The guru's answer to anarchy in the office

David Maister believes he knows how to inspire an `extra level of dedication' in professional firms. Roger Trapp reports
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The Independent Online
With few exceptions, professional firms like to shun the limelight. Since most of them remain private partnerships, they revel in the fact that they are not obliged to disclose the sort of financial data that their clients have long since grown used to publishing.

But now and again, despite their best efforts, they find themselves making the news for the wrong reasons - as has happened in recent weeks with the failure of the normally ruthlessly efficient Arthur Andersen accounting and consulting organisation to elect a chief executive and, more seriously, with the scrutiny of various firms' roles in the abortive bid for the Co-op.

Understandably enough, David Maister will not be drawn on individual cases, but Andersen's demonstration of the problems of choosing a leader when 2,700 people have a say adds credence to the guru of professional service firm management's belief that such organisations tend to be anarchies rather than the democracies they pretend to be. Equally, the apparent scramble to advise the Andrew Regan team seeking to break up the Co-op can be seen as an example of a practice Mr Maister feels happens all too often - "departing from strategyfor short-term expediency". Professionals should remember the reputed slogan of the mighty investment bank Goldman Sachs, he says. "Be long-term greedy, don't be short-term greedy."

A Brit long settled in the United States, Mr Maister is a former professor at Harvard Business School who has been advising lawyers, accountants and other professionals around the world full-time for the past 12 years. It started, he says, with a theory that professional firms needed a different approach to management from other forms of business. When "it turned out to be factually true", he found himself with a career.

Though his columns in Legal Business and its US equivalent, The American Lawyer, attract a devoted readership, Mr Maister - whose second book, True Professionalism (Simon & Schuster, pounds 16.99), is just out - differs from many gurus in insisting that "there is nothing new" to what he is saying. Most of what he proposes firms know to be right; his role is to try to "give them the courage of their principles - not mine".

One of his approaches is to seek to convince professionals that they should be having fun. Using the fact that only about a third of those he questions would stick to their chosen career if they could earn the same amount doing something else, he sets about attempting to demonstrate that they would be far more successful, and happier, if they concentrated on what they enjoyed and abandoned what did not fulfil them.

He claims to get about 95 per cent "intellectual agreement" with the notion, but admits that only about 15 per cent have the energy or enthusiasm to go out and try to change things. Most of the rest are too busy doing more of the same to speak out.

He likens this to his own inability to go on a diet; he knows it will be good for him, but he cannot quite bring himself to give up certain foods and so become healthier.

Much of the lack of enjoyment comes from working long hours - because firms have convinced themselves that profitability comes from achieving colossal amounts of billable work rather than impressing their clients - and from working with people who do not seem to be motivated by the same things as themselves.

This is where Mr Maister's view that firms are likely to be anarchies rather than democracies comes in. Though his first book was called Managing The Professional Service Firm, he believes that such organisations tend to be administered rather than managed. Increasingly, there are rules and regulations and targets to be met, but there is little in the way of inspirational management.

Consequently, when decisions are taken through votes they are not always regarded as law as they would be in a true democracy; instead, those who did not vote for a particular initiative feel that they have no responsibility to abide by it.

The answer to this, suggests Mr Maister, is to create a system of values that people can buy into - and, most importantly and difficult to achieve - ensure that they are acted upon rather than just espoused.

As he says: "Strict financial controls may get people into compliance, but they will never inspire the extra level of intensity and dedication that creates excellence."

And, when he accepts there is "a grave risk" of all this sounding like inspirational morality, he clearly believes that the key to a successful professional service firm lies in principles. After all, professionals are always pointing out how they abide by ethics and have codes of honour.

However, he admits to being saddened that inside many professional firms the drive to be businesslike means that the idea that a principle can be a commercial point has been lost. It is not that professionals are - as would be understandable - imperfectly matching up to their principles, but that they do not pretend to have values.