This post is part of our Monthly-ish Tips series.

Back in the day, before COVID forced some major workshop redesigns to accommodate the needs of virtual participants, I used to open every in-person session or keynote with a story. A recent opportunity to spend a day in the same physical room with 60 participants (yay!) had me thinking fondly about my favorite tale of my first-ever client meeting—which also happened to showcase a big professional trust fail on my part. Maybe I’ll reprise “The Shipyard Story” one day. In the meantime, here it is, with an important reminder for us all no matter our professional tenure.

When I was 23 years old, I got my first consulting job working for a global IT consulting firm. My first assignment was with the United States Navy. After just two weeks on the job, I was asked to join my team on-site for a kickoff meeting at a shipyard, which is where the bulk of the work was physically taking place. It was my first time on a shipyard of any kind.

Take a moment to imagine the scene: me, fully accessorized, prim and proper in my brand new suit, surrounded by the dirt and grime of this very industrial locale populated by experienced and grizzled men (yes, back in that day they were all men).

There were eight or nine people from the client organization, and three from my consulting firm including me. The client lead opened the meeting by facilitating introductions. He asked each person to briefly speak about how long we’d been “on the yard” and “what we brought to the party.” I felt panicked by the questions as the honest answers were “mere minutes” and “I’m not sure!” I found a way to stall for time and positioned myself to answer last.

By the time it was my turn to respond, I found out that every single member of the client team had been working in the shipyard longer than I’d been alive.

True story.

I skipped the question about how long I’d been on the yard by pretending to forget to answer it. For the one about what I brought to the party, I regaled them all with as much relevant technical jargon as I could recall from my recent college curriculum, attempting to justify my existence.

Of course, it was obvious to all the seasoned clients that I was a complete newbie.

I remember my earnestness and my ridiculousness combined like it was yesterday, as I name-dropped techniques like “Yourdon/Demarco data modeling” with bravado. You can imagine the painful unfolding: the more I tried to appear smart and relevant, the more naïve and inexperienced (and annoying?) I proved myself to be.

They were gracious. They also weren’t fooled. I for sure wasn’t the first young business analyst from a highfalutin firm that they had ever encountered.

Imagine my relief and their appreciation if I’d just told the truth, maybe even with a culturally-appropriate curse word dropped in: “Hmmm, well, let me NOT start with B.S. You can probably tell by looking at me that I’ve been a consultant for two weeks. I’ve been on the yard—any yard—for nearly 30 minutes if we’re generous and round up. I bring some recent data modeling knowledge. More than anything you can count on my commitment to our success as a team.”

What I know now that I wish I knew then is true for anyone in any role, regardless of tenure: honesty builds credibility as much as experience does—and sometimes even more so. Candor is a breath of fresh air, especially in fields where intellect and knowledge reign supreme at the expense of more meaningful connection. And choosing to be real is nearly always a win for everyone.

Make It Real

This week, look for opportunities to tell the truth about who you are, with confidence and humility combined.

Learn More

Brush up on other tips for how to (and how not to) kickoff client projects in Chapter 20 of The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook.

“Memories …”

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Andrea Howe

As the founder of The Get Real Project, I am the steward of our vision and our service offerings, as well as a workshop leader and keynote speaker. Above all else, I am an entrepreneur on a mission: to kick conventional business wisdom to the curb and transform how people work together as a result. I am also the co-author, with Charles H. Green, of The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook (Wiley, 2012).