Such a cycle is not limited to just dentists and doctors. The same could be said for computer care, legal needs, home repair cases, auto repair or maintenance requirements, and so on. The question then is, if so many people are willing to listen to doctors, lawyers, IT geeks, car and other repair specialists when diagnosing problems, why won’t our business partners or stakeholders in L&D (Learning & Development) listen to us? If they wouldn’t impose a solution to their dentist, why is it okay to prescribe solutions to us?
The answer is simple—L&D practitioners are viewed as Order Takers.
But we are so much more. It is time for L&D to evolve from being Order Takers to being Trusted Advisors.
Order Taker vs Trusted Advisor
Order Takers and Trusted Advisors are on opposing ends of a spectrum of intervention.
If you have ever heard any of the following, chances are you are being treated as an Order Taker:
- Give us a 30-minute web training on X.
- Can you create a 1-day training on X?
- We need a job aid to fix X . . . yesterday!
- Just make a training so we can change X.
- That’s not what we need. We need X.
So, what is an Order Taker? An Order Taker is someone who takes an order (a request) without providing, or being given the opportunity to provide, consultative feedback or customer advocacy. An Order Taker is not given the opportunity to fully understand what problem the order is attempting to solve. An Order Taker does not practice, or is not given the opportunity to practice due diligence and, instead, is expected to execute on what was given.
On the other end of the spectrum is the Trusted Advisor. A Trusted Advisor is someone that has demonstrated they are trustworthy and credible in the field of Learning, and has the confidence of their client. They are recognized as a strategic learning and development advisor and partner. They have a seat at the proverbial table—or they have built their own table.
Being recognized and treated as a Trusted Advisor should be the ultimate goal for L&D practitioners. But why? And more to the point, how? If up until now we have been presumed to only be Order Takers.
Value of Being a Trusted Advisor
Back to that dentist you consulted. What happens when you don’t follow the prescribed remedy from your dentist? Chances are you’ll be in pain until finally you can’t stand it anymore; only then will you follow the dentist’s prescribed solution.
Or with your car technician—sure, you can skip the recommended oil or sparkplug change. That is, until your engine stops running and you are back pleading for immediate help so you can get to work.
The same is true for L&D. Our business partners can limit us: By not giving us the time or opportunity to analyze the proposed problem. By ignoring our recommendations when we have been given the chance to make one. And once the solution they ordered failed, they will return for a new solution—spending more time, more money, and feeling the pain a bit longer from their lingering “toothache.”
When L&D is treated as a Trusted Advisor, however, everyone in the organization can benefit. When trust exists, communication is better. Faster decision-making occurs. Less micromanaging happens. All that can equate to saving time, money, and resources.
Not listening to the expert (i.e., technician, mechanic, doctor, L&D expert) increases the risk of having to solve the problem twice, with all the aggravation and impatience (and how many lost business opportunities?) that entails. Said another way, the value of being a Trusted Advisor is that we will have an opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of the problem, analyze the situation, and prescribe the right solution. While it seems like waiting a long time “up front,” all that the L&D practitioner does will, in proven fact, save the organization both time and money. And an extra benefit? We will have stronger relationships with our business partners.
Characteristics of Trusted Advisors
When we visit the doctor, dentist, or technician, the first thing they do is listen to us explain the symptoms.
Next, they ask probing questions to help us provide more insight into the problem which also requires more listening.
And once they feel they have enough information, they start making recommendations from those they already have in their toolkit.
This is the same process that we follow as Trusted Advisors.
- 60% listening to understand the problem you are experiencing
- 30% asking questions to guarantee we have enough information and context
- 10% recommending solutions
Being a Trusted Advisor requires many skills: active listening and questioning, empathy and trust-building, problem-solving, and knowing the metrics of success.
Sometimes being a Trusted Advisor requires us to suspend the strong pull to immediately solve a problem when a problem is presented. The person or team in front of us is under pressure and stress can be contagious! But here is the rub: If we don’t step back and resist their stress, we don’t have a chance to understand the real problem. We also miss opportunities to build a trusting relationship at the same time. By simply taking the order and executing, we compromise whatever success we might have otherwise achieved in the end—even if we have the best of intentions.
Trusted Advisors are critical thinkers. For example, questions that a trusted advisor will ask to further understand the order include: Why this? Why now? The answers we get help everyone recognize that maybe this ask, this “order” they thought would resolve things, is not the right one to be executing. Trusted Advisors need to understand and master the art of skillfully pushing back and saying No. We need to be able to identify and craft a message that says, “Here are the reasons why you don’t want us to execute this order.”
Advocating against a deliverable is a form of saying No—and that is expressing a courageous point of view! Sometimes “No” is the best response. But sometimes another way of saying that is, “Well, here’s why you don’t want us to say yes” or “Here’s where I’m concerned about saying yes.” Doing so allows us to engage in a way that shows we are willing to stand with them as a thinking partner, as a peer, as a collaborator—and not as somebody whose job is to say “Yes” and fill the order they gave us.
For most people in our field, being an Order Taker is not satisfying or gratifying. Ultimately, it is also not in the best interest of the client.
Being a Trusted Advisor requires strong emotional intelligence or EQ, self-awareness, self-management, and effective interpersonal skills. Having honest discussions, having a point of view, being a thinking partner all require us to be bold, courageous, and to take risks. And we behave in this way to provide the best quality of service for our business partners and our learners.
3 Trusted Advisor Strategies
1. Separate Yourself from the Order
If we are the immediate entry/reception point for the orders, it can be very challenging to change the mindset and behaviors of our business partners to evolve past seeing us as Order Takers.
If, however, you have put an “intake system” in place, it creates an opportunity for separation between the order entry and the Trusted Advisor conducting an analysis to understand the order in greater detail.
In other words, rather than being the first level point-of-contact for orders, create an intermediate level, such as an online form to fill out, or a generic email address that captures the basic order. This will give you an opportunity to be the first human touchpoint as a Trusted Advisor.
2. Build a Brand
Most people outside of L&D do not know our capabilities or our skillsets. Therefore we need to put ourselves in our clients’ shoes. We need to make sure our brand, professional reputation, past successes, and relationships all align to communicate our value as Trusted Advisors.
Keep in mind our business partners may also themselves be Order Takers, executing an order given to them. By asking them the right questions and uncovering the why of that order, it may empower them to turn around and ask the right questions of those who gave them the order. That in turn can help you all move into the right solutions sooner and more effectively.
Being a Trusted Advisor means you recognize this is a partnership and should be mutually beneficial.
3. Build a Practitioner’s Toolkit
As a consultant or practitioner, our job is to have a toolkit filled with different problem-identifying and problem-solving tools. We leverage these tools to fully identify the problem our client is experiencing and to provide the best resolutions to it. That means we need to know 1) that we have all the best state-of-art tools available and 2) that we know when each tool is appropriate.
Examples of tools that should be included in your toolkit are:
- Emotional Intelligence
- Learning methodologies, frameworks, theories
- Human Centric Design
- Qualitative research
- Performance consulting
- Learning science (i.e.: Ebbinghaus, Piaget)
- Learning technology tools
- Use cases
Changing the behaviors or beliefs of our clients that L&D are not Order Takers is not easy. It does not happen overnight. It takes time. It requires understanding the maturity level of your organization and all your business partners, and to establish whether or not they have the capacity to view L&D as Trusted Advisors.
If we want to be treated like Trusted Advisors, we need to start acting like Trusted Advisors. Doing so provides us with the ability to take a step back when we receive the order and skillfully explore whether the order is the necessary (the best) prescription to solve the problem. Acting like a Trusted Advisor enables us to build mutually beneficial relationships and leads our clients to perceiving us as their partners (rather than their vendors).
If you are a Trusted Advisor rather than an Order Taker, you are able to have an open, dialogic engagement with your business partners or stakeholders to uncover additional aspects that build a full context. It allows you to identify the root cause of their issue, and to ensure the order (or something else you identify) is the right solution.
When you execute on their original order without truly understanding what the business problem is, or without clear understanding of the behavior that they wish to change—without understanding the why behind the order, or how it will be evaluated for success—you are not being an effective consultative business partner.