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​​A Role for Trusted Advisors in Building Bridges

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It seems that everywhere we look in the world, trust is in short supply. Investors struggle to maintain trust in capital markets, citizens find it difficult to trust elected leaders, the political left doesn't trust the political right and vice versa, and mistrust between traditional nation-state adversaries seems to be making an unwelcome comeback.

But trust, defined as "the firm belief in the reliability​​​​, truth, ability,​ or strength of someone or something," is what gets both business and governments through the most challenging times.

This may appear off base at a time when partisan politics and a rift in the American psyche have created uncertainty and tension. The U.S. is not alone. Sparked by the Brexit vote, nationalist movements in Britain, France, and elsewhere have been gaining strength. As I have written before, they reflect discontent spawned by economic challenges and security concerns.

This populist desire for change could lead to economic volatility and risks that all businesses and governments should be prepared to address. But I believe building trust will ultimately help ease the political and social pressures feeding these movements.

In this environment being a trusted advisor has such a welcome ring to it. Internal auditors, in particular, strive to gain the trust of those they audit and serve.

I have spent a great deal of time in the past year examining what earns the trust of business leaders. Specifically, I have looked at the character traits of internal auditors who have earned the highly valued status of trusted advisor. Becoming a trusted advisor to the board and management is a lofty goal for all internal auditors but one that too few achieve.

This reality motivated me to gather data on how the best internal auditors become trusted advisors. I began with a list of the desired character traits I've identified over more than 40 years in the internal audit profession. In that time, I've been inspired by a handful of chief audit executives (CAEs) who achieved trusted advisor status, but I've witnessed many more who were technically proficient but never gained the trust of their stakeholders.

I then tested my list of 13 different characteristics by surveying more than 250 of the top CAEs in the business, who were asked to rate the characteristics they valued most in a trusted advisor. The top character traits should not be surprising: ethically resilient, results focused, intellectually curious, dynamic communicator, and others.

The research, supplemented with one-on-one interviews with a number of those CAEs who participated in the survey, resulted in Trusted Advisors: Key Attributes of Outstanding Internal Auditors. I believe my book, the second published by The Internal Audit Foundation, offers great insight into what goes into making a true trusted advisor.

If we examine the definition of trust — the firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of someone or something — it's easy to see how the character traits of trusted advisors fit the definition.

So how will trust get us through the current rocky political and social muddle?

Trust begins with building relationships and showing a willingness to understand others. At a time when partisan politics and questionable corporate culture nurture divisions, it is honesty, communication, and empathy that can serve as the building blocks necessary to bridge the gap. In the chapter on Ethical Resilience in Trusted Advisors, I write about how honesty and empathy can work together to smooth over difficult situations.

"Internal auditors are often required to deliver difficult, uncomfortable messages. There is no avoiding it. But tempering honesty with empathy enables them to deliver those messages with sensitivity to the other person's concern and priorities. It's not only basic kindness; it also makes receiving the messages more palatable and more likely to be considered constructively."

It may seem naïve to think that a commitment to building trust will resolve what threatens to disrupt decades of political, economic, and cultural cooperation. I disagree. After all, the attributes associated with trust are foundational to good government, good business, and the social order we all desire.

As always, I look forward to your comments.

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