Understanding Expert Credentials

I gave a talk recently on success.  Within that talk, I spoke about what to look for when choosing an advisor.

A – Success in multiple fields (to reduce the role of chance)

B – Experience helping people like you, achieve goals like yours (specific advisory competency)

C – Alignment of values (we trend towards our role models)

That’s all fine and dandy but I get hired on that basis less than 5% of the time!

Here’s what most people look for in an advisor:

  • Tall
  • Good looking
  • Well dressed
  • Specific personal success.  For example: wealthy (financial advisor), fast (athletic advisor), intelligent (academic advisor)
  • Well known in personal peer group

The above are what generate initial enquiries (and why this blog is light on photos – I prefer to stack up on my merits).  If you don’t believe me then invert (short, ugly, poorly dressed, visible personal failures, unknown in your peer group).  The five points are what get you a chance to bid on the business.  The fact that this has nothing to do with ability to perform, isn’t important (until you have to start working with the individual).

Firms, and people, with an understanding of bias create systems to help them balance their programming.  The ABCs that started this article are a good checklist.  You’ll probably still choose the best looking candidate but at least they are likely to have something to offer.

Fortunately, the reasons that we stay with an adviser are significantly different:

  • Cares about me;
  • Is responsive to my needs;
  • I’m getting results; and
  • Brand image.

If you consider why you stay in a relationship, at a firm, in a team… then you’ll likely find your reasons fall into those categories.  To those I’d add: fear of change; and switching costs.  

Remember that we score everything in relative terms – if you want to score well then you need to be relatively better.  It’s also why you should think very careful about the choices you make in your relative environment.  If you have a desire to feel fast, rich, educated, well dressed or successful then your choice of relative environment will be an essential factor.

Advisers can waste a huge amount of time on focusing on “being right”.  If you think through the dynamics of a successful relationship then only a small part of the life cycle will be due to specific knowledge.  Only a little hinges on being an expert (but, at the sharp end, a little means a lot).  The more mass-market your positioning, the less actual knowledge plays in success (it only takes a little knowledge to be an expert relative to the mean).  

Choose wisely.




A – Tim Ferriss is the best example I know on creating a perception of expert credentials.  He is a master of the mass market and worth studying.

B – Read Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion to better understand how we make decisions

C – The roadmap doesn’t matter until you’ve established an ability to control your direction.  Focus on creating habits of consistent self-direction and work – your coaches, parents, teachers, colleagues… they will serve you best when they help you learn to control the impulses that work against success.  

D – I strongly believe in the value of world-class knowledge and will share ideas on it’s acquisition in a future piece.