David Maister on Being Helpful

Early in my career, the management team of a large professional firm asked my opinion about how they were conducting their affairs. I responded with a very honest, direct and candid answer–”Here are the things you are messing up, and this is what you should have been doing!” To my surprise, I was fired for being a disruptive influence. This was hard to understand, since I knew (and I knew that they knew) that I was correct in my diagnosis and prescriptions.

Eventually, I learned the obvious lesson. It is not enough for a consultant to be right: An advisor’s job is to be helpful. I had to “earn” the right to be critical. Critiquing one’s clients is, by definition, a part of every consultant’s job, since suggestions on how to improve things always imply that all is not being done well at the moment. We must not only be smart, we must be diplomatic, sensitive and gentle–and behave in such a way that we are trusted!

— David Maister, in The Advice Business: Essential Tools and Models for Management Consulting. Excerpted at DavidMaister.com

I suspect that David Maister is the most highly regarded mainstream* consultant writing today. While most of his teaching is based on personal experience and observation (rather than academic research methods that rely on broad surveys), he does not present himself as a guru. His insights are strong enough and presented clearly enough that all you have to do is read. He doesn’t need a cult of personality to get people excited.


*other consultants like Peter Block may be as highly regarded as Maister, but I classify them as “non-mainstream” because their teachings reflect and call for a spiritual approach to business leadership that Maister does not.

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