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Articles and Interviews

David Maister: Management Professional

by Tom Brown, Stuart Crainer, Des Dearlove and Jorge N. Rodrigues 2001

This interview appeared in BUSINESS MINDS, 2001

David Maister: a business mind who has been called “the professional’s professional”

David Maister (born 1947, in the UK) is a different kind of management guru. While most business researchers and business books have focused on industrial companies, Maister has spent his career studying and advising the professional services form, that is, the accounting legal, consulting, executive search, and real estate industries — forms which have nothing to sell but their people and their accumulated knowledge and skills.

As an academic in the early 1980s, he committed to writing a monthly article for the American Lawyer for three years. Those articles, plus others he published elsewhere, drew attention to him and his work. His first book, Managing the Professional Service Firm (1993, Free Press), was a compilation of his articles. The books that followed have been translated into a variety of languages. His latest book, Practice What You Preach (2001, Free Press), is based on his findings from a survey of more than 100 businesses across the world.

Fast Company said of him: “David Maister is the man the country’s top advisors go to for advice.” Maister holds degrees from the University of Birmingham, the London School of Economics, and the Harvard Business School, where he was a professor for seven years. For more information on his ideas and background, visit

In this interview, Maister outlines what he has learned from studying the correlation between employee attitudes and financial performance in 139 professional offices.

When you first visit a company, what is the most important question you ask?

What are the non-negotiable, minimum standards of behavior in this company? A company, I believe, is not defined by its aspirations but by the operational standards it is willing to enforce.

You have now studied the management practices of hundreds of “professionals.” What did you learn overall?

Of all things that professional firms do, managing people is consistently rated lowest on the list. However, the most financially successful offices do better at all aspects of managing people.

So if companies want to boost their performance…

To improve performance, companies should focus not on their quarterly financial targets but on motivating staff to provide excellent service. You make more money by doing the basics very well. Someone in one of the case studies in my last book said: “Chasing money is not what makes you money.” That’s very true.

Nothing in what I’m advocating is saying that money is the goal–that’s not the message. What I’m saying is that if you’re interested in money, then the best way to achieve this is not by focusing on the money but by getting excellent at something that people will reward you for. That applies not just to high-end professional services, but to McDonald’s. McDonald’s success is based on uncompromising standards.

You’ve talked about standards and performance. How about relationships, another key area you’ve researched? Aren’t most business relationships fairly up front?

Most business relationships are satisfactory, but real “trusted adviser” relationships are scarcer. Perhaps a test of the need is the reaction of many people to even thinking about this topic. They think that even talking about earning trust is “New Age” or “touchy-feely.” They would prefer either to remain in the logical realm (“I’ll earn my client’s confidence by the brilliance of my ideas”) or to remain intuitive (“I don’t need to think about this, I’ll just do the right thing when it happens”).

But business isn’t just logical, it’s emotional and personal, and not all of us have trained instincts to do and say the right thing, in the right way, at the right time. One of the most common business processes today is a renewed effort to do cross-selling and account management, that is, build relationships with major customers. Businesses are focusing on it because, to date, they have done an imperfect job in this area.

Then something like “trust” can be managed?

There are concrete things you can do to earn trust in business, and many, many things you can do to lose it. So, yes, it can be “managed” if you’re willing to be self-aware about what you do and what you say when you’re dealing with people. Trust is an essential ingredient in all relationships, business and personal, and it’s possible to be thoughtful about it and not just intuitive.

In our personal lives, when we are trying to build a relationship with another person, we try consciously to be sensitive, supportive, and understanding. We think actively about ways to show we care about the other person and use language that shows we’re trying to be on their side and take their feelings into account. The exact same thing applies in building relationships with clients, colleagues, and subordinates.

But you do admit that trust is complex, even ultra complex?

Absolutely. Someone can trust your competence and reliability but have severe reservations about your motives — whether you will treat them fairly, live up to your promises, and look after them. They may think you’re too focused on technical issues and not on the larger problem. They may think your self-orientation is too high.

The act of hiring anyone (whether it’s for a legal, accounting, medical, property, or consulting issue) requires you to hand over your affairs to a stranger and trust that they will look after you responsibly. It’s not just about “Can they do it?” It’s a very complex, emotional process. But that argues for trying to understand its components, not for giving up all thought about it.

What distinguishes a lasting management idea from a fad?

The most important distinction to make is between a business idea and a management idea. Business ideas are rooted in logical, rational, intellectual analysis. Management, by contrast, is not about logic. It’s about the interpersonal, social, and emotional skills of managers who have to deal with human beings as clients, employees or colleagues. Thus, no idea can last unless it reflects a keen understanding of human behavior. If the idea is purely intellectual, it’s likely to be a fad. And the tragedy of business education around the world is that too many managers are trained in business, not in management!

To what extent do leaders succeed or fail based on who they pick to advise them?

It depends upon how people use advisers, and many do it badly. Some seek out “an expert” and place their affairs in that expert’s hands, relying on the expert’s judgment and technical expertise. That’s unwise.

In my view, what leaders (and all of us) need is someone who will help us solve our own problems (“be an adviser”) and not just provide answers. We need someone who will help us understand our options, give us an education on those options, provide a recommendation based on their experience, and then help us reason through to our own conclusion.

That’s what we mean by being an adviser, and it takes a completely distinct set of skills in addition to knowing your field. Too many busy leaders provide a hostage to fortune by hiring experts and not be skilled advisers. They are taking big risks in so doing.

Ditto for leaders in other fields besides business?

None of this is restricted to the commercial sector. In fact, there are many people inside organizations of all kinds who are professional advisers even though they do not charge fees for their services. Human resource directors, marketing directors, engineers — all organizations are stocked with people whose job it is to give advice, and they are faced with exactly the same issues as those of us on the “outside.” How do I win influence? How do I get people to accept my judgment? How do I get permission to try something new? In summary, how do I get people to trust me?

One senses that, in your own career, you’ve been burned a time or two by a bad relationship.

Haven’t we all? But it wasn’t the unethical, fundamentally untrustworthy person who caused me to feel burned. It was an otherwise well-meaning person who lost my trust and confidence by neglecting silly things. The lawyer who won’t return phone calls when I’m dying to find out what happened. The interior decorator who won’t accept responsibility for missed deliveries. I know problems occur, but can’t you just keep me informed and play straight with me? The information technology consultant who just won’t listen to what I want, and keeps telling me what he thinks I should want. This isn’t about ethics: most people’s intentions are good, but their skills and behaviors are often pathetic and annoying.

How does one keep from becoming so cynical about people’s motives that no relationship seems safe, reliable, trustworthy?

Make clear, right at the start of a relationship with any provider or adviser, exactly how you like to be treated, and how you want to work together. We tend to assume (eternal optimists that we are) that this time it will be different. This new public relations counselor will be attentive, this ad agency will respect us and involve us in the decision making, this engineer will explain things in plain English. But we rarely ask for it up front, and we should. We should ask new suppliers to describe not only how they will approach the work but, specifically, how they work with their clients.

The good news is that, by and large, the troublesome problem is not motives but skills and behaviors. No one ever teaches us how to build and maintain a relationship, and we could all improve a lot, very quickly, by beginning to think about it.

What question would you like to ask managers around the world?

What would it take to get managers to focus on the long term? We know that business endeavors that last a long time usually have a management team that resists short-term temptations; this is true even in public companies. To survive, companies need a long-term focus, yet most managers succumb to short-term pressures. So, again, what would it take to get managers to focus on the long term?