David Maister - Professional Business, Professional Life

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David Maister - Professional Business, Professional Life

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Transform Morale Into Money

by Jennifer Reingold 2001

from Fast Company, 2001

David Maister is the man the country’s top advisors go to for advice: the consultant’s consultant, the accountant’s auditor, the PR person’s press agent, the lawyer’s internal litigator.

Maister’s job (and, yes, he chose it of his own free will), is to tell those who are paid to advise others how to run their own shops. A former Harvard Business School professor and author of several highly regarded books, including The Trusted Advisor, Maister has built a thriving practice helping professional service firms improve their own business.

You would think that a guy who charges $15,000 a day counseling consultants and telling lawyers what to do would be a discreet, expensively tailored consigliere with a fondness for language larded with phrases like “value propositions” and “inflection points.” You would be wrong. Maister is a loud, smart, egocentric Englishman who likes small words and real-life anecdotes. He looks as if he might flip the table over in our elegant Italian restaurant, just because he’s so pumped up. He’s not a subtle sort. “No one has a better life than Maister,” he exults. “Write that down!”

Maister’s current passion is a research project that he’s completed for his upcoming book, Practice What You Preach: What Managers Must Do to Create a High Achievement Culture (Free Press, June 2001). In 1999, Maister surveyed 5,500 employees of a large advertising and media conglomerate who were dispersed among 139 offices in 15 countries. Maister wanted to know their feelings about their own office’s culture. He used a questionnaire that combined an employee survey he’d used before with the values statement of Goldman Sachs—a measure, if there ever was one, of a profitable company. Maister wanted to prove something that we all think is true but can’t quantify: that the management in a particular office can make a difference in financial performance. “I decided that I needed more than anecdotes,” he says. “I could feel clients’ residual frustration.”

Places with happier employees make more money? Any CEO worth his bonus check would tell you that it’s all about the people. But just try to prove it.

Now, Maister has been able to show a real causal relationship between employee satisfaction, the role of the manager, and pure, unadulterated profit. His study found that a company could boost its financial performance (measured by an index combining two-year percentage growth in revenues and profit, margin and profit per employee) by as much as 42 percent by raising employee satisfaction by 20 percent. In his study, the top 20 percent of offices with the best financial performance most significantly outperformed the others when it came to ranking one statement: “Enthusiasm and morale are high.” Says Maister: “It’s like cooking a meal and saying ‘Which is the crucial ingredient?’ It’s the one that’s missing. Net, net, net—if you want employees to make money for you, you have to care about them.”

But how do we know that it’s not the money itself that boosts morale? To prove causality, Maister did a complex analysis called “structural equation modeling.” Not surprisingly, the most direct relationship to profits was determined by a series of questions dealing with quality and client relationships. Happy clients pay more and do more business. Maister proved that offices where employees “agreed” that client service was a priority and a competitive strength had twice the financial performance of those where employees “somewhat agreed” that client service was a priority. Then he went one step further to see what drives the client relationship—and was able to demonstrate two categories with direct links: employee satisfaction and high standards.

“The big ‘aha’ is this: If you want to give great client service, being good at energizing your people is essential,” Maister booms. “There is a direct causal path. So even if you understand that serving clients well is the key to money, the key to serving clients well is getting better at energizing people. It’s not just another item.”

To round out his research, Maister interviewed both the employees and heads of nine of the best-performing offices to see why they thought they did so well. The answers can be summed up in one phrase, says Maister: “Have you met Alice yet?”

Who the heck is Alice? Alice is a euphemism for the boss—the one person in every high-performing office who has courage, personality, skills and high standards—and who is the main reason for employees’ success and happiness. Note that the main factor has everything to do with the local manager—and little, if anything, to do with the corporate vision or the CEO of the entire company. Likewise, every “Alice” talks about how she (or he) likes her people, how she spends more time talking to them than to clients, and how she tries to hold herself to the same high standards as others. The company that Maister surveyed is so convinced of the merits of his survey that it’s now beginning to evaluate its managers using his criteria.

There’s only one problem, Maister says: Alices are generally born, not made. “I don’t think that you can train attitudes,” he says. “You can train skills.” And not everyone is to the corner office born. Management is often a grueling, slow, non-ego-gratifying job, given as a reward to people who are fast, ego-driven, and externally oriented. Look at the origin of the word “manager,” says Maister. It means the “holder of horses.” That, he says, sums up a manager’s job. It’s not glamorous; you must strain to keep control of a bunch of anxious creatures while exhorting them and motivating them to move, together, the way you want them to. But it’s the key to success. “Managers are not doing what they’re doing through only vision,” he says. “In the end, there is no magic pill. They have to do the work.”

Maister’s Rules for Managing for Success

Practice what you preach. There’s a reason that this has become a cliché, says Maister. It counts. “Here’s my shtick,” he says. “If you don’t want to be dedicated to customer service, God bless,” he says. “But if you say that you are committed and don’t follow through, it’s worse. The only sin, in my view, is hypocrisy.” He’s got proof: One of the survey questions that correlated directly with higher profits was “Managers practice what they preach.” Those managers who didn’t did significantly worse. “If you preach something that you don’t practice, you lose twice. You have proved to your employees that you lied. The big message of my book is to preach what you want to do.”

Help the fat smokers. Maister isn’t impressed with the lax model of management that became synonymous with the new economy. While a small number of workers don’t need any direction at all, the opposite is usually the case, he says, and managers need to do what their job title says: manage. “I’m a fat smoker,” he says. “I know how to give up smoking, but I don’t. I respect autonomy, giving choices, but I also think employees need help. That doesn’t mean being Attila the Hun. There is a way for managers to say to their staff, ‘I trust you to do it, but if you don’t do it, I will be there.’”

Subjugate the ego. Professional service firms share a common problem, says Maister: The people promoted into management got there because they were rainmakers or superstars when they were lawyers or accountants. They were rewarded for bringing in business rather than for being good managers. This means that lots of people who still want to be in the limelight are in management positions. Bad move, says Maister. “If I believe that my manager is trying to help me win, I’m much more likely to follow him. The job of a manager is to make other people successful. Let other people kick the soccer ball.” If you aren’t comfortable getting your glory indirectly, you’re in the wrong job, plain and simple.

Publicize performance reviews. Maister thinks that 360-degree feedback is kind of “wussy,” since the only person who sees employees’ criticism of a manager is the manager himself. Maister says that the only way to get wayward managers to focus on the job of managing is to make managers’ performance reviews available to all employees in the company. Not that he knows of any companies that do this yet—but he can always hope.