One of the greatest accolades you can receive from a client is the declaration that you are an authority in your field. Even better still is to hear that you are a “leading authority” or even “the leading authority.”
But don’t take a simplistic view of the route to getting this type of recognition. Your authority as an advisor is based on much more than simply expertise, although that’s an important starting point.
Anthony S. Fauci, M.D.
A good current example of someone who exemplifies this —authority—is Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. He has emerged, according to surveys, as the most trusted authority on the COVID-19 crisis, projecting strong, confident authority in all his public appearances. Perhaps another would be former president and five-star general Dwight D. Eisenhower, who as commander of all allied forces during WWII projected a calm, reassuring presence to his troops and the public at large.
Eisenhower as General of the Army, 1945
7 aspects of genuine authority
There are seven essential ingredients that help you project authority to your prospects and clients. Let’review them.
When you’re an expert at something, it means you have a high level of knowledge and skill in your specialty. But how does a prospective client know you are really an expert? Here are some important indicators they will look for:
- Someone they trust has told them you are an expert. Sounds simple, but in one study, this was the No. 1 factor cited by senior executives when asked, “How do you know if someone is an expert?”
- You are able to explain rapidly and clearly something that is very complicated, and make it easy to understand. This was the second factor cited by executives in the same study.
- You are able to solve problems on the fly, and extemporize at length about your subject matter, with no preparation.
- There is strong social proof of your expertise (see number 7, below).
2. Lived experience
People can use the word “experience” to mean quite different things. To project authority and credibility with a client, you need to have lived what you are talking about. You must have gotten your hands dirty. You can’t just be spouting ideas you’ve read about.
Does this mean that if you’re at the beginning of your career you can’t demonstrate lived experience? No. For example: When I was in the first couple of years of my consulting career, right out of business school, I always over-invested to visit and understand my client’s operations. For one of my early assignments, I was part of a team doing a strategy review for a retail chain, and I visited a variety of stores in different markets.
This gave me huge credibility with the client’s management. Some of them, in staff positions, had actually not been out to see their stores in years. That gave me a certain type of limited but valid lived experience—I wasn’t just talking about theoretical strategy ideas, I had taken the time to immerse myself in their business first-hand.
Today, my lived experience is at a different order of magnitude—now I really can say, “I’ve worked with 50 clients on this specific type of challenge…”
3. Knowledge breadth
To be authoritative with your clients, you have to build knowledge breadth around your financial expertise. If you are talking about general clients, this means developing an understanding of their specific personal needs and goals, their personal culture and background, and the challenges of their generation and life stage. Or you may be operating in a niche that requires you to understand the challenges of the client’s profession, their industry, and the environment they work in. You have to show how your specific solutions support their broader aspirations and goals. By reading widely, being intensely curious, and stretching yourself professionally, you can develop niche and interpersonal acumen to accompany your financial specialist depth.
Good judgment is one of those ineffable qualities that is both hard to define and to evaluate. You can make a very sound judgment yet have unexpected circumstances move dramatically against you. And you can make a bad decision that turns out great because of favorable factors you don’t control.
The key to good judgment lies in integrating three key decision-making inputs: The facts of the situation, your accumulated experience, and your and your client’s values. By values I mean this: two clients may have the identical problem, but your solution will be different for each of them based on their values and aspirations.
5. Applied insights
Part of your authority with clients comes from your ability to apply your expertise and experience to specific issues. You can’t just have “authoritative” knowledge—you have to show it helps clients solve their toughest challenges. It’s great to have “big picture” ideas—those help, but only as long as you are able to build upon them to develop applied insights.
Steve Kerr, a former business school dean who once led Corporate Leadership and Development for GE (and later, Goldman Sachs) told me, “When you’re advising a smart, well-informed executive, you have to be extremely persuasive—you must have enormous conviction about your beliefs.” As they say, “The first sale is to yourself.” It’s the same for you. The first step to convincing your client is to be totally convinced yourself. And then, you have to know how to persuade, utilizing both rational and emotional arguments.
7. Social proof
It’s very compelling when a client perceives that the rest of the world recognizes you as an authority at what you do. Social proof can include:
- Word of mouth and referrals from respected community members
- Publications, including articles, books, book chapters, interviews, etc.
- Speaking events
- Well-regarded educational credentials
- Awards (but please avoid the “pay-to-play” rubbish like Who’s Who in America!)
- Teaching positions/engagements
- Anything else that shows you have gained the respect of those around you
When clients see most or all of these ingredients, an eighth factor is enabled: Trust, which is essential to being seen as an authority. To get your advice taken and your conversations about new business seen as authentic efforts to help, you first must gain your client’s trust.