True Professionalism:  The Courage to Care About Your People, Your Clients, and Your Career  

by David H. Maister

Mr. Maister is a leading, world-wide management consultant to professional services firms (lawyers, accountants, etc.).  I have argued that, when we feel the need to analogize schools and teachers to some other field, the comparison should be to consultants, not workers in a plant.  Following that analogy, what lessons can be drawn from Mr. Maister's guidance concerning the management of professionals?  And where can this analogy take us overall?

First, Mr. Maister says that many professional firms have trouble with a disconnect between their "espoused values" (what they say the believe in) and their "values-in-action" (what they actually manage, measure and discuss -- the things that have "nagging rights").  He suggests that profitability and technical competence are the only two things where professionals in firms always grant each other nagging rights and are intolerant of failure.  What are the things that, if a teacher fails to do them, will always result in concern, support, assistance, counseling, and, if these fail, more negative consequences?  Would anyone list instructional quality in this list?

Second, the difference between average and great firms is not, in the author's opinion, creative strategies, intellectual horsepower, or frontier technologies -- all are about equal in these areas.  Rather, "The dominant competitive advantage consists of passion and persistence.  Those who win are not necessarily smarter than their competitors, but they do show more energy, excitement, enthusiasm, drive and commitment."  If this is the case, we should monitor,  preserve and attempt to increase the passion, drive, energy, and caring of teachers for the academic achievement of students through policy and management.  How do we do this?  Through the power of the personal.  This can be one-on-one, especially for neophytes.

  "Most professionals would report that the most important part of their own development was the opportunity to work with a senior professional and carefully observe him or her in action."  p. 110.

Or it can be amplified and institutionalized for mature professionals:

"One tactic above all others is most powerful in helping professionals to succeed:  effectively functioning, small-scale practice groups. p. 94.

This book also provokes some interesting thought on some current approaches to generating  change in the behavior of teachers:

Standards: The current focus on standards is, to some extent, based on the idea that clearly stating what we want for students will be enough to cause teachers to change instructional approaches to achieve those standards.  Maister writes:

"Believing in a goal, understanding its benefits, and knowing what to do to reach it all are insufficient to get us to change our ways. ...What, then, will get us to change? For most of us, the answer lies in supplementing self-discipline with some form of external conscience... 'nagging rights'." pp. 59-60

Pay for Performance:  This is a hot topic, with some states going so far as to mandate that districts develop some such approach.  Maister indicates that high-performing professional firms tend toward group financial incentives and social controls for individuals.  He suggests that individual pay-for-performance schemes are often a way to avoid the hard work of controls:

"In essence, individual performance-based reward systems represent, in many cases, a perfect excuse to abdicate responsibility for coaching, counseling, and assisting (i.e., an excuse not to manage)." p.86

The Cognitive Economy:  In my book note on Smart Schools by David Perkins, there is a section entitled "The Cognitive Economy."  Perkins raises the question of why students would want to work hard to learn and teachers work hard to get them to learn.  In addition to Perkins' suggestions, Maister suggests that the accepted and normal productivity level of a firm (school or system) can be changed through its group structure, technology, support systems and marketing.  In other words, systems that go with a particular culture can help create that culture.  "Get started on the systems, and the philosophy will follow." p. 104.