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

Reviewed,Roger Trapp
Tuesday 04 March 2008 01:00

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!"

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