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[Conversations with Consultants] On building trust and lasting partnerships

Every consultant knows the importance of having a good conversation. In our series, Conversations with Consultants, we meet the people behind ThoughtWorks, to ask great questions about what it’s like to be a consultant. Learn about the unique career paths they’ve taken and the challenges they’ve faced as they share their nuggets of wisdom.

Trust is essential to building a lasting partnership. ThoughtWorks Principal Consultant, May Ping Xu, started as a Program Manager on a client project and quickly rose up the ranks to become a trusted advisor to the client. She helped drive the steering committee and influenced decisions made by C-suite execs, helping bring business and tech closer together. May shares her experiences and know-how to building trust in this very first episode with host and Social Scientist, Nigel Dalton. Click the below image to watch the video.


Screenshot of May Ping Xu and Nigel Dalton's video interview with video play button superimposed

Nigel: What is the secret to building a great partnership? 

May: I have three guiding principles to building a great partnership. The first is to always show respect. While we challenge the status quo with our clients, we should always respect them and trust that they made the best decisions they could at the time. The second is to stay curious. There are great stories behind every company which makes them successful today, so seek to understand and learn from it. The third guiding principle is to never judge. It’s not about blaming; it’s about focusing on where the client is at, and seeing things as an opportunity to improve. 

There once was a time when a client stakeholder was resistant to the collaborative ways of working between business and technology, and refused to take anything out from their defined scope, even though they were based on priority. This triggered a few questions in my mind, “what kind of past experience has led to that position today, and is that anything concerning or is it a signal to call for help?”

Nigel: How do you build trust with clients?

May: Start by having a shared goal. In order to deliver the best value for our clients, we need to speak up, and challenge ourselves and our clients. The “challenging” we do requires us to first understand the client’s goals. Without a shared goal, it’s easy to end up with unnecessary conflict and also damage the relationship.

In one case, the client’s business wanted early delivery but they also wanted a new tech platform, so getting executives together to agree on what’s most important to achieve enabled us to speed up the decision making process. In the meantime, breaking down the shared goal into smaller milestones was critical to building trust with clients. By developing faster feedback loops we were able to quickly demonstrate how we were working on the things that delivered the right value for customers.

Secondly, establish a transparent working relationship rather than a “yes” relationship. To deliver the best outcomes possible, this requires us to challenge the status quo and to discuss openly with clients about what’s working and what’s not working. Oftentimes, I’ll have a conversation with the client early on about my working style. When I do this, they are more likely to talk about their working style as well. I’ll say something like, “I might not always make you happy, but I can ensure you’ll get value out of this engagement”. It sets the right stage for a transparent working relationship, and helps the client to understand your intention and why you’re challenging them.

Finally, own the problem, rather than focus only on the solution. The easiest thing to do is to just do what the client tells you to do and when things go wrong say that “it’s not my problem”. At ThoughtWorks, we do things differently – we own the problem together with our clients. One of the earliest values we deliver on a project is to help the client to define the problem right, so that we’re working on the right problem instead of jumping on the solution.

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