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The Ghost of Christmas Past

By Ed Maier, Former Andersen Partner

I hope each of you had a wonderful Christmas and New Year holiday and had the chance to spend some meaningful time with friends and family. And, I hope you are refreshed and energized by another new year and the plans and goals you intend to accomplish in it.

Just prior to year-end, I had the opportunity to see one of my favorite plays again—A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. I am sure you know the story, but as you contemplate what you wish to accomplish in the year ahead, I ask that you draw on a bit of nostalgia.

You will remember in the play that the main character, Ebenezer Scrooge, is visited by four ghosts – the ghost of his former business partner, Robert Marley; the Ghost of Christmas Past; the Ghost of Christmas Present and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. As you think about the coming year, devote some time to thinking about your Ghost of Christmas Past. In Dickens’ novel, this ghost transports Ebenezer back to his boyhood, his youth. It reminds him of how much fun and enjoyment he had as a young boy, even though there were some difficulties in that part of his life.

As fellow alum of Arthur Andersen, I suggest you think about this part of your past--the spirit you felt inside Arthur Andersen and the great feelings and experiences we had working there. When I think about the firm, I remember several of the fundamental principles that guided us as an organization and the impact they have had upon me since then.

First and foremost was the concept of Think Straight, Talk Straight, which came from Arthur Andersen himself. I have never found a specific “definition” of what he meant by that. But I did find a quotation from him in which he said that he learned this concept from his mother and it stuck with him all his life. As I have thought about it, it is a pretty straightforward and simple philosophy. But over the years, as others have asked me about it, I have developed my own meaning of this powerfully brief statement.

If you think straight, you gather the facts and verify them. You make your decisions based on the facts, but you also understand the context in which they are presented. You must avoid the noise and the fluff—anything that is not relevant to the problem at hand and is not fact-based. Facts can be complex, but if so, you must break them down into their simplest parts so that they can be clearly understood by others. Then you apply appropriate logic and reasoning to the facts that you have when you communicate them to others. Finally, you draw your conclusion and prepare to talk straight.

When you talk straight, you tell it like it is. Explain the facts to your listeners, express the context of the problem and communicate your conclusion. Don’t sugarcoat your answer, but be respectful of how it may impact others and how they may interpret it. Communicate your point of view simply and then validate the understanding of your listener. Throughout your communication, be courteous and respectful of the viewpoint of others.

Stewardship was another value I understood much better after working for Arthur Andersen. I have tried to practice it as I have walked down various paths in my life. I clearly remember the first time it was mentioned to me in the firm. It was simply stated by one of the partners with whom I interviewed. He said: “It is my responsibility to make the firm a better place for those succeeding me, as was done by those who preceded me.” That is a simple “talk straight” message about stewardship that I try to apply to every facet of my life. I recommend you consider it an important value in your life also.

A good steward cares about the others with whom they work, deals with others with integrity and treats them in a consistent and fair fashion. Embedded in the stewardship principle is the simple foundational principle of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. Need I say more about this one?

Another principle we often referred to was known as the “one-firm concept”. We had our processes for auditing, we had our processes for delivering tax services and we had our processes for running consulting engagements. And despite linguistic and regulatory differences around the world, you would find those processes consistently applied in all of our locations.

Quality is another value that was important to us as a firm. As the Ford Motor Company said in a famous slogan many years ago, “Quality is Job 1”. What customer have you ever served who does not want a product or service that meets their quality expectations? What service or product do you purchase for which you will accept something below your own quality standards? Referring to the previous thought about consistent processes, we had reams of consistent processes supporting the delivery of quality services to our clients. These existed in all of our practice areas.

Arthur Andersen was always committed to the development of its people. You didn’t have to look much further than the brick-and-mortar investment that the firm made in the St. Charles facility to understand that level of commitment. And, as the firm grew globally, similar investments were made in other parts of the world. But the commitment to people development was not only with physical capital. Thousands of people around the world contributed to the preparation and delivery of professional and educational materials to help all of our employees grow in their own professional and personal development.

Beyond our own development, as we grew in the firm we were encouraged to make a commitment to contribute to a better community, society and profession. This could be through donations of time or money to charitable, professional and academic organizations. Thousands of our people volunteered to serve their community by participating in charitable, civic and professional activities.

So as you plan your next year, or develop your own resolutions; as you consider the mountains you will climb and the goals you will accomplish, first devote some time to consider your own Ghost of Christmas Past. What did you learn from your experiences at the firm? At your other places of employment? Within your communities and families? What works for you? What doesn’t work for you? That ghost can remind you of some powerful messages. Things have happened in your past that have helped you succeed. Things have happened in your past that have challenged you. Some even may have resulted in failure. But you should not ignore them as you strengthen your resolve and build your plans for the future.

As you plan your future, remember your past. Consider your own Ghost of Christmas Past and what you learned from it. Good luck with your plans and resolutions for the year!

As always, I am interested in your thoughts. With respect to more details about this subject, if you are interested, I have a couple of newsletters that you might consider. Feel free to write me at ed@thinkstraighttalkstraight.com.