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Articles and Interviews

Managers and Values

by Greg Thomas 2001

from weLEAD Online Magazine, 2001

David Maister is recognized as one of the leading authorities on the management of professional service organizations. He consults and advises on a wide range of issues, from human resource management to marketing. David gets to the heart of a matter in a down-to-earth and colorful style. He has authored a number of acclaimed books.

David, I have completed reading your latest book, Practice What You Preach (The Free Press), and found it to be very insightful and well written. Many of the leadership professionals who write articles for weLEAD Online Magazine emphasize the importance of “personal example” or “walking the talk.” Your book confirms this point. What events or experiences led you to write Practice What You Preach?

After 20 years as a consultant, I thought I had learned some lessons about good management. When I shared these with my clients, they would usually agree that what we discussed was sensible and logical, but they would always ask “But does anybody DO that?” I would trot out my anecdotes and stories of famous companies and managers, but neither my logic nor my stories seemed to be satisfying to my clients. So I decided to collect some systematic data on what successful businesses were doing differently from the rest. To my delight, the evidence confirmed what I suspected all along: the best performers were not doing things that others didn’t know about, they were just doing them. Business is a lot less complex than we try to make it. Does any leader not know the importance of client focus, outstanding teamwork, continuous learning for everyone and the rewards of quality? We all know this stuff. But how many leaders can confidently say that those standards are lived to a high level in their operations every day? The problem isn’t what we don’t know about how to win. The problem is that we’re not doing it.

The real lesson of the book was the fact that the most successful operations were led by individuals who did not merely advocate these standards as a matter of business opportunism (“Oh well, I suppose we had better try quality, if we have to”). They were led by people who lived and breathed the standards they advocated, almost to the level of religious enthusiasm. It turns out that if you want to get your people to follow the standards and principles you preach (and that will make you money) then they must believe that you mean it, that these are real principles, values and standards with you, on which you will not tolerate noncompliance. Very few managers believe in ANYTHING to that level, or at least they can’t convince their people that they do. As one company said to me, “Our values only apply to you if you don’t have a book of business.” Notice that when I use the word “values,” I’m not trying to be moralistic or religious; it’s nothing more than a strict set of standards that make up your theory of how you are going to win.

What should a leader or manager do when their personal values differ from the organization’s values?

There are only three choices. One, fight to have your values in place where you are in charge. Don’t wait to convince your superiors, or to get permission. Just start running the place according to what you believe in. If they want to fire you, fine. But since we are talking about values that breed employee commitment, excellence in client service and extra profits, they won’t fire you. In other words, prove that what you believe in works. Second option, quit. Life’s too short to work with and for idiots. Unless you’re a Buddhist or a Hindu, you probably believe you only have one life to live. Do you really want to spend the one life you were given doing things you don’t believe in? The third option is to buckle under, give in, give up. You don’t really believe those values anyway, do you? You certainly can’t have believed in them if you’re prepared to compromise them. But it’s not my job to be a moralist, and it’s the option most business people take: compromise, concede and get on by going along. If you want to do that, it’s your privilege. I just want to meet my maker saying, “I failed often and I made lots of mistakes, but I really did my best.” Perhaps even more important, I want to look myself in the mirror each morning and be able to say the same thing. Nobody knows what real truth is, and you can believe lots of different things. But someone who doesn’t believe in anything, who has no fixed principles, isn’t going to attract much of a following. He or she cannot be a leader, because no one will follow.

What do you believe is the single most important quality or lesson the survey revealed?

It isn’t about systems. It isn’t about processes. It isn’t about strategies. It’s about having managers in place who know how to excite, enthuse and energize people. Again, this isn’t “be nice to people” time. It’s strict logic (and now data). To make money, you’ve got to serve the marketplace to superior standards. To do that, you’ve got to be able to get your people energized, excited and enthused to never settle for competence, and see the fun and drama and challenge in never settling for less than excellence. And to do that, you’ve got to have a manager who knows what he or she is doing. What this sequence shows is that if you want to make bucketfuls of money, the only way to do it is to begin the chain of events that produces the money, and that’s to focus on getting people excited. Yet the truth is that most managers focus on the money and neglect the people’s enthusiasm levels. (Keep your heads down and grind it out, ye swabs!) Somewhere mangers got told that this was good businesslike behavior that produced the most money. Somebody’s been lying to these managers. It isn’t how the game works!

David, some leaders or managers have personalities that lack expression or emotion. What are some of the ways they can get people “energized”?

I hope I haven’t miscommunicated either my findings or beliefs. It’s absolutely not about being an extrovert. In fact, extroverts make bad managers (which is why I’m solo)! The best managers in my research are even-keeled types. As I said in the book, they manage with a style of insistent patience. Patience in that they don’t expect Rome to be built in a day, but insistent in that everybody understands that we are building Rome; we’re going for the gold, we’re going to be excellent and never settle for competence. They create energy, drive and enthusiasm in others, not by force of personality but by getting them to believe that we ordinary people can accomplish great things if we really try. It’s the degree of convincingness (if that’s a word) that the leader can create that we are doing important, meaningful things with our work lives that are worth our commitment. Being convincing on that point doesn’t take open displays of emotion; in fact, it’s usually the opposite. Think of Gandhi, think of Mother Theresa. We follow because of the strength of their convictions, not their bubbly-ness!

You use the words “manager” or “managing” often throughout the book. How do you personally see the difference between a “superstar” manager and a leader?

I hate definitions and labels: all that matters to me are behaviors, skills, attitudes and actions. Put whatever label you want on it. I like the word “management” because it comes from medieval French and, literally translated, means “the holder of horses.” The manager’s job is to get all these feisty stallions and broncos to move at roughly the same pace, in vaguely the same direction. The skill is not the vision, “Let’s go this way, folks!” Direction is very valuable if you can manage the horses, but if you can’t it’s kind of irrelevant. The managers I studied were not visionaries. They got incredible performance out of people by having clear standards and principles that they operated by, and people could decide whether to opt in or opt out. But if you were in, then the value statement wasn’t just a bunch of aspirations; it was a set of nonnegotiable minimum standards: You will keep learning! We will never compromise quality, no matter what the financial temptations. We will be team players to the extent that we’d fire our biggest business-getter if he or she didn’t join in and tried to be an individualist. You get the benefits of that which you are prepared to enforce, not that which you hope to be someday.

In a dynamic chapter in the book, titled “The Courage to Manage,” you state, “In my experience, the single biggest barrier to implementing any strategy is courage.” Would you expand on this statement for our readers?

It’s real simple, and it’s real tough at the same time. Everything we want in life takes effort and discipline, and that comes first, with the payoff later. Want to be thin by Christmas? Then diet and exercise now. Want to do well in college? Here’s the secret; go to class and do the homework! Want to do well in business? Never compromise on outstanding quality and service to your clients and customers, energize your people and act like team players. Any questions?

So what’s the problem? Why didn’t we all get great grade point averages; why aren’t we all fit? Because life is filled with daily temptations: attractive, deeply satisfying acts of expediency. (Hey, want to party tonight? Doesn’t that cream donut look good? How about taking in a little off-strategy work; c’mon, it’s cash! You weren’t really serious about that strategy rubbish, were you?)

We don’t need help figuring out what works. We need help finding the courage to stick to the diet. Human beings are incredibly short-term focused, and it’s hard to work on an improvement program if all you care about is how it feels today. If we’re going to make it, we have to really want that goal, really believe in our bones that it’s worth striving for and really believe that there are no quick fixes, that the only way to live is doing the right thing. (Sorry, can’t come to the party, got to study!) That’s courage, and that’s what it takes.

The book balances a lot of beneficial information with actual “case studies” of high-performing offices or organizations. Which case study did you find most interesting and why?

I hate to wimp out on you, but I can’t pick. Readers can decide for themselves, but to me the whole point of the nine case studies in the book was that, in different words, each of these leaders (and their people) were saying the same thing, again and again. You can read one case study and get the point. I suppose, since I was born and raised in the UK, my favorite is the British company (I can’t tell which it is). But if even we Brits can believe in the power of openly expressed passion, ambition, enthusiasm and can show that you can make a bundle of money doing it that way, well, there’s something powerful going on!

What is your next project? Any more books planned in the future?

I’ve already coauthored my next book (with Patrick McKenna), due out in April 2002. It’s called First Among Equals, and is a detailed how-to book on how to manage a group of professionals. Only seven or eight months to wait!

Thank you, David!