Posted on

David Maister: Trust and Professionalism

David Maister was described to me by a friend and colleague* as ‘the first good consultant’s consultant’. A former Harvard Business School professor, who hails from the United Kingdom, Maister carved out a niche as perhaps the most influential thinker about professional services and and the role of trust in business.

David MaisterBrief Biography

David Maister was born in London, in 1947,and studied Maths, Economics, and Statistics at the University of Birmingham. He went on to achieve a Masters in operational research from the London School of Economics and a DBA from Harvard Business School, in 1976. He then taught, first at the University of British Columbia, and then, from 1979 to 1985, at Harvard Business School.

During this time, he specialised in transportation and logistics. His books on the topic are now all out of print. He left academia to establish his own consultancy and started to focus on advising professional firms, like accountants, lawyers, marketers and consultants. This led to his keystone work, in 1993, ‘Managing the Professional Services Firm‘. This remains in print and a strong seller. Maister had found his niche. I came under his spell when given a copy of his 1993 book, ‘True Professionalism‘, while a manager at Deloitte. It was written for people like I was then: professional services managers, looking to build a career, a reputation, and a client portfolio.

Perhaps Maister’s most influential book, however, was his 2000 book (co-written with Charles Green and Robert Galford), ‘The Trusted Advisor‘, which introduced us to ‘The Trust Equation’. His last book (to date) is ‘Strategy and the Fat Smoker: Doing What’s Obvious But Not Easy‘. The subtitle summarises the book’s thesis succinctly. At the start of 2010, Maister announced his retirement, shortly after being awarded the Carl S Sloane Award for Excellence in Management Consulting. He now spends his time in his home town of Boston, having forsworn air travel, enjoying the arts with his wife. How unusual and refreshing to see a top business person enjoying a fulfilling retirement.

Five Inter-connected Ideas

I’d like to summarise and interpret some of Maister’s ideas and how they link together by isolating five inter-connected themes, and showing how Maister joins them up.

1. The Trust Equation

At the heart of ‘The Trusted Advisor’ is The Trust Equation, which Maister and his co-authors use to illustrate how the ‘four realms’ of trust interact, to answer questions like: ‘My client knows I am credible and reliable, so why doesn’t my client trust me?’. Trust (T), they argue is the result of four factors: Credibility (C), Reliability (R), Intimacy (I), and Self-orientation (S).

T = (C + R + I ) / S

But trust, they say, is not about knowing and it is not about tactics: it is all about attitudes and character. People will trust you if you show an interest  in them, demonstrate a genuine desire to help them, and have a low self-orientation – that is, you are less interested in yourself than in them. Excellence, Maister says, arises from acting according to agreed principles and values, which also build trust (through reliability – or being predictable in your ethical choices).

Here is the first link: A high trust business will experience high growth. Trust is the best business strategy.

2. Business Strategy

Maister observes that many professional services firms in the same market will often have near-identical strategies. So what will determine which one wins, competitively. Since they are all smart, it isn’t the choice of customers, products, services or marketing: it is the drive and commitment to implement the strategy effectively. And this comes from people and how the leaders of the business manage and lead them.

Here is the second link: To deliver a business strategy, you need energy, excitement and enthusiasm from your team

3. Management

Management is about people, passion and principle. Maister says that one-on-one management is the only real managerial activity, because this is the only way to properly engage with people. A manager’s agenda must be to create a great place to work, rather than working at building their own career: that will follow.

In an article published in 2002 (Business: The Ultimate Resource), Maister sets out 13 rules on which successful managers model their behaviour. I have selected some of my personal favourites:

  • Act as if not trying is the only sin
  • Act as if you want everyone to succeed
  • Understand what drives individuals
  • Know all your people as individuals

Here is the third link: Management is about doing what’s right over the long term for your clients and people. This is the route to great client service.

4. Client Services

Maister sees the world of client services in a fairly simple way. But his work has been able to justify this with logic and evidence. A manager’s role is to energise their people. These people will then serve their clients excellently. Clients will reward the company with their patronage and loyalty. This will lead to great financial performance.

So stop focusing on the financial results – they are a lagging indicator of what matters: focus on energising your people. Maister notes that formal systems, policies and procedures do little to build a business: what it needs is managers to use their informal influence on employees, and demonstrate honour, character and integrity.

Here is the fourth link: Honour, character and integrity are the foundations of a meaningful career

5. Career – Professionalism

True Professionalism was where I started with Maister, and his subtitle neatly summarises Maister’s point of view: ‘the courage to care about your people, your clients, and your career’. His definition of professionalism takes in four critical commitments:

  1. to provide the best, most effective services to your clients
  2. to self-improvement
  3. to caring about your clients
  4. to not compromising your values

Here is the final link, back to the start: Not compromising your values is the key to ‘values in action’. Without this, there can be no trust.


* Michael Coleman, who sadly died in September 2011.

Share this:

Leave a Reply