First Among Equals, Part 2

In this excerpt from Chapter Four, Patrick McKenna and David Maister discuss five important questions for leaders to ponder

Anyone who has been a boss knows it's tough enough to manage people on a daily basis. Harder still, though, is getting underlings to perform at the peak of their abilities so that a group, department, or company maintains its competitive edge, write authors Patrick McKenna and David Maister in their upcoming book, First Among Equals: How to Manage a group of Professionals (The Free Press, 2002). Add to the mix fears about terrorism and anxiety over the shaky economy, and a manager today can be at a loss for how to motivate, let alone inspire.

To succeed, McKenna and Maister argue, bosses will have to learn to glean most of their fulfillment from the success of others. Being in charge isn't about being the center of attention, writes Maister, an expert on the management of professional services firms and the author of several other management books, and McKenna, a partner at consultancy Edge International in the Edmonton, Canada.

Indeed, today's leaders have to be kinder, gentler, more empathetic -- and able to show genuine interest in whatever their charges are trying to achieve. Establishing a comfortable environment for employees is a prerequisite for creating a true sense of solidarity throughout an organization. And it's from this solidarity that the efficiency companies must have to compete is born.

In Chapter Four, entitled "Dare to Be Inspiring," the authors argue that executives must move past outdated notions of what makes a good leader. Genuine affection and empathy are the essential management tools in a post-September 11 world, they argue. For example, showing concern about the lives of employees outside the office enhances their sense of belonging. By taking just a moment out of a busy day to lend a sympathetic ear, a leader can reduce employee stress levels a notch, making the whole group more efficient. And, the thinking goes, if the boss gives a hoot, then employees are going to care about the work they do, too.

Ultimately, it's through a leader's inspirational techniques that professionals develop confidence and achieve peak performance at the office, the authors argue. In Chapter Four, they discuss techniques that the best leaders use to inspire employees. Here's part 2 of an excerpt from that chapter:

Chapter 4: Dare To Be Inspiring

Here are a few more important questions to reflect upon:

1. Do you show a genuine interest in what each of your group members wants to achieve with their careers?

2. Do you show an interest in the things that mean the most to your people in their personal lives?

3. Are you there for your people in their times of personal or professional crisis?

4. Do you informally "check in" with each of your people every so often?

5. Do you offer to help when some member of your group clearly needs it?


Think about each member of your group. Have any valued people left recently or announced that they are about to? Are some people, with a lot of talent and potential, performing at a level far below where you think they should? If the answer to either of these questions is affirmative, then the chances are that you have failed to pay attention to something these individuals want or need to jump-start their careers.

Some years ago, Patrick was beginning to work with a group. One of the valued younger partners had just announced that he was leaving. The group leader was shocked: "I had no idea Alan was unhappy or looking at other opportunities." Patrick and the group leader got together to debrief the session. The group leader was still stunned by the loss. One of the other young partners came in. As she was sitting down, the group leader asked her, "Did you have any idea Alan was unhappy or wanted to leave?"

She took a deep breath and said: "Geez, Mike, I thought you knew. He's been wanting to pursue developing a more international presence for our group for at least the past ten months that I know of, and he just wasn't feeling like he was getting the kind of support he needed for what he wanted to do." Alan ended up not only walking away from this firm with a few more clients than he had brought in, but he also took a couple of the more valuable juniors with him. It took this group some time to bounce back from the loss of clients and to replace the talent who had left.

One of the most effective managers of professionals that David ever met was Don Groninger, at one time the general counsel for Bridgestone/Firestone, where he ran a legal department of around thirty people. He was always looking for ways to advance the careers of his people, even (or especially) if this meant them being promoted to top corporate positions and hence leaving his group. In the words of one of his people:

He had a deep insight into people and could discover and nurture strengths that others might not see. He paved the way for you to take on stretching challenges, expected you to produce results and, without ego, trusted you to run with the ball, calling on him only when you felt the need to. He did not micro-manage. But when you asked for guidance what you received was the wealth of his "book learning" as well as his "street smarts." I don't know that he was ever wrong in the advice he gave me.

Don once had his entire group evaluate him as a manager (see chapter 22), disclosing the results to everyone in the group, and obtained the highest scores that David had ever seen for any group leader in a firm or corporation. And then he improved the following year!

Paying close attention to what people want and need in developing their careers is a critical part of any group leader's role. ("Allow people to aspire to their dreams" - Zander; and "never stop building on strong ideas" - Burnett) Unfortunately, too few bother.


Even though we have been working with groups for many years, we are still struck by how little interest many group leaders display in the personal lives of their own group members.

When your group members start talking about personal issues, do you show anything more than a perfunctory interest in what they have to say? How much do you really know about their families? What about their leisure-time interests? Do you explore with them what they are keenly passionate about? Do you ask questions that get them talking about their personal interests?

You may be saying to yourself, "Well, I'm not sure I agree that people who have a good working relationship really need to talk to each other about this kind of stuff." However, our experience is that you cannot build a successful business enterprise if everyone always stays in role, and deals with everyone else solely on a functional, logical, rational basis. Professionals love to retreat into their discipline and avoid messy emotional stuff, and it can be tempting to think that they do not want you know about their emotions. The reality is that you cannot separate the human being from the performer. ("Are you sure that their eyes are shining?" - Zander)

We once asked a top leader in a professional firm what most surprised him about taking on the managerial role. What had he not anticipated before he took the job? His answer? "I learned more about the personal lives of my people than I ever thought I would know! It turned out to be essential in order to get the best out of people."


All of us confront crises and make important transitions in our lives. A family member goes into the hospital, a child is having a particularly difficult time at school, a marital relationship is faltering, or a spouse has just been offered an important career move that could necessitate the relocation of the family to a new city. Such issues can lead to behavior that suggests a sudden disinterest in the work. At the other extreme, some people may bury their personal issues in workaholic traits, burning the proverbial candle at both ends.

Right now, as you read this, it is very likely that some member of your group is facing some significant crisis or transition. Are you aware of it? What kind of support are you offering? Maybe you're an exception, but if you're like many of the managers we've worked with over the years, you probably haven't always been there for your people when they needed you. Pay attention, and help where you can!


We all face those day-to-day situations when client work gets overpowering, when the firm's internal systems seem to make it harder rather than easier to get anything done, or when a technology glitch makes us wish we could retreat to far simpler times. These frustrations don't have a devastating effect, but they do preoccupy us. One thing that helps immeasurably is having someone notice and say: "You look a little distracted. What's going on?"

If a group leader just takes a few minutes to listen, something special can happen. The person has a chance to "vent." To get whatever is bugging her off her chest. It may not solve the problem, but she'll probably feel somewhat better. The burden has been lifted a little. If you're the person listening, it doesn't take a lot of time or effort. But for the individual who is the fortunate recipient, it's special. It's like being given a battery recharge just when you needed it the most.

Do you notice when members of your practice team are preoccupied, frustrated, or distracted and take the time to check in with them? ("The creative human spirit needs to be nurtured and stimulated" - Burnett) Most group leaders don't do this anywhere near as often as they should.


If your team is at all typical, you and the other members are very busy people. You all work hard and sometimes you're stretched to the limits of your capabilities. This can cause well-meaning people to make small, but important, mistakes.

Someone on your team has just landed a monster project with a deadline coming at him like a high-speed train. Meanwhile, two serious glitches have just cropped up that could never have been anticipated. At a time like this he is liable to need a helping hand. The question is, are you going to make some time available to help?

By help, we don't just mean a few minutes of being sympathetic, empathetic, compassionate, and a good listener for your teammate. You must offer to pitch in and lighten the load. As busy as you are, do you take on some of your colleague's headaches to help him through the rough period? ("Pay attention to how to enable people to be the best they can be" - Zander)

Once again, in too many work groups, the answer is probably, "No." You don't have the time. You don't offer to help out. At best, you might be counted upon to arm-twist some other member to pitch in. And there goes your credibility and influence as a leader and coach. You want people to accept your influence in the future? Help them now!


Group leaders are responsible for creating an inheritance, a legacy, which passes into the custody of the next generation. Their fundamental purpose should be to inspire others.

Those, like Zander and Burnett, who inspire, do so because they wish to serve others. Inspiration comes from within and the group leader's job is to create the environment which can invite it. Inspiration is not derived from selfish motives, but from caring about people, caring about our relationships with those people, and caring enough to intercede and see if we can coach people to perform better than they thought they ever could. To be an effective coach requires patience, persistence, and permission.

From First Among Equals by Patrick J. McKenna and David H. Maister. Copyright 2002 by Patrick J. McKenna and David H. Maister. Reprinted by Permission of The Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster Inc., New York. The book is available from Simon & Schuster online. Also, visit the First Among Equals Web site

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