you know that you can’t swallow your pride any longer. It is time to make a play for a new job and resign with panache.

Option C

The money is still good. But this time you feel uncomfortable taking it now that the new strategic direction has been announced. You’ve made your career on working to the IABC Global Standard – Ethics, Consistency… etc – and now the collective decision requires you to go against everything you stand for. You want to please the CEO (who is powerful but thin-skinned), but on the other hand that means being false to yourself.

You have 10 minutes to decide. Your time starts now….

Although the dilemma is not often put in such stark terms, we are often faced with the challenge of what to do when we don’t like a corporate decision. Or are forced to argue on behalf of something we don’t agree with.

Lemons - Creative Commons image with thanks to Liz West
Lemons – (CC BY) – Liz West

As a strategic adviser, the challenge is to which battles we want to fight.

  • Which battles are worth winning?
  • When can we win?
  • When can we tactically lose?

And when do we want to make a stand for what we believe in, and metaphorically die in a ditch if necessary.

To return to Josie. As it happens she is one of my friends, so I can tell you that she would never choose the politically expedient option B. Option B is a good way of getting a short-term win and a long-term loss.

Option A is acceptable – she has a strong corporate responsibility and loyalty. We’ve probably all made a choice like this in our career.

I know I have.

But the really brave choice is, in my opinion, C.

The bravery, though, is not in choosing option C, but in avoiding the temptation of dressing it up as option B. In some walks of life there are a lot of “B” players who choose the “B” option but pretend it is choice C. This happens so often that when there is really a “C” resignation, some people are often cynical and think it is really a “B”. This is more common in some sectors than others.

What would you choose? Feel free to comment below.