Trust is the true measure of technology consulting

Lachlan James

Firsts can be calmingly poignant: From life milestones like your first paycheck or firstborn, to your first sip of coffee in the morning. Likewise, it’s quite something to join a fresh new business venture, on the ground floor, and see the possibilities; what could happen, what could be. Those initial stages of a start-up often deliver that sense of calmness through clarity of purpose. But, like most firsts of significance, the tyranny of the blank slate also weighs heavy — a conscious acknowledgement of the complexities and important decisions that lie ahead. Because, after all, It’s one thing to start a new type of cloud consulting firm with the ambition of instigating cultural change across the industry at large. It’s another thing entirely to actually make it happen. There are, however, a few key clues we can heed in order to plot a successful course towards realizing a more trustworthy cloud consulting industry.

Build it and they might come

Unlike Kevin Costner in 1989’s Field of Dreams, we don’t have a mysterious voice guiding us from the shadows, vowing that it’ll all just work out. Sure; we’ve got a great mix of consulting and technical experience, savvy and know-how. But, there are no guarantees.

Scene from the movie 'Field of Dreams' where the baseball players are emerging from the cornfield.

At Vivanti, our collective experience strongly suggests a healthy appetite for positive change within the cloud and data consulting sector. The concepts of organizationally empowered consultants and client-first consulting resonate well with our fellow professionals. But, it’s still incumbent upon us to implement the hiring practices and organizational behaviors that drive cultural change. This is also one of the best things about new places; new companies: You don’t have the pressure of the past and traditional organizational expectations to meet. There is no ‘that’s how it’s always been’. There is no ‘we’ve always done it this way’. Although, creating your own vision and navigating a path towards it can feel daunting. So here are some of the core realizations we’ve come to when building our new cloud consultancy, Vivanti, from scratch:

1. Trust eclipses performance (and enhances it)

Performance isn’t just a numbers game, with a straight line drawn from one person to an individual output. We don’t operate in a vacuum. If people don’t trust you, they won’t work with you. The same goes for customers in a client-consultant relationship. As it turns out, higher levels of trust also positively impact other people’s ability to perform and their assessment of your own performance. This has obvious benefits — both internally and externally. One of the most performant organizations on the planet, the Navy SEALs, doesn’t select their elite teams on skill alone. Far from it:

Infographic of the matrix of trust versus performance

They assess candidates based on the above Performance vs Trust matrix. If an applicant demonstrates extraordinary performance, but poor trustworthiness, they’re automatically qualified out of the recruitment process. Contenders who exhibit mid-range performance, combined with a high degree of trust, are selected instead. Every time. Inspirational speaker and business thought leader, Simon Sinek, relayed his experience working with Navy SEALs and the way they characterized this two-axis matrix:

Performance: “I may trust you with my life,

Trust: But do I trust you to deploy to production.”

2. Relationships matter most: People come first

In 2019, Harvard Business Review and Zenger – Folkman analyzed over 80,000 360-degree HR reviews of business leaders. The goal was to pinpoint the elements that determine trustworthiness in a professional context. The resultant report distilled trust in the workplace into three components: Positive Relationships; Good Judgement and Expertise; and Consistency. Using these three elements, they developed a trust rating system. Fascinatingly, when they separated these elements — to assess their individual importance — one clearly stood-out above the rest: Relationships.

Data visualization of how three elements – relationships, judgment, and consistency – contribute to overall trust

When an individual’s Judgement and Consistency scores were both high, but their Relationships capability was low, their overall trust rating dropped 33 points. What’s clear to us — from a combination of anecdotal experience and expansive studies like the one above — is that your ability to develop strong relationships with key stakeholders is integral for building trusted and therefore successful partnerships. To enable that, it’s imperative that you create an organizational environment that expects and rewards that behavior.

3. We need to stop poisoning the well

As an industry — and throughout many business sectors — we need to improve the way we evaluate people and performance, using the right data points and most appropriate metrics. That is, the outcomes and measures that will foster and sustain our desired cultural state.

While this may sound bleedingly obvious, most businesses still chiefly determine employee worth through sets of monofocal metrics. Metrics, which largely pertain to revenue generated. Without much serious assessment of the methods used to obtain that ultimate financial outcome, many organizations inadvertently reward toxic behavior. It’s a profits over people mentality that’s ultimately short-sighted and flawed. Jon Picoult, Founder and Principal at management advisory firm Watermark Consulting, provides some useful guidelines to address this challenge. In his article, Avoid the Folly of Flawed Employee Performance Metrics, Picoult makes a number of suggestions that align with our thinking at Vivanti:

4. Your clients don’t need to like you

After reading point three, you might think that we’re prioritizing likeability over competency. That isn’t the case. You want to build a culture that values client relationship building. But, that’s not achieved through being likeable. That’s achieved through trust. And, from the client’s perspective, that means three things:

  1. Aligning your priorities with their own
  2. Being transparent, honest and doing what you say you’ll do
  3. Demonstrating great technical skills by delivering great work

In our experience, remaining true to these principles engenders trust; after which likeability soon follows. Not being overly concerned with being liked, but rather doing what is right by the client, also gives consultants the freedom to offer difficult opinions at the moments that matter most.

If you just set out to be liked, you would be prepared to compromise on anything at any time, and you would achieve nothing.

— Margaret Thatcher

Consider this scenario: A project is nearing completion and the deadline is just a week away. But, after following the brief and undertaking the work on behalf of the client, you discover something. With some tweaks, and another two week’s worth of time, a better outcome is possible. What do you do? On one hand, you could finish the engagement on time by following the original specifications and keeping your recent realization to yourself. You’ve hit the deadline, kept to budget and delivered the requested outcome. The client would like that result. On the other hand, you’ve willingly created a lost opportunity and ignored the best interests of your client. Instead, if you advocate for an alternative path — even though the people managing the project on the client side won’t initially ‘like’ the prospect of running over time and budget — you know that the payback will be worthwhile. That mindset, if practiced consistently, will generate trust — and often likeability — over the long haul.

5. Engagements need managing, people do not

Nobody likes to be on the receiving end of micromanagement. It’s

also rare for people to produce their best work under those conditions. A study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, titled Choking under pressure: Multiple routes to skill failure, found that people perform worse when they feel that their actions are being closely scrutinized.

Not only does the execution of skills suffer, granular people management also facilitates a climate of distrust. People don’t feel supported and significant amounts of time are wasted producing an undesirable working environment. Worse still, it inhibits people from taking ownership and pride in their work.

If you can’t trust your people to take the initiative, there’s one of two possibilities: You have trust issues that need to be resolved. Or, your people require close supervision because there are significant flaws in your hiring and training processes.

6. Skills can be taught, attitude cannot

Passion, intent and dedication are almost impossible to fake. People’s mindset can be shifted, skills can be taught, knowledge can be transferred. But attitudes, like beliefs, are hard to change. Another way of thinking about this is that performance can be improved, but the drive to perform cannot.

It stands to reason then that hiring people who exude positivity — the willingness to learn, improve, accept feedback, achieve outcomes and help others — is critical. The costs of getting this wrong are significant. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics cited by the University of Southern California, negativity in the workplace costs businesses around $3 billion annually.

Back in 2010, Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh participated in an interview in which he estimated that bad hires had cost the company in excess of $100 million. The US Department of Labor suggests that the cost of a bad hire is approximately 30 percent of that person’s first year salary.

Not only can poor attitudes impact individual performance, it can drag-down colleagues too. A landmark study by Christine Porath (a Georgetown University professor of management) and Christine Pearson (a professor at the Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University) highlighted the potential flow-on effects.

Over a 14-year period, Porath and Pearson surveyed 14,000 CEOs, managers and employees across the US and Canada to ascertain the impact of negative behavior in the workplace. The resultant report, The Price of Incivility, found that of the people subjected to the ‘incivility’ of others:

“Trust is the lubrication that makes it possible for organizations to work”

When American scholar and leadership studies pioneer, Warren Bennis, uttered the above words, it’s pretty clear he wasn’t thinking about modern cloud consulting. But, you’ll struggle to find a more apt phrase that encapsulates the importance of trust to a successful consultancy.

When it comes to consulting, trust matters more than most other industries. Consultants are continuously putting themselves out on the proverbial limb within new companies and contexts. A consultancy truly is the sum of its people. You can’t have a trustworthy firm without ensuring your people are trustworthy on an individual level too.

So, what do you think, dear reader? Have you had the rare opportunity to build a team from scratch? Or, participated in the early stage building of a consultancy? If so, we’d love to hear from you. How did you lay the appropriate foundations, guidelines and incentives to drive both strong performance and ethical conduct?