David Maister - Professional Business, Professional Life

jump to menu jump to content

David Maister - Professional Business, Professional Life

About DavidDavid's Resources

Articles and Interviews

Could Happy Workers Double Your Profits?

by Roger Trapp 2001

from The Independent (UK), 2001

Scare tactics have become a familiar weapon in the hands of management gurus in recent years. Big-name speakers, such as the strategy expert Gary Hamel, are apt to present their listeners with a choice that is not much more sophisticated than, “Do what I tell you or face oblivion,” typically at the hands of a completely new player in your industry.

Not David Maister. The man who has acquired a formidable reputation as a consultant to professional service firms says it is in the nature of the human condition that such an approach does not work. He says business people in particular should stop looking for “magic pills” and concentrate on common sense, and stop deluding themselves that they are going to get fit by proclaiming they are on a diet while sneaking snacks and treats. In other words, they should end the hypocrisy of “pretending you’re going for a goal when you know you aren’t doing what it takes to get there.”

As Dr. Maister freely admits, this theme of being true to yourself and upholding high standards is familiar to those who have followed the career of the UK-born former Harvard Business School professor. What makes it different this time is that now he claims to have the data to back up his convictions.

Using the survey of more than 5,500 people in 15 countries that is the basis of his new book, Practice What You Preach (The Free Press, £17.99), he says that raising employee satisfaction by 20 percent will increase a company’s financial performance by more than 42 percent. Financial performance was measured by examining margins, profit per employee, and growth in revenues and profits over two years. Employees were also asked to rate how well they thought their workplace was doing in such areas as client service, quality of work, market reputations, profitability, growth, quality of the workplace, creativity, teamwork and career development.

From this, Dr. Maister deduces that financial success is directly attributed to good client relationships, which in turn are caused by a high quality of customer service, which is itself largely the result of employee satisfaction.

In case anybody should run away with the idea that this is all about being nice, Dr. Maister is quick to point out that there is nothing soft about the companies and managers he has identified as high achievers in this area.

“The standards are tough,” he writes in the tersely written book, subtitled What Managers Must Do to Create a High Achievement Culture. “They do not say, gently, ‘We encourage teamwork’. They say things like, ‘We have no room for individualists’. The message is that management must have the guts and courage to enforce the standards they frequently preach.” For this reason, while the message seems straightforward and obvious, it is not necessarily going to attract many adherents. There are no quick fixes in this approach. Just a lot of hard graft, particularly in the area traditionally seen as requiring soft skills—managing people.

Maister acknowledges that he finds the people aspect of business much more difficult than the strategy side and so chooses to work alone, on a daily rate, he helpfully points out, of U.S.$15,000 (£11,000). So he can understand why managers in a variety of organizations (his case studies are based on businesses in such fields as public relations, consulting and advertising) might shy from it. But, equally, his studies convince him that the ability to “energize, excite and enthuse your people” is crucial to success.

He also accepts that his steadfast adherence to principles, standards and doing one thing supremely well has caused a certain irritation in some larger practitioners among lawyers, accountants and other professional firms where he made his name. They say they have had to become more businesslike as they have mushroomed in size, if only to keep the revenues coming in to cover their huge staff costs.

But an unrepentant Dr. Maister insists this is mistaken. “My advice is not that they need to become more businesslike,” he says. “They need to become more professional. They need to take their standards very much more seriously than they tend to do.”

This is not to say they should not necessarily chase cash from wherever it comes, or adopt a policy whereby partners’ remuneration is based on “eat what you kill,” or their level of billing, rather than a more equitable arrangement. It is just that, as the book’s title suggests, they should not do it while claiming they are concentrating only on a certain type of work or promoting teamwork.

Moralistic as this may appear, Dr Maister says he does not mean it that way. He further softens the message (and further diverges from his consultant colleagues) by allowing the possibility that there is a middle way between towering success and collapse—muddling through. What separate the muddler from the star are ambition and the ability to encourage others to share the dream.

However, let there be no mistake: moving from one to the other takes a lot of hard work that not everybody is prepared to endure.