Practice What You Preach: What Managers Must Do to Create a High Achievement Culture by David H. Maister (New York: Free Press, 2001. 272 pp)

David Maister is a former Harvard Business School professor, writer, and expert in business management. Maister earned his Bachelor’s Degree from the University of Birmingham, his Master’s degree from the London School of Economics, and his doctorate from Harvard Business School. After an acclaimed career in the academy, Maister consulted full-time until his retirement in 2009.

Good Idea

The world is full of good ideas. And yet, how often do we see a business, artist, or leader execute on that idea? Stated differently, discussions over a beer include many “what ifs.” This could be a business, that could be an awesome product.

These ideas die on the cutting room floor often because the people in charge haven’t put a plan in place, haven’t meticulously focused on follow through. Ultimately, the difference between a good idea and a good product is the determination to do what you say when you say it and encourage others to do likewise.

David Maister’s Practice What You Preach takes a qualitative look at some practical questions in managerial practice.

Researching the Commonly Held

At its core, Practice What You Preach explores the validity of the commonly held view that the culture of an organization matters most for success. It’s a long-held truism but does it have merit? Can research prove it?

To answer this question, Maister established a survey for a variety of organizations questioning performance in a variety of hard and soft categories. From this analysis, Maister sees a clear link between mission, vision, values—the culture of an organization—and daily execution.

“There is a powerful and meaningful gap between competence and excellence, and the most successful offices exploit that gap. They set and enforce high standards, and their employees can see it” (31).

When organizations couple these ideas together, positive financial results follow. Therefore, the book earns its title. If a company can practice what it preaches, it will do a good job in the marketplace.

“Most firms do a good job of figuring out what needs to be done to improve the firm’s success. Drawers and shelves are stuffed with clever plans, strategies and action items that, if implemented, would significantly improve the firm’s success. However, the hardest part of strategy is not coming up with clever ideas. Rather, the difficult part is finding the discipline, the will and the determination to act as if you were serious when you outlined your strategy” (194).

Measure It All

Maister’s work is important to link a commonly held business truism with measurable results. Instead of focusing on culture because it feels like the right thing to do, managers should focus on culture because it is the financially savvy thing to do—in addition to being the right thing to do.

Ultimately, the book from a critical perspective is a little flat. Maister splits chapters between research results and case studies where the reader can see best practices for these principles. The content is more valuably consumed as a peer-reviewed journal article.

Verdict: 3 out of 5

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