David Maister - Professional Business, Professional Life

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David Maister - Professional Business, Professional Life

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Maister of the Universe

by Mairi Clark 2005

from THE FIRM, Scotland, 2005

He’s loud, he’s brash and he’s coming to Scotland in October. David Maister is one of the world’s most respected business thinkers and he’ll be jetting into the lighthouse in Glasgow to speak to law firms about the secret to getting the very most out of your people. Mairi Clark has an unusual telephone conversation with David Maister.

As interviewees go, David Maister is both the perfect and the nightmare subject. Forthright and opinionated, he immediately takes control from the offset, demanding to know what is expected from him in the interview. “What do you want to know and how much do you have to fill,” he asks bullishly. “If you tell me, then I can make sure we both leave this interview happy.”

It’s this assertive attitude that has led to him being one of the best-known business thinkers and a leading authority on managing professional services firms. By building a global practice, he now spends 40 per cent of his time in North America, 30 per cent in Western Europe and 30 per cent in the rest of the world. He charges $20,000 a day advising businesses, something he waits until the end of the interview to reveal, lest the cost of his time be calculated. While that figure may make even the hardiest financial director baulk, it does come with a no-quibble client satisfaction guarantee.

Maister, 58, is coming to Glasgow in October to talk to Scottish business minds on how to be a good manager. It is one of only two UK dates, and focuses on the idea that being a ‘people person’ can help a business grow to become more profitable and to cultivate good management.

The ethos of emotional intelligence is not a new one, but its application to the business world is rarely practised. Maister himself admits that he was not taught it. “I did not start to understand this until I got married to my wife Kathy,” he says. “I was trying to be a brain; I was trying to be smart.”

When he talks about being smart, 58-year-old Maister is referring to the early stages of his career, when he’d just completed degrees in mathematics and economics at the University of Birmingham and London School of Economics, and his doctorate at Harvard Business School. After a spell teaching at the University of British Columbia in Canada, he moved to the Harvard faculty to teach courses in managing service businesses and production operations until 1985, when he went solo as a consultant.

“If you stay inside the university setting, it doesn’t matter if people like you a lot, they only care that you are smart,” he says. “My wife doesn’t actually like intellectuals but she is interested in people. What I really learned from her was that I used to think that the ‘understanding people’ topic was an option. It’s not, it’s essential.”

North London-born, Maister now lives in Boston, where he manages his consultancy business, interspersed with seminars and book writing — of which he has written five. “I’m an American by style,” he says, by way of explanation of his US residency. “I’m noisy, loud, aggressive, brash and excitable. I found that it fits better in the US than in Britain.”

While it would be easy to dismiss Maister as yet another motivational speaker, his ethos has been proven. In 2001, Maister carried out a piece of research that formed the bulk of his 2001 book, Practice What You Preach. The research surveyed 139 offices of 29 firms in 15 countries in 15 different lines of business, and asked a simple question: “Are employee attitudes correlated with financial success?” Using the results of some 6,500 employees, Maister came up with the results that suggest financially successful businesses are successful in no small way thanks to their positive employee attitudes.

“If you reject human interaction as a soft subject, I can prove you make less money,” he says. “Managers and people who know how people work make more money. Management is not really about being smart or about intellect. It’s about how in control are you in your conversations.”

Maister relates a story about his nephews and nieces, who, probably after seeing their uncle’s $20,000 paycheque for a day’s work, figure there must be some secret.

“They know I used to be a university professor and they come to me and say, ‘How do you do well?’,” he says. “My answer is always, ‘Go to class and do the homework’. They say, ‘What’s the secret? You are asking us to give up short-term pleasures’. I say, ‘I’m not asking you to give up anything, you wanted to know how to do well’.”
He’s as honest about who should come to his seminar. “Lawyers have constantly rejected managing their businesses,” he says. “The metaphor I use is improving a law firm is like my problem of being a fat smoker. I don’t need another speech about health. I know exactly what to do. People should only come if they are serious about losing the weight and getting on the diet.”

The interview is interrupted by a phone call, which Maister takes and is still audible. He is obviously talking to a supplier of some description. “I’m sorry, you ‘don’t normally do this’?” he says to the caller. “That’s not making sense. How much money do I have to pay to get this delivered? We’ve been waiting months.” There’s a pause. “You ‘don’t normally do this’?” he repeats incredulously. “So if I was to give you $200,000, you couldn’t deliver it for me sooner? Fine. I’ll give her the message that she just has to wait.” He then puts the phone down.

“See,” he says, coming back to the interview, “in this situation, my wife ordered something and has waited three months. There is a difference between right and wrong. If I was really trying to win that person over, losing my temper was the wrong route. Even if she could help me, she wouldn’t. She hates me.”

A simple theme runs through Maister’s attitude, you only get from people what you put in, or, as he puts it: “Life has a way of teaching you that everything you want in life has to be given to you by another human being, how do you get another human being to give you what you want?

“If you thought your father was doing something that needed to change, you would think carefully about what was the best way to tell them,” he says. “You’d go over and over it in your head, trying to phrase it so you wouldn’t hurt them. Unfortunately, in work we don’t take that approach.”

Maister believes firms often promote people to management when, in reality, their skills lie elsewhere. “Firms have to be a lot more careful in who they choose as their managers,” Maister says. “They tend to choose the person who has the best financial skills, or the founder, or the best rainmaker. I believe it is the job of the manager of the firm to awaken the energy, desire, passion and enthusiasm of his or her partners. If you are really interested in people, they will respond to you.”

Seminar attendees should not be fearful that they’ll get the usual acronyms and gobbledygook that other business advisors spout; Maister is as sceptical as the rest of us. “Part of what I do for my audience is say that we must stop using business jargon and start dealing with each other as people,” he says. “If a manager’s motives are not pure, if they are just doing it for the money, then you can’t teach the skills if the attitude is not there. If a manager’s motives are pure, and they are really trying to help then you can teach them the ability to coach, manage and help.”

He’s quick to point out that he’s not a motivator. “The main point of this is, lawyers know this but do very little of it,” he says. “Your job as a member of the audience is to tell me what you really want to achieve in your firm.”