David Maister - Professional Business, Professional Life

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David Maister - Professional Business, Professional Life

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Forget Money, Think Passion

by Elizabeth Church 2000

from The Globe and Mail (Toronto), 2000

Consultant David Maister says the most successful firms are the ones that are doing what they care about, rather than simply worrying about bringing in income.

David Maister sees himself as a diet counselor for professional services firms. People are more likely to watch their weight if they know they must step on the scales in front of an audience, Mr. Maister observes.

In the same way, professional firms need some prodding to work towards their strategic goals rather than just chasing billable hours, he argues. Unfortunately, the Boston-based consultant and author maintains, most firms are too tempted by any offer of business to stop and consider if it fits with their plans.

“Most firms’ marketing strategy is ‘We’ve never met a billable hour we didn’t like,’” says the frank-talking adviser to professional service firms worldwide, who has taught at Harvard Business School and University of British Columbia. He was in Toronto recently to address a gathering of management consultants.

Mr. Maister says he understands that mentality, but cautions that the health of a professional firm has a lot to do with being focused about the work it chooses to do. “I’m a fat smoker. I can understand somebody who says, ‘I’m not ready to get on the diet,’” he jokes, after nipping out for a quick puff on the street. “Change is hard work, even if it might be better for me in the long run. Change is nasty.” But he says a change of thinking is essential if a service firm wants to get out ahead of the pack. “You have to think not only about income, but about whether that income is moving you forward to where you want to go.”

Mr. Maister says that’s a critical issue— because doing work to which you feel connected makes your job more rewarding and in the end brings better financial results. “If you go into firms that make the most money, they are doing things they care about.” he says. “The people that are winning out there are not smarter than the others. They are winning because they have the passion to do what others know they should do but don’t.”

To back up his theory with some empirical data, Mr. Maister recently took a look at the financial results and employee attitudes at 139 offices of an international professional services firm. The survey forms the basis of his new book, Profitable Professional Cultures, (later renamed Practice What You Preach) to be published next spring by The Free Press. His research included questionnaires to 6,500 individuals, from junior employees to partners within the firm. The offices represent 15 different lines of business in 20 countries and belong to 50 different affiliated companies within the organization.

What the results clearly show, Mr. Maister says, is that the offices with the most satisfied employees were also the most financially successful by a number of measures. “The real driver of success of a unit is the ability of the manager to energize and excite people,” he says. “The teams that do the best are not just the ones with the best athletes but are the ones with the best coaches to coach the athletes.” But Mr. Maister says that type of individual, who is willing to support and encourage others, is a rare find in a professional services firm, where egos are often large and bringing in business is what is rewarded. Still, he says, it’s a role that is essential for success.

“The person you need to choose as a manager is someone who gets fulfillment out of seeing someone else succeed,” he says. “If your firm does not have such a person, your firm will never be a star.” Instead, Mr. Maister says too many firms try to achieve a leadership position in the market through size, a tactic that has been played out in the wave of mergers among legal and accounting firms. “They think, ‘Let’s merge and we will be bigger than anyone else and everyone will know us,’” he says. “It’s a complete cop-out. You win by working on quality and innovation.”

Mr. Maister—author of the 1997 book True Professionalism and coauthor of The Trusted Advisor, to be published by The Free Press this fall—says he has remained a solo consultant because he knew he could never coach others. He admits it is often difficult to pass up lucrative work just because it does not fit with the plans he has for his business. But he argues that this kind of discipline has paid off and allowed him to build a business where he can now charge U.S.$12,000 a day for his advice. “If you are spending time doing stuff you love for people you can care about, you will make more money,” he says.

For those who are still focused on the money, Mr. Maister has this to say: “I think you are throwing your lives away.”