Skip to Content

​Trying to Define Trusted Advisor

Blogs Mike Jacka, CIA, CPA, CPCU, CLU Apr 16, 2019

In my last blog post, I talked about how the best way for each of us to improve our work, our profession, and our lives was to have individuals we can count on to provide candid, honest feedback — people willing to tell us the truth about what we are doing wrong (and right).

I ended by saying "We all need trusted advisors."

And, as I typed that last sentence, I thought I heard Inigo Montoya whispering in my ear, "You keep using that phrase. I do not think it means what you think it means." (Don't know the reference? Look it up and watch the movie; one of the best ever made.)

If you haven't heard the phrase "trusted advisor" used in conjunction with internal audit, then the rock you are hiding under is hiding under another rock which is, itself, hiding under an avalanche of boulders. It is phrase so ubiquitous in our profession that spouses, significant others, children, parents, grandparents, friends, relations, enemies, frenemies, BFFs, UFOs, the CEO, the CFO, the warden, our keeper, and anyone else we ever come in contact with probably runs from the room screaming at the mere thought that we might use "the 'A' phrase."

It is an incredibly powerful concept, but our constant bandying it about as if it were the open sesame toward instantaneous partnership is stripping it of value.

And is it really inconceivable ("Inconceivable!") that we don't know the meaning of the phrase?

That is probably overstating the situation. I think each of us has an internalization of what it means to be a trusted advisor. And I don't know that any of us are wrong. But can we really state what we mean when we use the phrase?

When you try and find definitions for the phrase, what you generally get is a list of traits and skills exhibited by the trusted advisor. For example, I googled "trusted advisor definition" (isn't that what all good researchers do?) and the first — the very first — definition was, "The words 'trusted advisor' mean that you have business acumen. It means that you have the experience, the training, the knowledge, and the subject matter expertise to be trusted to advise your clients well."

A nice group of words. And I think they say something that is close to correct. But that ain't a definition; it is what a trusted advisor should do or be.

And so it goes as you continue to scroll through the various definitions — lists of traits, characteristics, and attributes.

Now, the attributes of a trusted advisor are an important part of understanding what it means. And one of the best resources for understanding these attributes is Richard Chambers' book Trusted Advisors: Key Attributes of Outstanding Internal Auditors. He lists nine attributes: ethical resilience, results focused, intellectually curious, open-mindedness, dynamic communicators, insightful relationships, inspirational leaders, critical thinkers, and technical expertise. I won't say any more about these because Richard does an excellent job of delving into each. (And you could do a whole lot worse than going out and investing your money and time in the book.)

However, the question still remains: "What is a trusted advisor?" What is someone expecting from the individual who calls herself a trusted advisor. What are all these attributes meant to support? What is the buzz underneath the buzzword?

Here is my own definition. (And let me quickly note that this isn't perfect because it is something I hammered out as I rewrote [for an untold number of times] this particular blog post.) A trusted advisor is one of the first people you turn to when you have a decision to make, need feedback, or just need an honest appraisal of a situation. It is someone with whom you can freely share information; someone who can help you analyze the current situation; someone who will be honest; and someone who will provide valuable, critical, and constructive advice in times of need.

Now, I don't know if that is right. As I said, I'm just making this stuff up. And, rereading it, some of this suffers from my prior complaint — just a list of traits. But I believe that, if an executive thought of internal audit as a trusted advisor, this would be what they mean and this would be their expectations.

And, for each of us, whenever we are looking for help or feedback — whether it is about a career decision, about a serious problem we are facing, about lunch, or just how to make our audit work better — that definition fits the kind of person we are looking for.

As I noted, if we want to be better auditors, then we need trusted advisors. And by trusted advisor, I mean the person described above.

Which means we're about ready for the next post of this series where we'll talk about decision making, how outcomes are misused in evaluating decisions, and, with a little luck, a kind of wrap up for this whole thing.

And, if you have your own thoughts about a definition or attributes, feel free to share them. I think there's a whole lot more that needs to be said on this subject, and I'd be interested in what you have to say.

Mike Jacka, CIA, CPA, CPCU, CLU

Co-founder and Chief Creative Pilot, Flying Pig Audit, Consulting, and Training Services (FPACTS), based in Phoenix.