Maister, David

David Maister is widely acknowledged—particularly by Tom Peters—as the world's leading authority on the management of professional service firms. He advises firms in a broad spectrum of professions ranging from marketing to human resources strategies. He is the author of the bestselling Managing the Professional Service Firm (1993), True Professionalism (1997), and coauthor of The Trusted Advisor (2000). His web site address is

Managing the Professional Service Firm    True Professionalism    Trusted Advisor asks David Maister …

At what different types of professional service firms have you worked and conducted research?

DM: It’s fairly broad at this point, because I’ve been doing it now for 20 years. I started with the three core professions of the lawyers, the accountants, and the consultants. But over the years it’s grown to include engineers, executive search, advertising and public relations, and really quite a broad array beyond that as well. The modern conventional wisdom that Tom advocates, that we’re all becoming professional service firms, is one that I think the world is hearing. There’s a lot of businesses, including the financial services, which I’ve also worked with, and a large number of internal professionals who call me, asking, “We’d like to operate as a professional firm; how do we do that?”

What would you do to help somebody who’s in an internal department to turn that into a professional service firm?

DM: Well, here is something that will relate to my latest book, The Trusted Advisor. The central issue is to go from being a technical expert employee to being an advisor. So very often you’ll get these people saying, “Well, I am the HR expert, therefore this is the policy we should have.” And the work that I do with these people is to say, “Let’s enter the mind-set that you are an advisor, you are a service professional, who is trying to help your client think through a set of issues.” The crucial mind-set change is the difference between seeing yourself as an expert whose job it is to give answers, and seeing yourself as a professional advisor, who helps a client solve his or her problem. That’s the mind-set change which a lot of people have to go through, I would stress both externally—because there are a lot of pompous experts on the outside, too—but that’s the one particularly that people need to wrestle with internally.

Is that a matter of saying, “This is the way you now have to think,” or how do you get there—that seems to be a major mind shift.

DM: It is, and that’s why, with my two coauthors, I wrote the latest book. I was trained as a university professor, so the personal style which I had when I left the university and first tried to learn how to be a consultant, was unfortunately the classic pompous, patronizing, arrogant, condescending, “I am the expert, here’s the answer, listen to what I say, and throw me money.” It’s a very natural style that, alas, too many of us are taught in. The true spirit of professionalism, which I hinted at in the last book, is to realize that it’s about the client, it’s not about you.

The tragedy of everybody’s professional education, including mine, is that we tend to have very overdeveloped intellects and totally stunted emotional skills and undeveloped social skills. When we receive our training, whether it is inside formal things like a university, or even inside companies, no one ever actually teaches us how to help somebody else understand. It’s an almost neglected field and yet it is the key to being helpful.

You quote Dale Carnegie: “You’ll have more fun and success helping other people achieve their goals than you will trying to reach your own goals.” Do you have anything more to say about that? In some ways it seems obvious, and yet it’s awfully counter-intuitive to the way, I think, many of us operate.

DM: Well, it is, and many people receive it and hear it as if it is either religious or Communism. And the point that my colleagues and I try to make is that it is neither of those—and this is why Dale Carnegie [How to Win Friends and Influence People] is still—with apologies to Tom—the best business book ever written; it is fundamental exchange capitalism. But what capitalism is, is that in order to get what you want from the other person, then you must first give them what they want.

And it’s just like using the romantic metaphor, meaning, how do you build a deep relationship with your romantic partner? And again, the answer isn’t demand what you want. The way you actually get what you want from your romantic partner is to earn from them the willingness and the trust to give you what you want because you first give them what they want.

Earning their trust is the operative phrase there, earning that trust and willingness.

DM: Well, that’s exactly it. I mean, I can tell you a story out of the book which may interest you. I have a dentist who recommended that I have three root canal jobs.


DM: Exactly. Very expensive, very painful, and it’s an interesting question: Under what circumstance do I accept his recommendation? And I suggest that it turns on the answer to one very simple question: If I think that he is being disinterested, a caring, noble professional giving the best advice, in my interest; and if I actually believe that, true or false, then he’s actually likely to get my work and my money. Whereas if I believe the opposite, which is that he doesn’t care, he’s just after my money or the fun of doing what he does for a living, then I am going to be very reluctant to give him my money. So even if you leave all religion or inspiration out of it, the simple business analysis says that you get hired or, more generally, you get listened to, to the extent that people think you care.

I hope I’m making clear that this is not an inspirational point. It’s how the world works. The secret of life is making people think that you care. Now that leaves open two alternatives for you. You can either be very skilled at making people think you care when you don’t, which, apparently there are people in life who can do that, and I’m not a moralist—if you can do it, I’m not in any position to make a moral judgment. But the reality is that 99% of us can’t pull that off, we’re not actually capable of making people think we care when we don’t. For most of us, we actually have to show an interest to get the desired effect.

Now, let me finish the story with the real work thing that my dentist, Andrew, actually does. Every single time that my wife or I go to visit the dentist, whether it’s minor or major, Andrew always, without fail, calls us at home that night to ask how we’re feeling.


DM: Exactly. There’s a man acting as if he cares. And I hope you’ll share my reaction, which is, when that happens it is so rare that it actually is disproportionately influential on our behavior as buyers, as customers. I am going to accept his advice, I’m going to accept his influence, and what is more, I’m going to tell my friends about him. Is that fair?


DM: Now, here is the point. What is strange in life is that that behavior is so unusual, and it is unusual not on the moral grounds—please allow me to be boring and re-stress this. It needs to be stressed because your web site readers may think it’s a moral point I’m making. The point I’m making is, people don’t do what works. And that what works is acting as if you care, preferably actually caring.

And in the case of the dentist, I would assume that just the tone of your voice when you respond must be quite heartening to him, because you’re happy that he has called and asked. There are two situations: Either you’re in bloody pain, in which case you tell him and he’ll do something about it; or you’re feeling fine and you let him know. And so he probably ends up sleeping better in the long run as well.

DM: Exactly. And 90 plus percent of the time, it’s the latter, which is nothing’s wrong, and it’s a 30-second phone call. You can even be more Machiavellian, if you wish, which is you could say, I’m sure this behavior lowers his malpractice insurance cost.

So there’s all sorts of reasons, and what it all turns on is indeed the thing you picked up on in the beginning of this part of the conversation, which is that many people think they are being businesslike when they’re—notice the phrase we use in English—”all business.” And most of us are taught the wrong things. We don’t even discuss in our training this simple issue, which is, how do you win somebody’s confidence? How do you establish a relationship with someone?

And to that point, think of when you’re at a business meeting and somebody walks away, you never comment on his or her business skills, but you will comment on his or her ability to work with other people, to deal with the situation, to basically socialize, right?

DM: Exactly. We’ve got a little line in our new book which says that the Godfather had it wrong. You may remember the famous quote from The Godfather film: “It ain’t personal, it’s business.” And our message is it is business and it is profoundly personal. That’s how you get on. And that is where Tom Peters is absolutely on target, which is it’s about emotion, it’s about passion. When we become disconnected from what we are doing for a living, then we become immensely less effective.

Your underlying message in True Professionalism is just that: bring yourself to your work, be passionate about it—the words “passion” and “fun” appear frequently in this book.

DM: Yes. Let me highlight what is, for me, the most depressing chapter in True Professionalism. And it’s that chapter called “Are You Having Fun Yet?” To this day, I still get the same results. I ask people, “What percentage of your work would you describe as ‘God, I love this’ versus ‘I can tolerate it’? And, what percentage of your clients can you say, ‘I really enjoy these people’ versus ‘I can tolerate them.'”

And you may recall the numbers in the book, which is, at best, what you get as firm-wide averages, is 20% to 30% in the “God, I love this” category. And let me give you some strong language which you can edit out, but the way I now report this if I’m standing in front of people, when they give me similar numbers, is I say, “I refuse to reach my tombstone with it saying: ‘He did tolerable stuff for tolerable people because they paid him.'” And I say, “I’m not that much of a whore, and I think you are.”

And the message—it’s Tom’s message and mine; I make no claims to originality—it’s the same core message. The message is that it’s not a trade-off, that’s what I’m trying to get across. These are not moral points, these are not aesthetic points. This is the secret of doing well: do stuff you care about for people you can care about, then you will do superbly well financially. But it does take courage.

You approach this topic of doing work as a consultant from the emotional side and say that following your heart will pay off financially. I, for one, believe you, yet I think a lot of people will think: I need to have that revenue stream coming in, no matter what it takes.

DM: Well, the answer is yes, I agree with that, but that’s not the choice. No one’s suggesting you miss financial goals. The issue is, is it any revenue, the easy way—or is it the same amount of revenue that you have to work harder to get but it’s stuff you care about. So the choice is not about missing a revenue target. The choice is about being—and here are the key words—the choice is about being expedient. This is in fact what the book coming out next year, 2001, is about. It’s called Chasing Money is Not What Makes You Money. In other words, nothing I am trying to say or Tom is trying to say is saying that money is not one of the primary, if not the primary, goal. All we’re debating is, real world, what gets you the money. What do you have to do to get there?

And the simple argument that Tom makes and I make is that, if you don’t act as if you care towards your clients, you will get less money from them, just as a factual matter. Similarly, if you run your business as if everybody gets the message, “It’s about the money, stupid, we don’t care whether you’re enjoying things,” then you will get less enthusiasm, commitment, and dedication out of those who work around you. Now, those are facts.

So the real choice is not that people don’t believe it, the real choice is—I’ll go back to my words expedient versus strategy. I think underlying it is the opposite of courage, which is insecurity, right? People feel as if they can’t say no because they actually doubt their own abilities to go out and get “real work.” Similarly, it is excessive hubris, it’s the equivalent of, in my favorite metaphor, of saying, “I won’t go to college because I can earn four years’ income instead.” So therefore, if all decisions in life were based upon the next week or the next month, you’d make a very different choice in life, just as you would in romantic life. If all your dealings with your romantic partner were based upon the benefit you could get in the next week, you’d have a pretty miserable romantic life.

It’s that insecurity and short-termism, however, that is the real debate. It’s not about the debate of “Is money important?” Of course money’s important, it’s the primary goal. It’s, do you have the courage to do what it takes to get there? It’s very silly but let me give you another metaphor. I have lots of nieces and nephews, and they know that I used to be a university professor. They come to me and say, “What’s the secret of doing well in college?” And I always say, “Go to class and do the homework.” And they say, “No, what’s the secret?” And I say, “Go to class and do the homework.” And they say, “Well, that’s no fun.” It’s the same argument, which is, are you living your life for the fulfillment of the next month, or are you living your life to get somewhere?

It’s very clear, to hear you say it that way. People can certainly understand the difference between expediency and strategy, and yet I would think a lot of folks would think, “Strategy, God, I don’t know how to do that, how to formulate that. How can I be sure?”

DM: Let me use a different word, because strategy is, perhaps, sufficiently misunderstood and ambiguous. It’s the difference between expediency and long-run achievement. I’ll give you one illustration, out of the courage article that’s on my web site. I’ve got a long-term German client who, as a favor, asked me if I would do a three day sales and marketing skills course for their junior people. Now that’s not normally what I do in my career, but it’s a client, so you do a favor once, right?

Unfortunately, the tragedy is that it went well, and the client now calls me and says, “David, we want to buy 70 days at your full rate” and at that time my fee was $12,000 U.S. dollars a day. It’s now $15,000 a day, so take the 12 number, that’s a nice number, 70 days times $12,000, particularly for a sole practitioner, as I am. So I come rushing in to my wife, who is my coach, and I say, “Honey, good news, the Germans want 70 days,” and she goes into coaching mode. She says, “David, I seem to remember you said that what you wanted to try to do with your career was become a senior advisor to global firms,” and I said, “Yes?” And she said, “Well, maybe it’s because I don’t have formal business training, David, but tell me where 70 days of sales skills training for junior people fits with accomplishing that strategy.” And of course, I have to say, it doesn’t. She says, “Beloved, I’m your coach, not your boss, you can do whichever you choose, but here are your choices. You either make the expedient choice and have the least stressful year you’ve ever had, doing the same old stuff for non-challenging people, right? The only thing I ask, is that you admit you’ve given up on your goals. Or, David, you can act as if you believe your own bullshit, which is to say ‘no’ to stuff that’s off strategy, and since we like to eat, David, that doesn’t mean you’re allowed to miss the goal, that means you’ve got to get your rear-end in gear and go generate 70 days of real stuff.”

Now, that’s the end of the story—well, the end of the story is I did the latter, not the former, but the point is it’s a brilliant piece of coaching.

I just have one question here. You obviously have a fabulous coach. How would you do this without a coach or a coach/wife in your case?

DM: Well, it’s very hard to do it by yourself. I should make the metaphor that I always use, which is alas, I am a fat smoker. But the point about that metaphor is self-discipline is not my strong suit. In other words, knowing I should do something and knowing how to do it is still not a change program for me, or for 99% of the world. The issue is not do you know what to do; the issue is are you ready now to get on the diet that will get you to your goals? And please note that goals can be profoundly financial. But the question is are you willing to live the diet? This courage point applies no matter what the strategy is that you’re talking about. You only get the benefit of that which you actually do, not that which you plan to do. And so to your question, my experience is that apart from maybe a handful of natural, self-starting dynamos, and that’s the Bill Gates’ of this world, and others, they’re just going to do their vision regardless. Right? But even Bill Gates turns to Warren Buffet as a coach. We all need a coach. If we’re lucky, we have it inside our company. But mostly we don’t. In which case, you need it either as a very good friend, and you say to your friend, “Look, don’t tell me what to do. But if I give you my goals and tell you how I’m going to do it, keep me honest.”

I’ve been reading a number of different books recently and one theme that keeps popping up is people going out on their own as free agents or soloists or whatever you want to call them, solo practitioners. But it seems pretty certain that the healthiest ones are those who are constantly challenging themselves. You refer to these people as dynamos, which I love.

But these “dynamos” have somehow figured out how to constantly push themselves into the discomfort zone. And maybe you’ve just told me a story explaining how that happens. Do you have some other theories on how to do that?

DM: The point is that behind it all has got to be a desire to accomplish something. Right? Now, I’ve got a very good friend who will remain nameless who I would say, no question, is smarter than I am but has chosen to stay in a university setting teaching Economics 101 for the 17th year in a row, which he does very well. Now, the issue is not that he lacks a coach; the issue is that he doesn’t have a dream for what he wants to accomplish with his life. He’s there, where he wants to be. And without a burning desire or passion to accomplish something. It can be noble or ignoble; it can be money; it can be ego; it can be a desire to leave a legacy; it can be a million things. It could be to show off to your in-laws, you know, whatever it is. But nothing is going to happen unless you really answer the question that is also in True Professionalism, which is, “What do you want to be famous for? What do you want to accomplish next?” And unless the desire is there, then you won’t stick to the diet. That’s where you get the discipline, because you actually think that if you try, you might actually be able to get to the next stage of your career.

I guess if there’s one message I’m really trying to deliver is that life could be so much better for so many of the people I meet. So many people I meet have given up; they think it’s not worth trying because the world is conspiring against them. And it’s either the top management or the darn clients or stupid employees. Everybody’s got a good excuse why it’s not worth trying. And one of my favorite phrases is the following: You’re allowed to fail; we all fail. And you’re allowed to have a lot to learn; we’ve all got a lot to learn. The one sin is not trying. And again, restating the point, if you’ll forgive the repetition, the whole history of business proves that simple point, that what wins is trying. People fail miserably all the time. Look at the history of Microsoft. They bring out nine failure versions of their products before they get a success. Think of every other business history, I mean, the millions of people that fail before they ultimately succeeded.

The essence of success is not the one, unique, brilliant idea. The essence of success is the energy to keep trying, to act as if you cared.

Favorite books?

DM: I guess favorite fiction would be Ayn Rand, probably Atlas Shrugged, which changed my life. Favorite non-fiction, which is the only thing I’ve read since I was 20 years old, would probably be Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson. It’s now in two volumes, either volume.

Favorite web site?

DM: Favorite web site, just to reveal my ego, is, to see how well my books are doing.

You and 8 million other authors.

DM: And the books in progress I told you about, which are: In 2001, I’ll publish Chasing Money Isn’t What Makes You Money, and then in 2002, I’ll publish a book called The Practice Leaders Handbook.