Book review: How Companies Can Keep Trim, by David Maister

David Maister is probably the world's foremost expert on the management of professional services firms. Although it would be overstating the case to claim that every lawyer and accountant takes his words as gospel, it is certainly true that his previous books, Managing the Professional Services Firm and True Professionalism, are together regarded as something of a bible in the field.

Indeed, while most management writers have concentrated on advising corporates, Maister, a transplanted Brit now living and working in Boston, has struck out for pastures of his own. This has turned out to be quite a smart strategy since the field he has chosen has grown rapidly in recent years, as professional services firms have grown in size and influence.

There are still people working in some of the world's largest law firms, for instance, who can remember the days when all the partners could fit in the same room for dinner. Now, they would be hard-pressed to know the names of all their partners.

This increase in size has been accompanied by growing complexity and hence the need for much more management than was once the case. What Maister recognised early on was that the special nature of the people concerned – they tend to think of themselves in terms of their profession first and then in terms of the organisation to which they belong – meant that the standard management approaches adopted by corporates would not work. In particular, Maister urges professional services firms to stay true to the values held by the individuals in them.

Although he has become very successful, Maister has never taken himself too seriously. Anybody who knows him will realise that the latter part of the title of his latest book is at least in part a reference to himself.

As ever with him, there is a serious point behind the apparent frivolity. And, although the book is ostensibly targeted at those in professional services firms, its messages hold true for any type of business organisation where the founder's original vision can very easily be lost sight of.

The key point is that just as individuals know that to be more healthy they should lose weight, give up smoking and do more exercise, so businesses realise that they need to build relationships with clients or customers, act like team players and build motivating careers for their workforces. He says: "We know what to do, we know why we should do it and we know how to do it. Yet most businesses and individuals don't do what's good for them." The reason is simple: in both cases you have to go through too much pain to get to the desired result. It is easier to give up. It is only when a shock comes – in Maister's case, a visit to the hospital – that they change their ways.

His prescription is to realise that implementing a successful business strategy is about a permanent and total change in lifestyle. To achieve this, the strategy must be constantly monitored and the leadership has to be seen to be serious about the strategy, while employees at all levels must be fully engaged. In particular, the strategy needs to be broken down into achievable steps. It is much more effective to urge a fat smoker to lose a pound a day than to tell them they must lose 50 pounds.

"If we are prepared to rethink how we view strategy and business life, then people can achieve things they never thought possible," he says hopefully. "If I can become a fitter, non-smoking exerciser, there's truly no limit!"

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Recruitment Genius: Collections Agent

£14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company was established in...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE 40k: SThree: SThree are a global FTSE 250 busi...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + competitive: SThree: SThree are a global FTSE 250 ...

Reach Volunteering: Trustees with Finance, Fundraising and IT skills

Voluntary and unpaid, reasonable expenses reimbursable: Reach Volunteering: St...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent