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Doing Good by the Thousands

By Ed Maier, Former Andersen Partner

I hope each of you had a wonderful holiday season – no matter what you celebrated or how. I hope you took some time to reflect on the good things in your lives. And if you happen to be struggling with some not-so-good things, I hope you had the chance to put aside your struggles for a while and enjoy the spirit of the season.

Over the past year, I recall being in several conversations in which I was reminded of the final episode of our firm. Almost all of those conversations included some comment like – “Some (fill in the individual name, group or agency) was out to get us!!!” or “It wasn’t fair!!!” or “We got totally @#%&&#’d!!!” I admit to having some thoughts like that. But, notwithstanding what happened or how the close-down of Arthur Andersen occurred, nothing can erase the history and memories we have about the great environment we had – the great culture.

And those memories and culture live on. We have clusters of alumni around the world who still get together to share their experiences and maintain a level of camaraderie that you don’t often see in organizations that still exist. So why is it that this network is very much alive while others lose their luster? What is different about this particular network of professionals? What is it about the memories we have and the connections we made keeps us coming together? Is there another network that has this strength?

The culture Mr. Andersen created, and his partners and employees continued to build throughout its 90+ years of existence, continues to serve all of us today. These cultural ties are evidenced all over the world by this quarterly newsletter that is voluntarily distributed to thousands of alums; by professional and social events that groups of Arthur Andersen alumni have organized and continue to organize around the globe; by social media sites that link our common interests; and by businesses that were formed by many of our alumni that are growing stronger every day.

As you step forward into the new year, think about some of these aspects of the firm’s culture that you learned while there. Reflect on how they have helped build your own careers and how they may help you further your own goals. Tangibly, they have helped me strengthen existing relationships and build new ones. Intangibly, they have helped me deal with some of my own crossroads in life.

Think Straight. Talk Straight. Arthur Andersen himself was quoted as saying that this belief never failed him. Ever since I heard it on my first day of employment with the firm, it never failed me either. It resonates deeply with me in both my personal life and in my professional life. I value its meaning. I hope this value resonates with you.

Keep it Simple -- Throughout my career, I was taught to strive to reduce the complexities of my profession – accounting and auditing – to simple statements and explanations. The simplest one is “The debits must always equal the credits”. It can take some complicated analysis to demonstrate this accounting truism, but once the analysis is complete, the answer is usually pretty simple and uncomplicated. No matter what division or branch of the firm in which you worked, you were encouraged to help your clients reduce the complexities of their business problems with simpler solutions.

Invest in People – Any organization, public or private, has one singular most important asset – its people. It can have the best software in the world; it can have the best weaponry in a war; the best pizza in the city; the best automobile on the road. But none of these things, none of its services are invented, manufactured, designed or delivered without people.

The most successful organizations – the ones who are regularly named “the best to work for” -- make a significant commitment to their people. At Arthur Andersen, I believe we did that and I believe every strong organization does the same. From the moment you joined the firm, you were encouraged to enhance your skills through some element of continuing education.

Commit to Quality – Whether a business produces a product or a service, it is critical that quality be a primary deliverable. Quite simply, I don’t believe any organization can survive very long if it doesn’t have commitment to quality of service or product as a major tenet of its culture. Throughout its history Arthur Andersen had a reputation of the highest professional quality across its service lines. I believe we all carry that standard forward in the work we are doing today.

Provide Excellent Service – Consistent a commitment to quality was our mission was to deliver timely, responsive service. From day one, we were taught deliver service that met or exceeded our client’s expectations. I witnessed people jump on planes, trains and automobiles to meet a client requirement—often at the drop of a hat. Employees made business and personal sacrifices to deliver the best service possible. We were expected to immediately respond to client questions and needs, even if it was only to tell them we did not have an immediate answer but would answer their question in a specific time frame. I have many friends and colleagues who are alumni who are carrying on this principle in their successor business roles.

Be a Good Steward –The concept of stewardship was introduced to me during my initial employment interview on the college campus. A partner told me that it was his responsibility to “…make this a better place for the people that follow me…because those ahead of me made it a great place for me.” That concept resonated with me. I found myself repeating it often to others throughout my career. It is a principle all of us should follow in our business and personal lives. We are each stewards of the future for those coming behind us.

Have a Unifying Concept -- In the early 70’s, I had my first opportunity to travel to several international offices in the firm. Up until that first overseas trip, I was aware of what we described as the “one-firm concept”. I heard partners and managers talk about it often. The trip really brought the idea home to me. I met dozens of staff, managers and partners who spoke of the firm, its policies, its practices, its culture, in the same way I did. Many of them even had some of the same complaints! It was a down-to-earth demonstration of a principle that I heard many times. No matter what country we operated in, no matter the common language or customs of the local offices, we were one organization. Yes, we had to adapt our policies and practices for local cultural differences, but we stuck to them. But whether you were in the audit, tax or consulting practices, each had its own methodology and framework to consistently apply and guide us in our work. A unifying concept not only simplifies processes, but it also helps foster a feeling of unity.

Be Consistent – Consistency must exist in order to for any organization to be efficient, effective and productive. Consistency also applies to change. You have to be consistently alert to the need for change and have a consistent process to implement change throughout the organization. And your process for change has to recognize when change is not the right thing to do.

Create or Innovate – Any organization should have a core principle related to the promotion and development of new ideas. These can be related to new products or services, new processes or techniques. Many of you worked on new products or processes that were developed by the firm throughout its history. You learned the importance of innovation to build and re-energize a business.

Contribute to Your Profession or Industry and Community – Many of our people participated in local, national and international professional and community organizations and networks. They contributed research papers, volunteer service and organizational leadership to them. As you continue to grow within your career, you should also seek to step out and serve your profession, industry or community.

Honor Alumni – Any great organization recognizes the value that exists in its former employees—its alumni. Some companies include them in their current activities. Many businesses regularly communicate with its population of former employees. It is important to keep those lines of communications open with your alumni, to keep those relationships flourishing.

These are but a few of the aspects of the culture at Arthur Andersen that all of us were exposed to over our tenure there. I’ll bet that each of you can think of some others. I’ll bet that each of you has memories similar to mine. I’ll bet that each of you adopted some of these cultural traits in your own continuing personal life. You are continuing to grow as a result. And the organizations you serve benefit from that learning and experience.

So, when I meet with other alums and the conversation turns to the dark tones of disaster -- how we were “hurt” or “damaged” -- I remind us all that one benefit that came out of our “tragedy” is this. We have thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of Arthur Andersen alumni doing good things in the world today.

As always, I am interested in your thoughts. I would love to hear some of your own cultural memories and reminiscences. Write me at ed@thinkstraighttalkstraight.com.

And, watch for my book, Think Straight. Talk Straight., coming your way soon!

As always, I am interested in your thoughts. Write me at ed@thinkstraighttalkstraight.com and share your thoughts. Good luck and good listening!