With the publication of his first book, Managing the Professional Service Firm, David Maister established himself as the dean of the study of the business side of professional firms.
His later books (True Professionalism, The Trusted Advisor (with Charles Green and Robert Galford), and Practice What You Preach) have titles that reflect his increasing conviction that the solution to a firm’s business problems lies in focusing on clients and values. Pay attention to your professional calling and the business issues will take care of themselves, he argues.
His recently published book, Strategy and the Fat Smoker, continues and expands upon this argument. I think this book important enough that I have sent it to some forty leaders of professional firms. But your appreciation of it will depend on your frame of mind when you read it. It is a strange combination of how-to and polemic that the cynics, who make up a significant share of the world’s professionals, may have a hard time with. In his view of the professions Maister fights cynicism.
That is largely a good thing. The title summarizes the weakness in most firms’ efforts to become more professional; the managers are like fat smokers who know that they should eat less and stop smoking, but haven’t the will to do so. This is an apt comparison that applies, in part, to me and to many others. In making this point and suggesting how to address it, he provides many statements that deserve to become standard aphorisms:
The necessary outcome of strategic planning is not analytical insight, but resolve.
An expert’s job is to be right; the advisor’s job is to be helpful.
People will never live up to a higher standard than their manager exhibits.
There are many such jewels.
This quest for greater professionalism as a solution to a firm’s problems sounds idealistic. That may put off readers with a practical bent. If that includes you, I urge you to take another look. There are at least two good reasons for doing so.
First, the concept of professionalism is under threat. It has now become standard for product and service companies to operate professional firms. (Tom Peters recently blogged about this.) While some, like IBM, have succeeded, many others have failed, often because they didn’t understand the implications of running a professional firm.
Also, more and more professional firms are going public. This can force them to think more about shareholder value than professional standards. Some firms are getting so large that they must be managed in ways that put little stress on being truly professional. To avoid the fate of Arthur Andersen it is good for all of us to reflect from time to time on what “being a professional” means. Maister’s research shows that focusing on clients and values isn’t just good practice. It’s also good business.
The second reason why Maister’s idealistic promotion of a truly professional firm warrants attention will surprise the cynics: What Maister extols is achievable, if you adjust for his frequent hyperbole. I have worked in the professions for over thirty years and have had the opportunity to study many firms. At any given time in each profession there are a handful of firms that are doing everything right and growing by topsy. I have the pleasure of having one such firm as a client now.
These firms come as close to Camelot as one can get in the business world. They do interesting and important work for their clients. Growing rapidly, they offer ample opportunity for their professionals to advance. And the money that flows in allows them to treat their people generously. The professionals at these firms have the joy of doing cutting-edge client work, while building the institution of the firm and getting rewarded handsomely. The leadership seeks to build an institution that is more important than any individual partner because of what it does for the profession, for society and for the partners as a whole. These firms are wonderful places to spend at least part of one’s career. Maister shows how to transform your firm into such an institution. It is a worthy goal.
That Maister overdoes his argument is unfortunate, because some readers will reject his overall case as a result. His argument that simply acting professionally will resolve all problems is naïve, if he does, in fact, believe it. It is hard to argue otherwise, when he says things like:
Firms do not need to teach their people how to sell. They need to find out, person by person, what kind of work turns each partner on and what kinds of clients each person could actually get interested in. [Emphasis in the original.]
In other words, put them in front of the right clients for the right kinds of work and their enthusiasm will carry the day. Hogwash! Enthusiasm does increase a professional’s chances of making a sale, but I have seen many enthusiastic professionals lose sales, because they talked too much, moved to solutions too quickly, sold past the close or made any one of a dozen other common sales mistakes that a little training would have cured them of.
Extending Maister’s logic to its obvious conclusion, if you just give your people the right kinds of thing to work on, you don’t have to teach them anything. Enthusiasm is all they need.
This anti-sales attitude is probably a reflection of a long-standing bias that many academics (Maister is a former Harvard Business School professor) and some professionals hold against the subject of selling. As I have noted elsewhere, very few business schools, and none of the leading ones, teach anything about selling. Marketing, finance, and operations are all taught, but not sales. This is all the more bizarre, because it is a sale that defines the existence of a business. Studying business without studying sales makes as much sense as studying biological procreation while ignoring sex. Maister should know this. Professional firms are commercial enterprises. Selling is essential for their success.
Skim past the occasional lapse of this kind and you will find Strategy and the Fat Smoker a worthwhile read.