The High Impact Trusted Advisor Role

Leaders responsible for implementing significant change in their organizations need access to experienced advisors who can help guide them through the pitfalls of executing these major initiatives. This role, termed “change practitioner,” is filled by professionals from a wide array of disciplines including change management, organizational development, HR, leadership development, strategic planning, project management, IT, business relationship management, coaching, organizational design, and more. No matter their field of expertise, whether these individuals function as internal specialists or external consultants, or if they work solo or as part of a team, if individuals help leaders navigate important transitions, they are considered change practitioners.

Leaders tend to think of change practitioners in one of three ways:

  1. Inept—demonstrating little value; to be avoided at all cost
  2. Adequate—providing acceptable value; can be relied upon to get the basic job done on tactical assignments
  3. High Impact Trusted Advisor (HITA)—delivering implementation assistance to strategically important endeavors; proven to be invaluable in reaching full realization

These three characterizations (Inept, Adequate, HITA) come from listening to leaders describe their experiences working with change professionals. The categories are not meant to reflect the kind of value change facilitators believe they are generating or could deliver under different circumstances; they are how clients group practitioners after working with them for some period of time.

Who Are High Impact Trusted Advisors (HITAs)

Among the total population of change professionals, there are significant variations in how influential these individuals are with senior leaders. Unfortunately, some are viewed as “Inept” and thus hold little sway over executive thinking or actions. The vast majority, however, are seen as “Adequate”: satisfactorily supplying what they are expected to deliver. They aren’t considered critical resources for the organization, so they are mostly deployed at mid and lower levels of an organization. If they are called on by senior officers, their involvement is usually limited to being part of a larger team’s periodic status reporting, speaking to tactical change issues, or addressing questions peripheral to what the leaders view as their most pressing endeavors.

A much smaller subset of the professional change community (both internal specialists and external consultants) is seen as exceptionally credible and enjoys significant influence with those they support. These High Impact Trusted Advisors (HITAs) are in a whole different league. At this level, practitioners are viewed as extremely important to change success. Their views are sought out when key initiatives come with significant risk and the price for a misstep could be costly. They are considered strategic, invaluable resources and are therefore typically deployed to C-suite executives and other key leaders in the organization.

Relatively few practitioners achieve this status, but those who do have a disproportionate level of impact. HITAs are treated as the standard by which other advisors are measured; their advice is always seriously considered and more often than not, carried out. Moreover, they enjoy such respect from the leaders they serve that their counsel is regarded as a competitive advantage for the organization.

Trusted advisors working at this level have reached the pinnacle of credibility and reliability in their working relationships with senior leaders. Both their domain of specialty and the practitioners themselves are viewed as essential to leaders’ future success. This usually results in a unique kind of personal chemistry between leader and practitioner that lends itself to successful coaching/mentoring.

Why Top Tier Focus

Change professionals have the greatest potential for the broadest, deepest impact when serving as trusted advisors to senior officers. It is difficult to get access to and even harder to form trusting relationships with leaders at this level, but when access and influence do converge, a change practitioner couldn’t ask for better circumstances in which to practice his/her craft. Helping shape the perspectives, decisions, and behaviors of C-level executives and other key leaders can have a dramatic cascading effect throughout an organization, not to mention the results that can then be fostered within the market or the constituency it serves. For those who aspire to pursue mastery of the change execution profession, there is no greater leverage and sense of fulfilment than serving as a HITA to CEOs, COOs, CFOs, CIOs, CHROs, or to key executives just below the top tier of an organization.

Can value be created when serving as a High Impact resource to leaders below the top echelon? Of course. Any time a change practitioner can be deeply influential with a key leader, a positive contribution with rippling effect in that part of an organization is possible. But if the question is, “Where does our profession leverage itself to the greatest extent?” then the answer has to be, “Where the most people will be affected by our efforts.” By influencing senior officers who in turn influence many—if not every—member of an organization, who in turn influence the ultimate recipients of the organization’s products or services, a practitioner will see the maximum “return” on his or her contribution. This is the altitude at which High Impact Trusted Advisors are fortunate enough to operate.

High Impact Work Isn’t for Everyone

The number of HITA practitioners is relatively small—and there is good reason why. First, most leaders are neither in need of nor interested in working with someone functioning in the High Impact zone. They are usually looking for tactical change assistance, and the more in-depth HITA would likely pursue conversations and recommend actions that exceed what the clients feel a need to pursue.

In addition, operating this way holds a lot of appeal until the realities of what it takes to reach HITA status become clear. Invaluable strategic advisors supporting senior leaders generally work harder, put in longer hours, take more risks, frequently engage in uncomfortable/challenging interactions with their clients, and never reach completion of their professional development (they are perpetual students of their craft). This is not a description many practitioners want to sign up for.

In spite of these formidable requirements, however, some change professionals do pursue High Impact standing, and those who succeed have the potential to develop exceptional leader/practitioner relationships.

The operative term here is “exceptional.” For an alliance of this nature to unfold, the requirements for both client and practitioner are daunting. By definition, the majority of change professionals are not prepared for this kind of working relationship; they lack either the necessary predisposition or training to be seen as capable of delivering strategic, invaluable guidance at the High Impact level. There isn’t a judgement being made here; it is just an honest reflection of how our profession has evolved.

The Take-Home Message

In summary, the need for High Impact work is limited, as is the number of practitioners properly prepared to fulfill the duties of such a role. Those who do achieve this standing generally work harder and take more risks than their “Adequate” counterparts. However, their diligence and courage typically result in their gaining exceptional influence with senior leaders and, as a result, achieving a strong sense of professional fulfilment.

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