Articles and Interviews
Maister Remains A 'Trusted Advisor'
by Editors at IPA 2005
“Maister Remains A ‘Trusted Advisor’ (Who Minces No Words About Firms’ Faults)”, from Inside Public Accounting (July 2005). Reprinted with permission. To subscribe, visit www.hudsonsawyer.com.
He sputters. He snorts. He spits. He spouts. His curses could take the paint off a truck, despite his sincere English-accented apologies.
Yet nobody else commands the attention or the respect among managing partners and other senior accounting firm executives that David Maister does. For $18,000 a day, the Boston-based consultant, author and former Harvard Business School professor will come to your firm and tell you the same brutal truths that plenty of people who work for your firm would love to tell you, only you’d fire them if they did: You’re not a leader. You’re not even much of a manager. You don’t have a clue about inspiring anyone, much less about how to get rich.
Afterward, you’ll feel so enlightened. You really will. Somehow, Maister manages to pull it off without seeming insulting and without leaving anyone with the impression that he’s a jerk — at least, no bigger a jerk than any other consultant or some accounting firm executives. The guy just knows what he’s talking about, and he’s not afraid to tell you what your problem is in the most ruthless terms possible. Hooray for his chutzpah, you’ll think. You’ll actually thank him.
The Association For Accounting Administration (AAA) brought Maister to its national symposium in June in Phoenix to tell its members the same things he preaches to accounting firm partners (who happen to be the same people that AAA members work for). Following are some noteworthy things he told AAA members:
- Firms lie. Most firms make some version of the following claims on their Web sites, in their brochures, and in their marketing materials: We are uniquely qualified … Client service is our highest priority … We are experts in the industries we serve … Our passion is helping our clients succeed … We define our success by our clients’ success … But few firms live up to those claims, Maister said. Most partners don’t even bother to read every issue of the trade magazines for industries they claim to specialize in. The ones who don’t — and it’s probably most of them — are big reasons why firms make less money than they could. They’re not providing superior value. “They’re simply proving that they’ll lie to get business,” Maister said.
- “If you want to make the most money you can, then you have to provide consistently superior value to the client as defined by the client,” Maister said. “There’s no market premium for occasional excellence. I’ve lost patience for the hypocritical middle. Firms claim they stand for these things, then they don’t back them up. Who told you that’s good business?”
- The key to making money isn’t performance, but conformance. People are willing to pay a premium to have their risks removed. It’s why McDonald’s proliferates the fast-food world with a mediocre hamburger, Maister pointed out. Your firm will earn more money if it delivers what it promises every single time it does work for a client.
- The concept of making money is really no different than that of losing weight or earning a degree. Americans are willing to pay billions of dollars a year for quick-fix weight loss plans and products. Students party through college while trying to finagle ways to ace exams. “There are no quick fixes. Want to lose weight? Eat less and exercise more. Want to make good grades? Go to class and do the work. Making more money is the same. We know what to do. We want the benefits, but we don’t want to change our lifestyles. Well, there’s no reward for dabbling. Either go for it and live a disciplined life and get the benefits, or settle for mediocrity.”
- Remember how you won the heart of your spouse or significant other? Win the hearts of your partners, clients and staff with the same principles. You’ll make more money if you apply the rules of romance to your business. Maister spelled out four of the basics: (1) Have fun. “If you can’t make it fun as well as productive, you’re so brain-dead that you don’t understand what it takes to get rich.” (2) Combine honesty with subtlety of language. “Do I look fat in this dress?” The correct answer to this dreaded question: “I like the blue dress better.” (3) Never exploit others for short-term gain. (4) Give respect and acceptance. “Deal with the other person as a human being with emotions rather than as a person in a role. We’ve all been allowed for too many years to say that respect and acceptance don’t matter in business relationships. Well, they do.”
- Establishing a mission and core values is not the same as living up to them. “You don’t make your marriage 50% better by giving up 50% of your affairs,” Maister said. “Get real. Most firms do know the right things to say, but they don’t have the courage to enforce those things.”
- Few accounting firm executives are leaders. Most aren’t even good managers. “The job of a manager is to make other people successful, which is why you rarely see good management at an accounting firm. We use the wrong principles for choosing managers,” Maister says.
- Concentrate on being a good coach. That’s how you get what you want from partners, staff and clients. Good coaches create energy, excitement and enthusiasm with a three-step process: (1) They’re demanding in well thought-out increments. Give all the time necessary to people who have a lot to learn or who make mistakes. “The only deal-breaker is for those who aren’t trying. Firms have amazing tolerance for people with bad attitudes who don’t try. You must be demanding and nurturing at the same time.” (2) They work in one-on-one conversations and tell people, “You can do this.” (3) They say, “I will help you” and follow through. They offer genuine and proportionate praise not only at the finish line, but along the way, too. Every three months, they evaluate progress and set new goals.
- Coaching is your most important job. Coaching “is more important than anything else you are doing. Management at most firms simply implies, “Sorry, we don’t have time to actually manage you, but we’ll change the bonus scheme or whatever,’” he said. “It’s not an incentive issue. It’s that nobody’s helped them reach their goals. It’s a matter of priorities. Partners would rather spend money on useless training programs than take time to actually help people.” For firms with good and consistent coaching, “the strategic plan takes care of itself,” he said.
True managers motivate and change people one on one by helping them get what they want, which, in turn, makes them want to help the manager get what he or she wants (that is, for the firm to make more money), Maister said. Management isn’t the same as leadership, he added. “Leadership as a concept is hugely overrated. One in 100,000 accounting firms have a true leader.”
Memorable Maister-isms: Quotes From The Master
Nobody can turn a phrase quite like David Maister, Boston-based professional services consultant, former Harvard Business School professor, and author of five books, including the classic, “Managing The Professional Services Firm.” Here are some gems from his three presentations at June’s national symposium of the Association For Accounting Administration in Phoenix.
- “I’m not a people person. I have no social skills. Everyone always told me, ‘That’s OK.’ Then I left education and made a terrible discovery: The world is full of people. I needed to learn how to deal with people, and it wasn’t optional. There’s no intelligent substitute for understanding how people work.”
- “The worst way to get someone to change is to criticize them. Throw away every performance appraisal system you have. These systems say, ‘Let me tell you what your weaknesses are and what you owe to the relationship.’ We know how to change behavior in our personal lives, but not in our business lives. Why do we think they’re so different?”
- “It’s not hard to find smart people. It’s hard to find people who inspire and motivate.”
- “People at accounting firms are starved for appreciation.”
- “The only way you motivate people and change them is one-on-one. Everything else is window dressing.”
- “What could you accomplish in three months that you would find fun and that would help the business? Whatever it is, do it. Evaluate and set new goals when the three months are up.”
- “Most accounting firms aren’t good at creating energy, enthusiasm and excitement, but they are extraordinarily great at destroying it.”
- “The way you get rich is don’t get sucked into doing dumb stuff for people you don’t like.”
- “Most accounting firms never met a billable hour they didn’t like. Report in terms of profit per partner, not in terms of hours. It’s profit that matters, not hours billed.”
- “The amount of energy left in Big Four partners barely exists. The passion has just been beaten out of them.”