Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Enigmatic “Most Trusted Advisor” (Part One of Two)

In a study examining the intricacies of the unique role of “most trusted advisor” (MTA) in several family firms, academic researcher Vanessa Strike identifies the processes and characteristics which enable these enigmatic, full-time family enterprise advisors to earn the trust of family members, capture their attention and then facilitate collective change as a result of their earned trust and role in the family enterprise.

Published in the September 2013 issue of The Family Business Review and the first study of its kind focused exclusively on family enterprise advising, “The Most Trusted Advisor and the Subtle Advice Process in Family Firms” [] paints a portrait of the otherwise secretive and subtle phenomenon of the advice process by closely examining nine MTAs who work within six well-established North American family firms which have been around anywhere from 30 to 120 years.

Firstly and arguably most importantly, Strike identifies MTAs as quite distinct from what most professionals in the field of family enterprise consider to be ‘advisors’ or ‘consultants’ to family firms, who most commonly have several clients and work with different types of family enterprises.

Likening a MTA to a “quarterback” who is devoted to a single family firm for many years or even decades, this special role is deeply involved in the most detailed and private areas of the family relationships as well as the business. The MTA is heavily invested in the long-term success of the family enterprise system in which they work, even sometimes referring to the members as “their” family. Strike makes a point of illustrating that these MTAs shun the spotlight and much prefer to be hidden from view, quoting one MTA as saying “[i]f nobody knows who I am or what I do, then I know I’m doing my job.”

Being such a highly trusted and integral person involved in a family business, the MTA is highly skilled, maintains very broad-reaching knowledge and does not suffer a loss of confidence when the family’s needs warrant the hiring of experts or advisors who have more specialized expertise than themselves. The MTA is not at all threatened by these other professionals, but rather holds the goals of the family in the highest esteem. In some cases, the MTA is so well-integrated into the family as a confidante that neither the family, nor the MTA, even identifies their role as a “most trusted advisor.”

Until now, these MTAs have gone completely unrecognized and unstudied in the field of family enterprise. Previous research on advising in family businesses has focused on specific models or intervention processes, which presumes that the advisor has been brought in for a specific task or project, where the start and end of the relationship is pre-determined or defined. Instead, Strike wanted to look closely at advisors who act in an ongoing, “trusted advising capacity” and could have been a family’s accountant, lawyer, or member of an advisory board or board of directors, but was in fact a much more integral part of the family enterprise than any one of those roles would imply.


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