"Management Mess to Leadership Success" book cover, left, and the book's author, Scott Jeffrey Miller, right. “Management Mess to Leadership Success” book cover, left, and the book’s author, Scott Jeffrey Miller, right.

Hidden cowardice is lurking in most people; and that, clearly, can make leading high-courage conversations a huge challenge. But there are techniques to discussing “the undiscussables,” as Scott Jeffrey Miller, executive vice president of thought leadership at FranklinCovey, reveals in an interview with ThinkAdvisor.

With the consulting firm for 23 years, Miller worked closely with Dr. Stephen Covey for 15 of them. Covey, who died in 2012, wrote “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” a bestseller of more than 25 million copies.

In the interview, Miller presents his own seven principles — or habits — that financial advisors, and others, would be wise to adopt to be more effective on a people-level and to build deeper client relationships.

With Walt Disney’s real estate development division at the start of his career, Miller, 50, is one of an emerging generation of new business leadership advisors and coaches.

The frequent speaker is author of a new book, “Management Mess to Leadership Success: 30 Challenges to Become the Leader You Would Follow” (Mango-June 18, 2019).

Such challenges include inspiring trust, talking straight, managing emotions and aligning actions with WIGs (Wildly Important Goals).

A columnist for Inc. Magazine, he is host of FranklinCovey’s “On Leadership with Scott Miller,” a webcast and podcast, and the radio show and podcast, “Great Life, Great Career with Scott Miller.”

FranklinCovey, based in Salt Lake City, specializes in performance-improvement solutions for organizations. Its clients have included 90% of the Fortune 100.

ThinkAdvisor recently interviewed Miller, on the phone from San Francisco, a stop on his nationwide book tour. In “Management Mess,” he shares some of his own successes as well as some of what he calls his “messy management mistakes.” In the interview, he explores how excellent leadership skills can help promote trusted client relationships. For example, in conversation, be a good listener by refraining from interrupting the client’s flow: He or she may reveal some close-held, advisor-useful information.

Here are highlights of our interview:

THINKADVISOR: Please discuss some of your principles to help financial advisors avoid making messes out of client relationships. First: “Talking straight.”

SCOTT JEFFREY MILLER: Having courageous conversations upfront is enormously important. Talking straight in leading difficult conversations is really tough for a lot of people. Most people are sort of cowardly. But with practice, we become a little more courageous.

What goes into talking straight with a client?

It’s incumbent on every advisor, coach, mentor and salesperson to make sure they’re upfront in clarifying: What are your objectives — and let’s discuss all the paths to get there. What’s your tolerance? What are your pain points? Take time to listen and talk through expectations of what you can and can’t do. You want to be uber-clear that you’ll be thoughtful enough to discuss the undiscussables at any point in the relationship. That creates transparency and high trust.

Another of your principles is: “Listen first.”

Most leaders, salespeople, advisors of any kind are trained to always be in convincing mode, encouraging other people to listen to their expertise. But if you really want to be a trusted advisor, move out of persuasion mode and into empathic listening mode.

What do you advise specifically?

The best way to understand the other person’s objective and help them achieve their goals is not to probe. It’s not to advise. It’s not to evaluate or interpret. It’s just to be empathic. Move off your own agenda and understand the other person’s goals, dreams, passion and pain.

Seems that one of the big listening challenges is to not interrupt but to allow a client, for example, to continue speaking.

Right. We want to get in there and solve problems, which is helpful; but at the relationship level, it’s not. The best way to resist the urge to interrupt is to gently place your lips together and count to 10. Odds are that if you let the [client] talk a little bit longer, they’ll disclose a private goal, an insecurity, a fear, a concern — something they want to hide. This allows the advisor to peel the onion without having to verbally peel it. Let the other person peel it themselves. You’re allowing them to get to the root of their problem quicker than you ever could through your “master questioning technique.”

Next: “Carry your own weather.” That is, manage your emotions. For instance, don’t get emotionally sucked into someone else’s meltdown. Suppose the stock market takes a dive, and a client calls their advisor to chew them out. How should the FA handle that?

People who are less reactive — who carry their own weather — have deliberately grounded their thoughts, behavior and words in their values. The most competent, trusted advisors are those who have written down their personal values, whether that’s relationships, long-term wealth creation, managing risk [and so on].

How is that helpful?

When you’re grounded in unshakable values, you find it easier to resist the vitriolic people that say, “You led me into this [bad] investment!” When a client calls to hang you out to dry, be really mindful about what you say: “Thank you for your call. I understand your concern. I’d like to gather my thoughts around this and then respond to you about my position.”

Please discuss the principle of “balancing courage and consideration.”

The trusted leader is the person who has patience, careful diplomacy and balances having a courageous conversation with being respectful, gracious and considerate. One can have high-courage conversations and still let the other person keep their self-esteem intact.

Please elaborate about striking this balance.

An excess of consideration means you don’t talk straight or express what you really want to say. An excess of courage means you might flatten the client verbally. The trusted advisor is the person who doesn’t care about being right but cares about doing right. Part of that is being aware of your communication style. You might need to soften or round out the corners a bit. Are you too harsh? Are you too considerate? What’s the right balance for this particular situation?

You write too about the principle of “demonstrating humility.”

Humility is born out of confidence. The person who demonstrates humility isn’t [necessarily] the smartest person in the room. Oftentimes we confuse and conflate charisma, bravado and confidence with being trustworthy. But often it is the thoughtful, quiet person who’s listening and assimilating who inspires the most trust. Humility is grounded in empathy, which means you should seek to understand the other person’s insecurities, fears, pain.

Another of your principles is: “Allow others to be smart.” Suppose an advisor hires other experienced FAs to work in his or her practice. What’s an important way for the leader show respect for what they’ve achieved previously?

A wise leader doesn’t have to be the genius — they want to be the genius-maker and create an environment where there can be free-flowing conversation, where people can share ideas and not be shut down. They’re humble enough to realize that not everything has to be done their way. So be confident enough to surround yourself with people who are smarter than you.

And you advise: “Make time for relationships.” Financial advisors are focused indeed on building client relationships.

You can’t rush. It absolutely takes time to build trusted relationships. Humble people are patient people. They’re really thoughtful about processing the other person’s goals and take time to understand their fears. So I recommend to every advisor, counselor and coach: Slow down. People know if you value them by how patient, thoughtful and considerate you are. Often they don’t need to be validated — they just need to be heard.

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