Ten advantages to having an independent sounding board

By Patrick J. McKenna and L. Neil Gower, Q.C. October 4, 20184 October 2018

Ten advantages to having an independent sounding board


As a leader of a professional services firm, do you have a trusted advisor with whom you can discuss important issues – your own confidential, independent sounding board?

With today’s pace of change, the pressure has never been higher, nor the temptation greater, to act just for the sake of acting – to move things off your pending pile and appear decisive. This kind of “shoot from the hip” style may make us (perhaps initially) feel confident that we are getting somewhere. However, professional firm leaders are usually dealing with complex, multi-faceted issues, filled with land mines and unintended consequences. More "stuff" requires increasing sensitivity, and strategic consideration. Things we didn't even think were issues are now issues. This is where leaders often gain significant value from working with an external sounding board – someone they respect, in whom they can confide and with whom they can collaborate to help or challenge their thinking processes.

From our experience, scheduling time with someone outside of your firm with whom you can talk freely about your agenda and the issues facing you, in complete confidence, has at least these ten benefits:

1. It creates space and time for you to think things through.

It is always helpful to pause to consider whether you are planning not only to do things right but, more importantly, to do the right things. It is all too easy to get sucked into operational details and the perceived need for immediate action; it is your job to ensure that the issues that are strategic have been properly identified and planned for. Your wish to discuss your reactions and approach with your confidant can help create a discipline to take the necessary time. This is an appointment you do not cancel. If you are not strategic in the use of your time, chances are you are not being sufficiently strategic in other areas.

2. The very act of exploring an issue and explaining your ideas to your confidant can help you clarify your own thinking.

A natural "sorting" process occurs whenever you gather together all the pieces that are circling (and clouding) your brain. Similar themes, expressed out loud, often create a clearer, more complete picture. This process helps sequence your thinking in a way that makes your overall story more coherent and easily conveyed. Your sounding board may also detect inconsistencies and potentially faulty assumptions before you get too far down the presenting path. 

3. It gives you the chance to develop your ideas further, and if necessary, change direction completely with no loss of face, and no adverse consequences.

It is normal for any good leader to have doubts; it is a part of the job to explore these doubts as honestly as possible. This is a naturally uncomfortable process and it helps to have someone support you through it – especially someone with decades of leadership experience; someone without an ox about to be gored, or an inconvenient memory.

4. It allows you to have your thinking challenged in a non-threatening environment.

In days of old, Kings had court jesters who had licence to say exactly what they thought. Truthfulness tends to shrivel as it gets closer to power, but an outsider can ask the apparently daft, but highly challenging questions such as "Why would you want to do that?" "What would happen if you didn't do that?" Further, your sounding board can, respectfully, and for your benefit, ask about real motivations and impulses. This exercise may well help you avoid (or anticipate, at least) the brilliant blind-side objection that someone may delight in raising.

Sometimes, the best ideas are … well … not the best. Before you blow your credibility with your colleagues, consider first putting the ideas out there with your sounding board. It might save you some time, energy, and support. It might let you get to other priorities.

5. An objective advisor can often see when the leader is part of the problem and highlight when you might need to consider your own contribution to the situation.

How many of us can almost conduct a meeting with partners by saying: "My speech #14", only to be met by some long-time partner's "Reply #42"? How many of us just get in our own way? A consigliere, with your interests at heart, and knowing you, can help you deal with your own biases and blind spots.

6. A confidant can provide a necessary outlet.

An activity that can be valuably performed in this safe space is venting. Once words are spoken, or an email sent, they cannot be taken back. Every team has frustrations, doubts and worries. Creating tension or misunderstanding or heightening fears in others by misspeaking is all too common. All these can interfere with your message, your true intentions and the smooth running of your firm. The hurtful or damaging remark or email sent in anger, is better spoken to someone not likely to feel it – or repeat it. Removing some of the emotion, and deciding which issues are ones you need to take up with some colleague directly and which ones are just the result of, perhaps, overwork, stress, or just a bad day, can make you a much better person to work with.

7. It allows you to seek input from someone outside your firm's political structure.

This process is not about someone coming in and telling you how to run your firm, something that you are uniquely qualified to do, but rather is to help you "get at the wisdom you already have." When this is supplemented with a little outside input – independent and unbiased – it becomes a very potent dish. You can then focus on considering a matter for the "good of the firm" and not be “off-ramped" by your own enthusiasm or the initial reactions, objections and agendas of others.

8. You are able to bring in new ideas from outside your firm.

More than one firm leader we have worked with has said that he or she could only discuss a particular issue with a few other people in the firm, and their comments could be easily predicted. Those leaders definitely needed a fresh perspective. Further, an external confidant will bring fresh perspectives, pragmatic experience and ideas, such as new technology or different approaches to the operation of the modern professional firm.

9. An external sounding board can help you better understand yourself, and those around you.

Time spent in reflection and exploration of your own goals, in conjunction with the firm’s strategic needs, benefits your decision making. What do you need personally to succeed? What can help you, as leader, relieve stress? How can you be more effective? How can you manage the professional relationships necessary to the firm’s success? All of this leadership is for a purpose – positive outcomes for your firm.

10. An independent sounding board can help you become the leader you want to be.

Decisions which have been thought out and talked through are generally more centred, more ready. The potential land mines have been examined ahead of time. You are more prepared. You will be able to react more positively. This will inspire more confidence in your efforts and raise your stock with your colleagues. Their willingness to follow your lead should increase, and if it doesn't, you will at least have the benefit of understanding better what you have brought to the table and the relative value of an objector’s comments.

In the end, if you are like most firm or practice leaders, you will typically leave these discussions much more focused on the real issues you face, centred on what is really important to you, and your firm, clear about what you need to do next, and understanding your own motivations and needs more fully.

Patrick J. McKenna is an internationally recognized author, lecturer, strategist and seasoned advisor to the leaders of premier professional service firms. He is the author of eight books most notably his international business best seller, First Among Equals, currently in its sixth printing and translated into nine languages. Patrick has served as a special advisor to the Board of a Global 100 law firm; a Canadian-based Longevity Health Care Institute; an AI-calibrated tech firm that mines BigData to assess risk; and is the recipient of an honorary fellowship from Leaders Excellence of Harvard Square.

L. Neil Gower, QC, is a lawyer, writer and advisor. He is a governance consultant and a director of a number of not-for-profit organizations, primarily focused on affordable and seniors housing, literacy, poverty and culture. Neil has chaired various Canadian Bar Association subsections, including Law Office Management, has been a course writer, developer and long-time lecturer in the Alberta Bar Admission and Canadian Centre for Professional Legal Education programs and a speaker to a variety of legal and management groups. He practiced law for over forty years, much of that time in leadership positions, with both local and regional firms. 

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