March 2010

AMCF Annual Meeting 2009 in New York
Interview : David Maister

Consultant, Author and former
Harvard Business School Professor 

David Maister is widely acknowledged as one of the world's leading authorities on the management of professionnal service firms. For twenty-five years he advised firms in a braod spectrum of professions, covering all strategic managerial issues. He is the author of many books among which : "Managing the Professional Service Firms" (1993), "True Professionalism", "The Trusted Advisor", "Practice what You Preach", "First Among Equals"… and recently "Strategy and the Fat Smoker" (2008). Born in the UK he holds degrees from the University of Birmingham, the London School of Economics and has a Phd from the Harvard Business School where he is lectured for many years. His consultancy is located in Boston Massachussetts. During the AMCF annual Meeting in 2009 David Maister gave a keynote lecture intitled :  The Secrets of Diet and Exercise Programs: Succeeding through outperforming competitors on discipline, drive and determination…
David Maister

David Maister, how could you introduce yourself to our readers, most French but some Europeans? Who is David Maister ?

David Maister : For the last 25 to 30 years I have been a management consultant and author focusing exclusively on professional service firms, so I have written at large for accounting firms, law firms, consulting firms, engineering firms, many of the marketing, communications, businesses, advertizing and public relations, and so on, and my speech has always been that these professional businesses have a great deal in common and can learn from each others. They are not like industrial businesses, because all of their assets are people rather than machines, but all of their people share some very common characteristics of being very intelligent, very autonomous, so the management challenges of running these professional firms is very “similar”. And because of my rating I was lucky enough to have a global practice, so I worked around the world about 40 % of my time in North America, 40% in Europe, and about 20% in other parts of the world.  My books have been translated into 14 languages, except French. There was a French translation of my first book but it went out of print into the first year and it has never been translated again since, so this is why I am not known in France. This year I am now retired, but somebody else [might have to go] in this field of advising professional firms, being the consultants’s consultant. So the field is open for others.

David, you have been lecturing at Harvard 25 years ago. How is it that you have been able to succeed in the business and being at the same time so open minded?  Because what you say and what you write is not always easy to read, especially because it is so challenging to the managers. It is very critical to the business and this makes you very different from many people coming from the academic world.

David Maister :  Well there is two very completely separate points. One is I don’t think I am more open minded [than others]. It is since I am not associated with the university, I have more freedom to choose my own styles, for example I do not have to meet academic standards. I can write now in trade magazines without having to do scientifically appearing research with a hundred footnotes, and that’s a tremendous freedom, to have the ability to do that, and if I catch one of the reasons I left the university setting, because my mentors were pointing out to me that the articles I was writing were published in trade magazines, you aim at practitioners. My mentors said David your are in the university, if you want to succeed,  then you must write more scholarly articles. Sometimes people inside the university are more constrained because they are required to be scholarly.

The second point is the following opinion of mine that there is a reason they call them Business Schools and not Management Schools. There is a thousand miles of difference between knowing a lot about business and knowing anything about managing. And I say that from my own direct experience. I have every business degree that the universe offers, the batchelor’s, the masters, the PhD, and I was a professor in business schools for 10 years. And yet when I finished that, and went off to be a consultant, I made a discovery for the first time that the world is [made] of people. That the real issues of making things happen were not elements of the intellectual capability, it was not just about knowledge, but my interactive skills. It was about “Could you look at the client in the face and earn his trust”, that’s what was going to earn you the business.

So in the business schools, they teach marketing, and the people who are university professors are very very good at what they do, but what they do are things of the mind. They are analytical people, they do fabulous business analysis, and for many of the mega-consulting firms, this is what they sell to their clients, which is fabulous business analysis.

But what I became very interested in was to realize that the analysis only takes you so far, the real challenges of running a successful business, particularly a consulting business, is “Can you get a client to trust you ?",  “Can you come to a really talented person in your firm and get them to collaborate with others” so the firm can be a true one-firm firm and a real team as opposed to just a collection of “Prima donnas”.

To be a manager actually has nothing to do with IQ, intelligence or rationality, and that’s a strong statement - please forgive me if I repeat it : ” Being a good manager has nothing to do with IQ, intelligence or rationality”. It is 100 % your ability to work with really smart people and get them to collaborate and accept your returns, and those skills fascinate me! 

So get people to collaborate and make things to happen. And this is a real fascination for you… This brings me to the next question which is related to your new book “Strategy and the Fat Smokers”. You are a former smoker, so you know what you’re talking about, and according to your new book we all fail when it comes to make things happen, as fat smokers fail to quit smoking. Is that what you mean in the book and the book’s title ?

David Maister : My argument is that whether it is in a personal life or in business we are all short term people and the essence of getting on in life is learning how to overcome short-term temptations and stick to our chosen strategies. I make a joke very often when I get speeches I say it’s like my nephew and nieces, they come to me and say: “Uncle David we know you used to be a professor at university, how do we do well at the university, what is the secret ” ? And my answer is always: “Go to class, do the home work” ! They say: “No,no,no,no, what’s the secret ” ? And I say: “ There is no secret, do the work“ !.. “ But uncle David you don’t understand - " There are parties, there are sports games, there are cute people who want to stay out all night… you are asking us to defer gratification in order to get somewhere in life ” ? And my reply is : “I am not asking you to do anything.  You are asking me for what works” ! I am not saying they are dumb people, I think it is the same for all of us.  For exemple, I have a wonderfully fulfilling career and it has mostly been based not on the fact that I’m smarter than many other people who have done it, but I have had more discipline ! So for example I actually do not like to write, I hate it. I am in a terrible mood when I have to write. I kick the furniture… But here is the punch line… I have written 13 books, but the point is, I could have used that time, every two years one book, if I was just short term oriented I could have say “Well I could have served another client today, I could‘ve made him billable or chargeable”. So on a given week, should I earn a little bit more income or should I built my future?

You have written somewhere on your website that the first year you were asked to write your publisher ask you to make a paper each month, which is not that easy to do as I can see it with my chroniclers… How is it that it is so difficult to get things done ?

David Maister : That’s my point. There’s no secret here! If you want to get the benefits in life, do the work, invest in your future. If you want to get ahead, if what you want requires advanced degrees, defer the income and go get the ones degrees. If it does not require, do something else. I’m trying to Say “I understand, this hurts.” Differing short term gratification is very scarce in business and in the personal life I‘ve got.

How is it so difficult to stick to the decisions we take? To stick to the strategies we try to deploy? How is it so difficult ?

David Maister : It is difficult because life is filed with daily temptations. Every day somebody will say would you like a second helping of desert? Or will say have another drink? And what I learned is that you will only get ahead if you have an almost religious drive that “I want to get there”. That the real differences between people that I have seen over the years, and between folks. It’s not the capabilities, there are smart people everywhere, the difference between films is one of drive, some people have a lot of drive and some people just don’t. And in fact this is by the way a modern piece of research that is coming out, that there are people point out, but sometimes we overrate that people are natural geniuses, but they are not natural geniuses, they just have 10 000 hours of practice. You know Tiger Woods practices more than the average golf player. It is that determination and that drive, and I think sometimes people think I even got it right or I haven’t got, and I try to report that the real secrets are not talent it is “determination and drives”.  And a lot it has to do with the way you were brought up, and your parents.

Which might be the case for consultants. In 2001 after the Eron / Andersen case you have been very tough writing on consultants.  You said there are so many temptations for consultants and auditors, to try to get cash first…

David Maister : Well let me be very careful here because as you may know sometimes journalists like to make it a little bit more dramatic than you actually said it. So I was making what I thought was a mild point which is “Consultants - like every other businesses  - when they saw opportunities to make money, well, they went for those opportunities”, and I was not calling them “Less or more corrupt than any other businesses” which is just saying when we have an opportunity to do this peace of work and when they did not slow down to ask the question “Is this good for my client ” ? “It says my client want this so I would do it” like some doctors “Somebody is coming to have plastic surgery, if they pay I do the plastic surgery”. The question is : “Does a doctor have a responsibility to sometimes say to his patient No you should not want that, you should not pay me for that” and similarly does a lawyer has that responsibility, “No you should not do that” … and the question is : “Do we, as consultants, sometimes have a responsibility to say to the client, you know, you really should not pay me to do this, it’s a bad idea for you “ and all I am reporting is, yes, some consultants do that. There are some very honorable consultants and consulting firms, but it takes so discipline !

Does it mean that the difficult thing is to make things happen especially if you want to do it in a ethical way ?

David Maister : What I want to point out is that it is not just about morals. It’s actually a wonderful coincidence that if you do the right thing you make more money and you can use whichever argument you like. If you  get a reputation for somebody who does things just because you can win the project, it ends-up not benefitting the clients. People begin to see that you are only in it for yourself and that in the end you get few a follow-on projects, you don’t get as much referral to others, If you get a reputation that when you call in this man, he would always do the right thing for you, he would say no sometimes, it turns out it’s a wonderful approach to generate a lot of business, when people trust you. It’s almost a paradox, almost an oxymoron: “If you do not put money first you get rich, if you are the type of a man or woman who clearly put money first you get less money”. People trust you less if you clearly put money first.

Which clearly brings me to our next and nearly last question which is about what might be your advices to managers, consultants and consulting firms in this difficult times, certainly the most difficult years since the foundation of the AMCF on the verge of the 1929 crisis ?

David Maister : Well I don’t have advices for the politicians, I am not a macro economist and I am not a politician. If I understood finance, it would be amazing, I think there are probably only three people in the world who understand why they got it to this mess, and I am not sure they are in the government yet. I do have advice for the managers during the crisis which is that “if you believe you are going to come out of it, then you will only succeed when you come out of it if you have employees - your troops - who are still loyal to you, who have kept the faith and they believe you have kept the faith with them". You cannot play both side of the argument.  If when times are tough we cut off training, we fire 20% of the people, we cut salaries and then, when times are good, we try to recruit more than our share of the smartest people, people will no longer trust you. You cannot be convincing if you treat people well only when times are good. I don’t need to be idealistic, it is just a fact of life that fascinates me, but the trust is very hard to earn, but it can be lost in a month and that’s true with clients and that’s true with you’re your employees and it’s true with your colleagues. And I learned that there is nothing more commercially profitable than if "people trust you". It’s astounding how many opportunities you can get in life.  People will say : " Look, here at my affairs, I trust you to look after them, or I trust you as a manager, yes I will live through the hard times with you". And I am more convinced than I was before one of the most important questions that you can ask is :  “Do people trust me” ?  I don’t think you can ask yourself, because as I say in almost all sessions what you think of yourself is always biased information. The real test is to ask your colleagues and juniors. You try to find some ways to find out if people trust you, and that is a terrifying question because they can be a many people who would admire you, that think you are smart but they actually don’t trust you ! They think you are in the game for yourself. And if they think that you are in it for yourself then you are very likely to have very few opportunities. And your business will have few opportunities.

So faith and trust would be at the very core of the consulting activity ?

David Maister : We’ve got to learn what trust is about, we’ve got to learn how to teach it to others,  we’ve got to learn how to teach it to our children. If you really want to help get your children get on in life you have to teach them how to have friendship skills, and we have to teach our children these things. And there is nothing better you could do for your children than teach them how to be a trustworthy individual so they would  get on in life. I think most parents try to do that, I am not sure we do it to our colleagues and employees.

What might be your last words to our readers ?

David Maister : Well I would just phrase it this way,  which is “I have been very fortunate because not many people have written about professional firms, so I have been a lucky man, and there are one or two other people that have written books, and guess my talk is I would like more of the successful “practitioners”, - people who have done this difficult thing of running a professional firm - to tell the rest of us how they did it ! It’s one thing for an observer like me to try on research in what is right about, but there is nothing more powerful than getting it from the horse’s mouths… That is I do hope that more of the successful leaders would tell us how they did it “ !

Words collected by
Bertrand Villeret, Editor in chief, ConsultingNewsLine

B. Villeret David Maister
Bertrand Villeret et David Maister lors de l'AMCF annual meeting 2009 dans les salons du Hilton de New York. Copyright B.Villeret, Quantorg 2009

French Version :

To know more :

Whoswoo :
David Maister

Images :
David Maister at AMCF 2009 meeting : Copyright B. Villeret, Quantorg 2009
David Maister at his desk : Courtesy  David Maister. Source : David Maister website

Copyright Quantorg  2010
pour ConsultingNewsLine
All rights reserved
Reproduction interdite

David Maister