David Maister - Professional Business, Professional Life

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David Maister - Professional Business, Professional Life

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On Writing Books

by About.com 2000

Interview with David by About.com, 2000

When did you start writing, and how did you make the transition from consulting to writing?

David Maister: About 1980 or so, I was a professor at Harvard Business School and first started focusing on professional service firms. I made a promise to a magazine called The American Lawyer that I would write an article a month for them for three years. It was terrifying, but it forced me to be productive and it led both to my consulting career and to my first book, which was built around those articles.

I never did make a “transition” from consulting to writing. The consulting generates the topics and insights for the articles and books, and the books build the consulting business. I cannot imagine one without the other.

Do you prefer writing or consulting?

DM: Consulting is more fun to “do” because it’s flesh-to-flesh, face-to-face, adrenaline-pumping, “in-the-here-and-now” stuff. There’s nothing like the warm glow that comes when you succeed in helping someone, and put your head on the pillow thinking “Just this once, maybe, I made a difference in people’s lives life today!”

Writing can give you that same feeling, such as when you get a call or an email from someone halfway across the world telling you that what you wrote made a difference to them. But the gratification is delayed. You have to sweat for months to figure out what to say to strangers, and how to say it. It’s not pleasant or easy. They say the two things you should never see being made are laws and sausages. Well, add books to that list! The process is ugly!

Do I like writing? Heck, no! Do I love having written, having had the chance to affect people I’ve never met? You bet! Does my mom get a glow of pride with a book of mine on her shelves? Of course! And I get to say, “See, Mom, that’s what I do!” (Actually, I’m not sure she really does understand what I do, but it’s easier than explaining what consulting is!)

Are there any self-help authors or authors from other genres who have particularly inspired you?

DM: I’ll always be grateful to Tom Peters, not only for breaking through and making it possible for business authors to sell books but also for his example. I love his courage, his enthusiasm, his continual search for new ideas and above all the clear sense that he is writing about what he cares about. Passion truly is the secret of success. You gotta care, or you’ll get nowhere! If you write or consult about business, then you’ve got to recognize that this is serious stuff. We’re talking about people’s lives here!

What are the biggest differences in your books, Managing the Professional Service Firm, True Professionalism: The Courage to Care About Your People, Your Clients, and Your Career, and The Trusted Advisor? How are they connected? Are they for the same audience?

DM: MTPSF (my first book) has become what I hoped it would become, a sort of practical handbook for how to run a professional business. It covers many firm management topics, from profits to marketing to compensation systems. There’s a lot of good advice there, but it’s not very passionate. In the next book, TP, even though it covers similar topics, I did two new things. I aimed the book a little bit more at the individual in professional life, rather than just those running firms, and I raised the emotional temperature. I tried to challenge people’s self-image with questions like “Are you really a professional, or are you just a technocrat?” “If you have somebody working for you, why should they follow you?”

This transition was completed in the latest book, The Trusted Advisor. This book is almost completely aimed at helping individuals who serve clients, from dentists, lawyers, consultants and accountants to veterinarians, in-house HR people, engineers and real estate brokers (and many others). It is also almost entirely about emotions and is very personal. It addresses such delicate subjects as “Do people trust you? Do people think you care? Do you actually know how to get people to trust you?”

Way back in the first book, I dimly perceived the importance of this stuff, and hinted at it. With the benefit of time, lots of experiences (good and bad) and the substantial input of my coauthors Charles Green and Robert Galford, I think I’m getting closer to understanding what’s really important in life and careers, and what to do about it!

I understand that you write books that are primarily geared towards accountants, lawyers and consultants, rather than to product-based companies. How are the management principles different in these types of companies?

DM: Most professional firms have nothing to sell but their people. There are no machines to bail you out of trouble and keep production up. So whether you’ re talking about serving customers and clients or attracting and retaining employees, you end up having to figure out what makes people tick. Which is hard, because few of us are ever taught these things, even those of us who had a business education. For example, what are the secrets of building strong relationships? It turns out (as we discuss in The Trusted Advisor) that being good at building relationships is essential in professional life: relationships with clients, coworkers and subordinates. Yet how many people can tell you the essential “rules of romance”?

We had a lot of fun in writing the latest book. We’ve already had people tell us it helped not only in business but in their relationships with their romantic partners. Now that’s fulfilling!