Is Building Trust Relationships Good For Business? An Interview With Charles Green

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I recently tracked down Charles H. Green to talk about his experience connecting trust, spirituality and business. Green is author of Trust-Based Selling and co-author of The Trusted Advisor, and founder and CEO of Trusted Advisor Associates, a consulting firm centering on the theme of building trust in business relationships. He also has a great blog called Trust Matters, where he posts frequently on this subject drawing from current business events, economics and client experiences. Charlie majored in Philosophy at Columbia, and has an MBA from Harvard Business School. Basically, Charlie says that putting others before yourself is good business practice. Since my own blog (Shrinking the Camel) runs the tagline of "Connecting Business Life with Spiritual Life," I was intrigued by the work his firm was doing, taking special note of the unspoken link between building trust relationships and spirituality in business. So I asked Charlie if he would do an interview. He graciously agreed.

BJM: Charles, I have been on both ends of the Trust Advisor paddle, so to speak. I spent the first 15 years of my career in management consulting, and the last 10 years as an executive who has hired all sorts of professionals: attorneys, accountants, investment bankers, etc. All that to say, I know a good professional when I see one, and I never, ever will hire someone whom I don’t like and trust.

CHG: That does give you a good deal of perspective in this space; nothing like sitting in both chairs. Your client experience in particular must be valuable. And I'll quote you, if you don't mind, on never hiring someone you don't like and trust. Life is too short to hire people you don't like and don't trust, and too long to get away with it even if you could.

BJM: Amen to that! Speaking of people I like, our Blogs seem to be quite similar, with the minor exception, of course, that you are a well-known author who has appeared on TV and in newspapers and magazines, and who is probably invited frequently to dinner parties at Famous Peoples’ Houses. In any case, it looks like we are interested in the same type of material – ideas that mash up business with soft subjects like relationships, serving others, doing good and spirituality. Didn’t I even see a post of yours recently that talked about telling clients you love them? Aren't you afraid people will think that you have gone off the edge?

CHG: Ha ha, well I can assure you, the Famous People must have missed that email about inviting me--I haven't heard yet from them! More importantly, yes I do think we cover similar territories, or at least overlap considerably. I think I'm a little bit unusual in that I am a card-carrying graduate of the West Point of Capitalism, aka Harvard Business School (the year after Dubya, whom I don't recall seeing in class), and at the same time I do talk about the 'soft' things like relationships. But that said, I'm not unique. There are plenty of professionals out there who think much like I do. I think the difference is that both you and I write about it. And much of what's been written doesn't go there, to that combination. In addition, my writing style tends to be a little more polemic, out there. I think it's a good way to help people think bigger thoughts, rather than the training manual style that dominates so many business books. Though I think that too is changing; you're seeing lots of writers and consultants and authors these days than you did even ten years ago talking about it. The particular blog post you're talking about, telling clients you love them--it was called Intimacy 201, and it was actually written by my Associate, Andrea Howe. And the "I love you" came up in the comments to the blog, where Andrea said she'd once done that. I think it was a great post, wish I'd written it. Though I have to admit, I don't think I've ever used those words with a client myself.

BJM: I love the idea of writing on the edge to get people to think bigger thoughts. Right up my alley. Even if those big ideas might ruffle some feathers along the way. So how did you get the idea to start a consulting practice around Trust? Did your buddies from Harvard Business School think you were out of your mind?

CHG: No, not at all. As I said before, a lot of people pretty much believe in the concepts I'm talking about. It's not radical, never was, at HBS (Harvard Business School) to say that 'trust' was an important ingredient of business success. That said, even one of my co-authors on The Trusted Advisor (Rob Galford) thought there wasn't enough of a market to support a business built around trust. And, to be fair, I have pushed the thinking on the subject in some ways that most businesspeople would not instinctively, first-blush, automatically agree with. Though as we talk further, they often do agree.

BJM: What are some examples?

CHG: I've suggested that the acid test of trustworthiness is, would you be willing to recommend a competitor to your best client if it were the right thing to do? I find most people really furrow their brows over that one, looking for a way out. But if you give it some thought, it becomes clear: why would a client trust anyone, ever, if they categorically said they'd never recommend someone else but themselves to a client? Less dramatically, I think the Trust Equation (which addresses the roles of credibility, reliability, intimacy and self-orientation in building trust) puts more emphasis on the 'soft' aspects of intimacy and low self-orientation than the typical businessperson thinks of.

BJM: It seems to me that these examples you’ve just mentioned such as the Trust Equation, and much of what I read in your book has an obvious spiritual bent to it: caring for others, finding fulfillment in serving others, doing good, doing the right thing, etc. Isn’t all this talk of Trust actually the same as asking these professionals to "love one another greater than yourself?" (BTW Jesus said that). What is your personal view as to the connection between these ideas you are promoting and people's spiritual lives?

CHG: Well, it really is a personal question--not that there's anything wrong with that! Personally, I was raised in a religious tradition, and became very curious about philosophy; I majored in it, and take it seriously. I also take religion and theology seriously. But for my part, I'm one of those who prefer to keep spirituality very separate from religion.

BJM: If you don’t mind me asking, are you currently active with any particular spiritual or faith affiliation?

CHG: I'm attracted by things like the School for Practical Philosophy, 12-step programs, Unitarianism, and some of Landmark Forum. There is really much more overlap between those traditions than there is difference, it seems to me, though adherents of all of them might disagree. And it's the overlap that interests me. The fundamental common denominator in all of those traditions is that we as humans are meant to be in relationship. What moves us toward relationship honors us; what drives us away from relationship dehumanizes us. Doctrines that lead with suspicion are doctrines I don't like; those that lead with connection and trust, I do.

BJM: That’s a powerful point about relationships. You talk in your book, The Trusted Advisor, about "Relationship Economics," which says that the trust level in a relationship is directly proportional to the long-term profitability of that relationship. Do you think there is also such a thing as Spiritual Economics, and if so what would that look like?

CHG: You might guess from the above that I see those two pretty much the same way. The opposite is what we've been living with: an economics based on other-ness, on competition, and on turning all relationships into simply means to an end, the end being sustainable competitive advantage over others. I call that non-relationship economics, and I call that non-spiritual, both for the same reason. It's also non-ethical. You can't have ethics absent a relationship between people. Robinson Crusoe had no need of ethics--at least before Friday--because he was all alone. And if you live in an economic system where everything is about you, all alone, against everyone else, you are starved of relationship, ethics and spirituality. And, I think, it's not much of an economic system either, since most advances come from collaboration.

BJM: We recently bid out our accounting services at my company, which represents a mid-six-figure chunk of change, even though we trusted them. We just wanted to lower our fees, and to see what else was out there that we could take advantage of. How do you explain that behavior relative to Relationship Economics?

CHG: You don't have to have a relationship with everyone. I don't want a relationship with the kids behind the counter at Dunkin' Donuts and Starbucks, beyond appreciating that they remember my standard order. And I haven't got the time to engage in what I might call relationships with many of the online requesting people these days. Beyond treating people decently, I don't see a mandate to relate. I guess you didn't feel a need to have a deep relationship with your accountants. Maybe they missed an opportunity, or maybe you already have a deep relationship with a lawyer, or a banker. Or maybe you just don't need that. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. No biggie.

BJM: Do you find it frustrating that corporate America generally blows off spirituality as having no place in business or management? Or have you found otherwise?

CHG: Yes, I do think it's a little silly. It comes from lots of things, including political correctness (a mainly, though not exclusively, American disease). It comes from taking laissez faire economics a little too seriously, and people like Ayn Rand infusing religious fervor into a very non-spiritual view of the world. But mainly, I think, it comes from fear. People in business love the idea that business is a meritocracy; however, they don't live it very well. They end up using things like numbers and metrics and processes, relying on certifications and "best processes" to excuse why something isn't working, or why you're not responsible for things going wrong but you are responsible for things going right. All of this develops a system where you fear other people, and we've developed rituals that justify that fear. But what you get is people out of relationship, which both of us would call non-spiritual. Part of what we try to do at Trusted Advisor Associates is to remind people of the perfectly obvious fact that business is, still, really, personal. Always was, always will be. And we try to make them not only OK with that, but to see how that can empower them within a business context. There is a win-win possible in relationship--out of relationship, there's really only zero-sum interactions.

BJM: Well, I could go on with you all day about this subject, but I can hear the Managing Editor of High Calling Blogs yelling at me over the excessive word-count we're racking up here. We better wrap it up. Thank you, Charlie. This has been fascinating.

CHG: Oh no, my thanks to you! I enjoyed it, too.