Book Review & Notes on First Among Equals by Patrick J. McKenna and David H. Maister

The goal of this book, written by Patrick J. McKenna, a widely recognized management expert, and David H. Maister, one of the world’s leading authorities on the management of professional companies, is to learn how to lead professionals successfully. The management of business professionals is a difficult job largely due to the fact that the best professionals are used to working alone and aren’t likely to take direction or guidance well. They may also be prima donnas, free spirits or people who focus on individual rather than team results.

This being said, the authors believe intelligent, talented and opinionated people can be managed effectively. This can be accomplished by firmly establishing rules and guidelines, by building trust and by caring about your people so much that they are willing to let you coach them to perform better than ever.

McKenna and Maister advise the reader on the role of the leader; how to coach individuals and teams; and finally, how to build a strong future for your company. By incorporating their recommendations, you can truly become a First Among Equals. While it’s true that becoming a truly effective leader and coach is hard work, the results — bringing your staff, your supervision, your company and yourself to new heights — make it well worth the effort.

The Leadership Role

The leadership role is not the same as the role of the contributor. Leaders need to be able to get their people enthused, excited and energized. However, the authors warn that few leaders have the charisma required to motivate a large number of professionals by simply painting a compelling vision of the future. That’s why most effective leaders don’t say “Follow me,” instead they say “Let me help you!”

In order for a leader to be effective he must have some basic attributes, like the right attitude, i.e., a desire to work with other people, and the ability to influence without being seen as domineering. A group leader must also be a source of creative ideas and have the ability to stimulate creativity in others. The successful leader also helps develop a common purpose for the organization, acts as a sounding board, enforces group standards, and works as the conscience of the group.

What are your responsibilities when you act as a group leader? Your primary roles include: using informal time to help team members, being knowledgeable about the growth of junior members, having a working knowledge of member’s clients and the level of client satisfaction, helping members recognize the comparative value delivered by the company vs. the competition, working to make sure that members are aware of current trends in the industry, monitoring the profitability of projects and devising methods to share knowledge about clients and best practices throughout the group and the firm. The group leader also has to determine which activities will benefit the group the most at that particular time.

As a team leader you must first ensure everybody clearly understands exactly why the group exists. Next, your role, responsibilities, accountabilities, and performance measures must be agreed upon with those you supervise and those you report to. “The single biggest (and most certain) source of failure for a group leader is not having agreement in advance about what he or she should do!”

After setting the ground rules, you need to ensure that you have the time to do the job. In many firms group leaders are expected to do their own individual jobs in addition to managing a team. This often results in their individual performance taking the front seat and coaching responsibilities becoming secondary. Therefore it is critical that superiors have a clear understanding of how much time you will need to do a proper job of both managing and coaching so that the necessary time can be allotted.

Become A Trusted Advisor

Another factor contributing to your success as a leader is the degree to which your people see you as a trusted advisor. Trusted advisors share a number of traits. For example, trusted advisors are consistent, seem to understand people effortlessly, always help others see things from a different perspective and have an ability to get people to challenge their assumptions.

So how do you become a trusted advisor? Start by learning more about each person. Meet informally with individuals and discuss their career goals, desires, and ambitions. Taking this type of personal interest will show them you care and it also gives you the opportunity to help them with practical matters like career planning.

Dare To Be Inspiring

The fundamental purpose of a group leader is to inspire others. Consider these questions to see how you stack up in this department. Do you show a genuine interest in what your group members want to achieve? Do you care about things that are important to your people? Are you available for your team during their times of personal crisis? Do you check in with your team members every so often? And, are you prepared to offer a team member help when he or she needs it?

“Inspiration comes from within and the group leader’s job is to create the environment which can invite it. To be an effective coach requires patience, persistence and permission.” And remember, effective leaders inspire others because they wish to serve others.

Coaching The Individual

Coaching is one of the best ways you can help another person reach his or her potential. All of us can benefit from having a coach who sees the talent that lies hidden within us and has the skills to draw those latent abilities to the surface.

To be accepted as a coach by a high performer you can’t come across as a know-it-all. It is also important to note that the only way that a person will permit himself or herself to be coached is after you have seen and acknowledged their potential. You must also build rapport.

One way to connect, or build rapport is by learning to be an active listener. “Active listening is the ability to pick up, define, and respond accurately to feelings expressed by the other person.” As a rule, good listeners encourage dialogue and ask questions, make written notes of the situation or problem being discussed, and summarize a colleague’s situation or problem. By the way, bad listeners avoid eye contact, appear to be disinterested, and yawn repeatedly.

You can’t coach people that you don’t like and vice versa. It’s true that you can’t like everybody, but you can try to find something to like about each person you’re attempting to coach.

Deal Differently With Different People

McKenna and Maister also remind us that different workers have to be inspired in different ways. You have to understand the four styles of worker: analytical, driver, amiable and expressive; and adapt to their styles. This forces you to move out of your comfort zone, but the leader who fails to take these differences into account will experience great difficulty in establishing trust and rapport.

Help Underperformers

A common mistake when dealing with underperformance is rushing to talk with the underperformer without understanding the reason behind their lack of success. She may be having trouble at home, experiencing burnout, feeling a lack of competency or being poorly managed.

You can try a number of things to improve their performance: set up a meeting to discuss the performance problem, reassure the person of your confidence in them, get agreement that there is a performance problem, identify obstacles beyond the individual’s control, seek input for improvement, agree to specific positive actions, and set up a follow up date for review.

If there is still protracted underperformance, then you can suggest a move to a more suitable area, you can warn this person that you must recommend a salary decrease and finally you can lobby the firm to fire this person.

Coaching The Team

Not only must you be able to understand and influence individuals, but you must also be able to understand and influence a number of people at the same time. To do this effectively, you must clarify the goals of the group, energize your meetings, be able to resolve interpersonal conflicts and measure the team’s performance.

Clarify Group Goals

Your first task as group leader is to clarify the goals and objectives of the team. You need to understand why your group exists, how working as a team will improve results, and how achieving team goals will benefit each member of the team. It is equally important that these objectives are communicated to the team so everyone has an understanding of the big picture, their own responsibilities and the roles of their leader and colleagues.

It is also important for everyone in the group to learn what they want and need from one another, what they prefer, how they differ and how those differences can be valued. This way everyone can begin to understand and respect each other so they may feel more inclined to work well together. “A group becomes a team only when people help each other out, when assistance, cooperation, support and mutual encouragement are readily forthcoming.”

Energize Your Meetings

When people say they hate meetings they really mean they hate attending meetings where very little is accomplished. To ensure your meetings are energized and effective: start and finish on time, have a consistent time for meetings so group members show up and aren’t late, set an agenda and distribute it before the meeting and try to get everyone to offer input.

Follow up between meetings. This is the one area where a true leader can have a great impact. If people see there is no progressive action by the next meeting, team morale and results suffer. By frequently interacting with team members and pitching in to help when necessary you demonstrate an interest in the individual and a real commitment to the project. “The single highest value-added use of a group leader’s time is following up, one on one, with members of the team to help them succeed.”

Resolve Interpersonal Conflicts

How do you resolve conflicts between team members? Conflicts can take the form of “chronic bickering” between members, verbal abuse, members finding fault publicly with another person’s work or an icy coldness between members. There are a number of steps the group leader can take to resolve conflicts, including: asking each person about the cause of the disagreement, having each person summarize what he or she heard, determining the exact points of agreement and disagreement and inviting colleagues to suggest ways to proceed.

How do you resolve conflicts between team members? Conflicts can take the form of “chronic bickering” between members, verbal abuse, members finding fault publicly with another person’s work or an icy coldness between members. There are a number of steps the group leader can take to resolve conflicts, including: asking each person about the cause of the disagreement, having each person summarize what he or she heard, determining the exact points of agreement and disagreement and inviting colleagues to suggest ways to proceed.

Measure Group Results

Every group constantly changes and evolves. Periodic evaluation can help push a group in the right direction. Meet with your team and identify areas of potential improvement, brainstorm on how to improve those weak areas and develop an action plan to resolve high priority issues. Also, don’t forget to ask the group to rate your performance — you can learn a lot from your team.

Building For The Future

Maister and McKenna recommend you hire for attitude, and train for skills. “Skill you can build. Attitude, and character, are harder to change.”

When new hires enter an organization a company must find ways to integrate them into the culture. Introduce them to the people they will be working with and to those that can help support their development. Consider designing an orientation program. Meet with the new hires immediately and again in the first month of their new assignment to see how they are doing and ask for their opinions on what could be improved. This all takes a lot of time and effort. However, if your group earns its living from its talents and its skills, “then making people want to stay is a very good business strategy.”


Why would anyone want to do all this? McKenna and Maister don’t deny that implementing their ideas will provide you with a challenge. After all, it’s a lot simpler to just manage the way you always have by staying in your comfort zone, blaming a third party for changes and new directives and concentrating on your own individual work responsibilities rather than taking responsibility for the performance of the entire team.

However, if your goal is to become a truly effective leader and coach, so you can bring your staff, your supervision, your company and yourself to new heights — you must develop new skills. The world is full of people and you have to learn how to deal with them. “The fact that many of us come to the realization late in our careers that these skills are important is a reason to try harder to acquire them, not an excuse to abandon all efforts.”

Think of that one person who may have helped you at school or in your career. Group leadership is a way to say “Thank You” to that person and to pass that favor onward.

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