Interview - Introduction
recently sat down with Saj-nicole Joni1 , having a truly enlightening
conversation about her work , her recent book, and her recent article in Harvard
Business Review, on The Third Opinion2. The term The Third
Opinion was coined by Clark Clifford, advisor and friend to many US Presidents3
. One thing is clear to all of us who have been observing business, politics,
and life: good advice is hard to get. Ms. Joni bases The Third Opinion
on the years of her advisory work with some of the world's top executives.
Please tell us a little about yourself...what interests you/drives you professionally?
For the past ten years, I have served as an advisor and thinking partner to
senior executives around the globe. It's an honor, and it's important work.
No one can start out doing this kind of work—my background includes a rigorous
training in scientific thinking, extensive experience as a senior executive,
and leadership in management consulting. After getting my PhD, I was a professor
at MIT, and then moved into the business world, serving as a senior executive
in several software companies, including Microsoft, and later, leading the Financial
Services practice for Index/CSC. I founded Cambridge International Group in
1997 to provide strategic advice to senior executives.
Why did you write this book?
Everyone can benefit from The Third Opinion. I wrote this book because
I wanted to share with people everywhere the importance of seeking The Third
Opinion—importance for their careers and for all the people they lead who
depend on the quality of their decisions and actions. This book is a practical
guide to leaders—from early leaders to very senior leaders, on getting the Third
Opinion working for you.
my work over the years, I began to develop an understanding and empathy for
the special challenges of leaders and their unique needs. It is clear that as
executives and leaders develop, their needs change. And as the challenges and
responsibilities get more difficult, their positions become more isolating.
These leaders need support, advice, diverse thinking, and real inspiration to
enable them to create superior results. Yet, many leaders do not know how to
go about getting unbiased advice; they don't know how to approach creating a
structure of relationships of support and advisers that they can call upon for
their full leadership agenda and needs.
Saj-nicole A. Joni, PhD, author of The Third Opinion
 Founder of Cambridge International Group Ltd
 And Secretary of Defense, about his relationship with Lynda Johnson
Interview - Section 2
Your architecture of relationships was interesting. Can you explain to our readers
a little about how you perceive relationships?
Good people, when faced with a tough decision, get lots of input from people
inside and outside their organization who have useful knowledge and vested interests
in the outcome. Their opinions are call "second opinions".
offer second opinions with insight based on their highly valuable insider knowledge
that is colored by their vested interests and insider perspective. Outsiders,
for example alliance partners, bankers, and some third party consultants offer
second opinion advice based on their expertise and outside perspective that
is colored by their business model and vested interests.
you are facing important decisions, this only goes so far. The Third Opinion
is where you seek outside, diverse perspectives AND lack of agenda or vested
interest. This is where you get unfettered exploration and unvarnished truth.
This is the hallmark of the kind of people you want in your "kitchen cabinet":
integrity, expertise, and no vested interest in your decisions.
the stakes are high and decisions really matter, the third opinion is often
the difference between superior results and disaster.
So, when does some one need a third opinion?
As people move up in the organization, their challenges get more difficult.
They are exposed to problems they have not experienced before. Just at this
junction they also experience isolation. Because of many new issues, for example,
privacy, security, off-shoring, working across supply chains, and cultures,
people at all levels are faced with decisions that are no longer simple or straightforward.
You need the third opinion when you are facing decisions that matter, and where
this is, there is no one right answer. Each choice has some good points and
some drawbacks, shades of gray. It's impractical to seek the third opinion on
everything—and it's unwise to miss out on it for your hardest and most impactful
I like the concept of the inner circle. People have them, but usually don't
structure them well.
Clark Clifford describes well the need for thinking partners. In your inner
circle, you need people you count on for getting things done, and people you
count on for thinking about your toughest questions. While there is overlap,
you need thinking partners outside of the day-to-day action as a key part of
your inner circle. These thinking partners become a sounding board for a range
of issues. Good examples of thinking partner relationships are Bill Gates and
Warren Buffet (as well as Bill Gates and Melissa Gates and Bill Gates Sr.)
Ultimately, isn't the inner circle not just about who you are comfortable with,
but about better decision and reducing risk?
Here is where the concept of structural trust is so important. Structural Trust
refers to: how the role of a person affects your trust. Leaders and the most
important people they work with need to understand that there are three distinct
aspects of trust at play in organizations. Personal, expertise, and structural
trust need to be understood separately, as well as in aggregate. Personal trust
is based on faith in a person's character and integrity. Expertise trust is
reliance on a person's ability in specific subject areas. In our daily lives
we show expertise trust every time we board an airplane or schedule surgery.
Structural trust reflects how roles, self-interest, and multiple loyalties color
advice and counsel. High structural trust exists when we can answer "yes" to
the following question: Given this person's role and responsibilities, can he
offer perspective, untainted by his stake in the outcome of my decisions?
I spoke with leaders around the world, it became clear that understanding this
is at the core of what it takes to build the best possible inner circle at each
stage of their career.
Interview - Conclusion
People get some pretty mediocre advice, and sometimes there needs to be more
courage, spontaneity, and humor in these professional relationships—we sometimes
value style over substance. How does the seeking of advice work to ensure good
advice, and how does the advisor get heard?
Advisors need to understand what is most valued about them. A thinking partner
moves beyond functional or technical expertise to help enable a strategic framework
for the leader. How high their structural trust is—this is part of the equation.
Some consultants, for example, are perceived as using their relationship to
sell more (large) projects. Therefore, though many senior consultants can exhibit
thought leadership and insights, they rarely achieve the high structural trust
of the inner circle thinking partner.
We can see public examples of some companies, for example Enron and Tyco, whose
top leaders had lots of outside relationships and still ended in disasters.
Can you talk about what those CEOs could have done differently—given that they
might have wanted better advice?
Senior people can easily, in their isolation, be surrounded by well meaning
advisors' who sanitize and package "truth" for them—an isolation bubble. It's
up to the leader to make sure this doesn't happen. Leaders have to have a strong
Habit of Mind—the ability and willingness to look for discordant data—to seek
multiple perspectives, and to ask tough questions.
Summarizing Saj-nicole's powerful book, I think this is where The Third
Opinion is so powerful. "Only if there is an alternative can you have
a choice ... It's like gold: you can't tell whether gold is pure unless you
strike it against another piece of gold"4. In Saj-nicole's book
The Third Opinion, the topic of developing objectivity and trust is
developed. It takes a long time to cultivate. In the end, these relationships
are very precious. In time, when well cared for, they become more precious than
we appreciate your insights.
Adviser to Artabanus councils Xerxes, King of Persia as recorded by Herodotus,
5th century B.C.
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