The Third Opinion


I recently sat down with Saj-nicole Joni, having a truly enlightening conversation about her work, her recent book, and her recent article in Harvard Business Review, on The Third Opinion. The term The Third Opinion was coined by Clark Clifford, advisor and friend to many US Presidents.


An Interview with Saj-nicole Joni
Author of The Third Opinion

I recently sat down with Saj-nicole Joni[1] , having a truly enlightening conversation about her work , her recent book, and her recent article in Harvard Business Review, on The Third Opinion[2]. The term The Third Opinion was coined by Clark Clifford, advisor and friend to many US Presidents[3] . 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.

ChainLink: Please tell us a little about yourself…what interests you/drives you professionally?

Saj-nicole: 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.

ChainLink: Why did you write this book?

Saj-nicole: 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.

Through 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.

ChainLink: Your architecture of relationships was interesting. Can you explain to our readers a little about how you perceive relationships?

Saj-nicole: 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”.

Insiders 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.

When 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.

When the stakes are high and decisions really matter, the third opinion is often the difference between superior results and disaster.

ChainLink: So, when does some one need a third opinion?

Saj-nicole: 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 decisions.

ChainLink: I like the concept of the inner circle. People have them, but usually don’t structure them well.

Saj-nicole: 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.)

ChainLink: Ultimately, isn’t the inner circle not just about who you are comfortable with, but about better decision and reducing risk?

Saj-nicole: 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?

As 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.

ChainLink: 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?

Saj-nicole: 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.

ChainLink: 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?

Saj-nicole: 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.

ChainLink: 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 gold.

Saj-nicole, we appreciate your insights.

Ann Grackin

[1] Saj-nicole A. Joni, PhD, author of The Third Opinion

[2] Founder of Cambridge International Group Ltd

[3] And Secretary of Defense, about his relationship with Lynda Johnson

[4] Adviser to Artabanus councils Xerxes, King of Persia as recorded by Herodotus, 5th century B.C.

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