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Passion, People and Principles

The Managing Partner’s Speech

post # 17 — February 14, 2006 — a Managing post

In case your managing partner is in need of a speech, here’s one I wrote for the leader of a large, national professional firm who asked me what he should say upon his election to the role. (I wrote it more than 10 years ago, and just found it in my files.)

TO: The Partners

FROM: The Managing Partner

SUBJECT: Our Visionary Mission, and our Missionary Vision

Our firm, like our best competitors, is aiming at familiar goals. We want to be the best, and perceived by our clients as such. We want to be innovative, and at the frontier of identifying and responding to the needs of both global and middle market clients. We want to capitalize on the latest technological developments. We want our clients to receive from us an unmatched level of client service.

In addition to all this, we want our firm to be a place that provides professional fulfillment and personal growth opportunities for each and every one of our partners, non-partners and staff. We believe that doing these things will make us one of the most profitable firms in our profession.

Little, if any of this, is new, and little, if any, is much different from our best competitors. If we are to outperform them, what we need is not a better vision, but a better approach to making it happen. We will succeed not by aiming at different targets than our best competitors, but by devising better ways to reach those same targets. We must develop and adhere strictly to sound philosophies: ways of doing business, ways of dealing with our clients, our staff and eachother.

In sum, what we must find agreement on is not our destination, but a way of conducting our affairs. We must design systems to ensure that we are living up to our principles.

In what follows, therefore, I have not attempted to picture what the firm will look like in 5 or 10 years. Rather, I have tried to convey the philosophies I hold about how we should behave as individuals and as a firm. If we follow these principles, we will achieve our goals. If we do not, then we will fail.

As I prepared these thoughts, I have tried to avoid being inspirational. These are the principles I live by, and intend to apply in executing my responsibilities. By sharing these beliefs with you, I am making you a promise that these are the principles I will operate by – and I expect you to hold me accountable for them. If I depart from these principles, let me know – in person, in a letter, or even, if necessary, in an anonymous note. But let me know!

I do not expect that all of you will necessarily agree with everything I have to say. That’s OK, and we should talk about it. But what is here is what I truly believe. You have the right to know where I am coming from, and how I am likely to react when you ask for my views on issues as they arise.

For better or for worse, then, this is what I believe.

On the Role of the Partner

Since clients hire people, not firms, our success will be built a partner at a time. That means that what really matters is not “firm strategies”, but personal career-development strategies for each partner. If, and only if, each partner is finding some way to make himself/herself more valuable on the marketplace each year, then the firm will succeed.

In turn, this means that the role of the firm is to help each individual grow as a professional. The firm exists to help the partners (and staff) succeed, not the other way round. However, it also means that the firm has the right to expect each partner to develop a personal development plan, and to hold that partner accountable for the execution of that plan.

In this profession, the need for personal development is life-long. The minute you begin to cruise, to rely on skills learned last year, that’s the moment you begin your decline. All of us, from the 30-year-old’s to the 60-year old’s must constantly be asking “What new skills can I acquire?”. And the firm has the right to ask that same question of you.

My experience has taught me that success comes not to those who swing for the fences every time at bat, but those who commit themselves to a continuous program of constant improvement, base-hit by base-hit.

There are many ways to make yourself more valuable on the market: intellectual leadership, better client counseling skills, greater ability to run large projects, and so on. But one stands above all else: specialized industry knowledge. Regardless of your discipline, and your command of it, I believe that each and every partner should have one or more industries that they know in depth, to the level that the clients perceive you as up-to-date in their industry as they are. There is no better way, in my view, for each of us to succeed than for every one of us to declare a specific industry specialization.

Partners, in my view, have five key responsibilities, and should expect to be held accountable for all of them. First, and foremost, partners must satisfy their clients, and we should be vigorous in establishing mechanisms which ensure this is happening. Second, partners running engagements are responsible for building skills in themselves and others, for adding to the human capital of the firm. We sell skill and talent, not time. We should devise tracking mechanisms to allow partners to see how well they are fulfilling this responsibility.

Third, partners have a responsibility to contribute to the economic success of the firm by running their engagements profitably, and constantly seeking out ways to improve the economics of their work. We must learn to be efficient in the use of our resources, and vigorous in tracking how well we are using them. Each partner owes us all the responsibility of managing well not only our fee levels, but the costs to the firm in delivering our services.

Fourth, all partners should participate in some way to developing our practice by attracting and winning quality new business that allows us to be in the flow of stretching, learning, growing assignments.

This does not mean just getting more business, it means getting better business, and we should establish procedures to judge not only the volume of our business, but its nature. Our goal should not be to chase any and all new business, but to get more than our fair share of the best business. Being big is not our goal, being best is. When you hear from me, expect to hear more questions about the quality and nature of what you’re doing than how much you are doing.

In the pursuit of quality new business, everyone should play a role. Some will do it directly through selling and proposal efforts, others through writing articles, others through deep involvement with existing clients and their affairs. But each one of us must play some part in the improvement of our practice through attracting interesting, challenging new work.

Last, but not least, every partner has a responsibility to contribute to the success of others. We are a partnership, and not a collection of solo operators (or independent offices) trading under the same brand name. If the firm is to achieve its goal of helping each partner succeed, then we must help eachother. Each partner should be able, each year, to point to some specific contribution to the success of others. This might be bringing in work for others to do, it might be developing methodologies or technical ideas that others can use, it might be transferring your skill to others by coaching. But one way or another, we each must do something if we are to be a firm.

The same requirement to contribute to the success of others should (and will be) applied in judging the success of practice units, offices, and disciplines. Any group that focuses only on its own results and does not help others will not be judged a success.

On Accountability

If someone has accepted a responsibility, and agreed upon a goal, then we should get out of their way and let them do it. None of us should wait to be told what to do, or how to do it. We should expect each of our partners to exercise greater judgment. That doesn’t mean abdication. It means that we should agree on clear goals, and put in place clear accountability (result) tracking systems, and give individuals the freedom and the responsibility to figure out how to get there, giving assistance only when it is asked for. We must not micromanage.

On Rewards

In judging performance, we must be thorough in conducting performance appraisals which focus on non-financial as well as financial objectives, and we must be vigorous in ensuring that each partner receives in-depth feedback, assistance and coaching on performance.

On Management

We do not have room in our firm for people in managerial positions who spend their time on administration. We need managers, but not to play cop or boss. I believe that the job of a manager or practice leader is to help other partners succeed. Management is a responsibility, not a reward. We must not glorify those who occupy “positions”, but choose the person most skilled at managerial duties, and reward them only if they are effective managers.

Managers should be deeply involved in client affairs, not necessarily by being the lead partner on their own engagements, but by spending significant time on client relations with clients of the office, by being a practical source of help on other partners’ assignments, and participating in practice development activities.

Managers should also be deeply involved with the activities of the partners in the office. They should be available to resolve issues, form teams, provide assistance and make it easier for partners to focus on their clients. Managers and other practice leaders should be hassle-absorbers, not hassle creators.

We must devise methods to ensure that our Managers operate in these ways, and truly add value. All of us must be willing to be accountable for performing our respective roles well. If client partners are to be held accountable for their performance (financial and non-financial), the same must be true of those asked to accept managerial responsibilities.

On Clients and What They Want

I believe that clients can make few distinctions on the technical capabilities of the best firms, and place great emphasis on the ability of the individual partner to enter their world, relate to them in their language, talk to them about their business. We will never succeed by being technicians alone, no matter how high our level of technical skill. Clients want us to know their business. They want us to be interested in them.

On My Style

I like to be decisive. I have learned that we can often live with a bad decision, but we are certain to be hurt by no decision. I am willing to take risks, and to encourage and reward risk-taking. Call me on that if I depart from it.

I like to ask “What new things have you tried lately?” – only by trying new things will we get better.

I like to be consultative. That doesn’t mean unanimity, or even consensus. It means soliciting views, asking a lot of questions, and then deciding. I like to hear other people’s opinions. Don’t let me behave any other way.

I don’t like to launch things that I’m not prepared to follow through on. If I’m involved on an initiative, expect me to monitor it carefully – and let me know if I don’t. I don’t make promises I can’t keep – you should fire me if I don’t live up to that promise..

I like to be straight and tell the truth, and I like to be told the truth. I want to hear the bad news, if there is any, and I want to hear it early enough for me to try to help, and do something about it. Life’s too short for politics and games playing.

I believe in extensive communications between management and partners, in both directions. This will mean meeting with clients and partners frequently. Keep me honest on this one, and let me know if what I’m doing is insufficient.


That’s not all I believe, but it’s enough for now. I hope you found these thoughts of interest, and of help. If not, well then,….yes, you’ve got it. Let me know!

So, that’s the speech I suggested he make. (Of course, he never did.) What speech components do YOU think new managing partners should include?


Mark Baker said:

This is 100% the message Managing Partners should deliver – however, do they have the fortitude to take a long-term values based view? Or, are they representing the older generation (ensure profits to provide our retirements payout) at the expense of the younger generation?

posted on February 20, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Mark, you’ve hit the nail on the head. Unless the managing partner is a long-term thinker, no-one else is going to be. Unfortunately, as you hint, many managing partners, rather than being the MOST long-tern thinking person in the firm, end up being the LEAST long-term in their approach because they see all the weekly financials and it diverts their attentions away from their intentions.

posted on February 20, 2006

Dennis howlett said:

Isn’t the issue that qualifieds spend so much tim estriving for partnership that once they reach those elevated heights they realise that short of committing some crime, the’re invulnerable and so take their foot off the gas?

posted on February 22, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Dennis, I think that WAS the model, but I don’t think many firms are run that way today. Partners in my experience don’t feel invlnerable, they feel scared and afraid in case they are next for the chop.

Partnership no longer means tenure in most firms in most professions in most countries, except in those few firms that have become so tolerant of each other that everyone’s afraid to point the finger at cruising in case the finger ends up pointing at them.

posted on February 22, 2006

David Campbell said:

I like your five areas of key responsibilities for partners, though I believe you understate the importance of nurturing talent in professional firms. Talent is of course what we sell, and it also respresents the oxgen for growth. Most major firms leak talent like there is no tomorrow, and most underinvest in means and mechanisms to retain and nurture. Money spent on hiring people could be easily diverted to nurtuning people.

I am particularly heartened to see your take on management roles, and the importance you place on their having continuing client facing responsibilities. I am in such a position, and maintain my client role, but this does not run deeply as a “given” for all management positions. Can management maintain its credibility if its members are not engaged in such activities I wonder?

posted on March 28, 2006

Liam Wall said:


The biggest problem I have witnessed in the international law firms that I have been involved with is the split between partner and executive officer. Because of the traditional structures applied to law firms (i.e. partnerships) the partners are usually the owners.

They must take the lead as you say in delivering value to their clients. They should “invest” in the success of their colleagues and staff.

However service delivery and ownership often gets confused with the right to make executive business decisions. I think there is a shift to have career managers/directors (in other words not lawyers) but all to often even these “outsiders” have to justify their ability in a particular business specialism to a partner whom does not have the relevant experience to comment.

I am all for a manager/director ensuring the “internal” client’s needs have been establised but they should then be allowed to deliver a solution. After all it would be a poor look out for the firm if the partners having established client needs did not provide advice directly and objectively!

Lastly, I enjoyed listening to you addressing one of those firms a few years back in London


posted on September 6, 2006

Allan Carton said:

I like this a lot. We work with a lot of mid-size law firms in the UK where passionate and capable lawyers taking on this role need guidance on how to do the job. This is a pretty good refelection of how all the good ones feel. It can help give them confidence to do what the know is right, even if they haven’t yet got the training or experience yet that they probably need.

posted on October 29, 2006

Yiannis Pavlou said:

I found the speech compelling. I took a much humbler position than being an executive partner for a law firm for a technology company called National Instruments. For one year I’m working with our branches in Eastern Europe to establish an organizational structure that maximizes the long-term business potential for the company. I identify quite personally with the subject matter of the speech, and I understand now that I should have taken the time to communicate such a position at the outset. Thanks for such valuable information that you’re making freely available. Already there is quite a following within National Instruments around David Maister.

posted on November 30, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Thanks, Yiannis

posted on November 30, 2006

chris said:

would love to work for one of you!!

posted on July 20, 2007