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Passion, People and Principles

Rights and Obligations

post # 262 — December 15, 2006 — a Managing, Strategy post

I have long held a theory that organizations ought to have (enforced) “rights and obligations” that each of their members (ie employees at any level) must follow. Here’s a first attempt to draft a sensible “rights and obligations” list for a professional business.

Members of the organization have an obligation to:

Act with integrity and high ethical standards at all times

Serve client first, firm second, themselves last

Continuous self-improvement (no cruising)

Preserve reputation of the firm

Reach out for additional responsibility

Take the initiative

Help others (that report to them) succeed

Be a team player

Work hard

Treat all people as valuable members of the “team”.

Treat all professionals with trust and respect.

Cooperate with everyone within and between departments.

Delegate work to the appropriate level.

Members have rights to:

Stretching assignments

Be kept informed of what’s going on in the organization

Be treated with respect

Know the criteria by which they will be assessed

A good understanding of the overall goals and objectives of our firm.

Freedom to make the necessary decisions to do their work properly.

Be kept informed about the things THEY need to know to do their job properly.

Input on issues that affect their work.

The resources necessary to provide high quality client service.

Understand how their compensation is determined.

Work that makes good use of their knowledge and ability.

Work that has variety, interest and challenge

Encouragement and opportunity to learn new skills

A clear understanding of their responsibilities.

Useful performance feedback throughout the year.

High quality of on-the-job training.


What would YOU add or delete for an ideal professional business?


Phil Gott said:

I agree entirely that organizations can benefit by having “rights and obligations” that each of their members must follow, although I think it essential that members have an input in deciding what those rights and obligations should be. No standard list will do. Coming up with a list that suits their organisation and that members would be willing to sign up to is one of the best team-building activities a team can undertake. < ?xml:namespace prefix =" o" ns =" "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office"" />

Incidentally David, you refer to “(enforced) rights and obligations”. I assume that by placing “enforced” in brackets you are not suggesting that enforcement is optional but instead that enforcement is essential. Without a willingness to enforce such rights and obligations there would be little point having them.

Involving a team in creating a list of rights and obligations (I have known teams refer to them as their “Team Deal” or Team Charter”) gives a team leader an invaluable tool in bringing team members into line. Now the team leader has the full written support of the team behind their enforcement efforts. Very useful.

posted on December 15, 2006

Charles H. Green said:

It’s a very good list. Seeing it laid out this cleanly makes me notice three things.

First, the relative pervasiveness and breadth of the second obligation—client first, firm second, themselves last. I know you’ve written about this many times elsewhere (and I’d welcome a shortcut so I can remember where!); it just strikes me again, as if for the first time, the implications of REALLY behaving that way.

The second thing I noticed was what Phil Gott also touched on: the issue of enforcement. I realize this posting is all about the principles and the “ideal” organization—but seeing it laid out so clearly just reinforces the gap between the aspirational the daily reality. The gap is not only huge—and we are all sinners in this regard—but the gap itself has an outsized impact in a professional services firm.

A disgruntled mid-level manager can function, sort of, for years in a product company. I suspect that the rot such a person causes is more harmful in a consulting firm, for example. That is, the link between concept and execution may be more critical. (Then there’s the always-difficult case of law firms…)

Finally, I looked in the “rights” section for a clear statement of commitment by the firm to personal development of the member. It is implicit in a few other items, but not in the direct way I think it should be.

A truly great professional services firm would be as committed to the pesonal development of its people as it is to great client service, IMHO. That commitment would include not just best efforts within the firm, but a commitment to honestly and openly help the individual pursue careers outside the firm where those careers are in the best interest of the individual.

That this is a win-win proposition is evident in the firms who have figured out the value of an alumni network. Living by such values would mean severely cutting back on non-compete clauses, re-visiting golden handcuffs, eliminating do-not-raid clauses from exec search firm contracts, and an encouragement of opening their employees to the broader job market. A person who re-ups with a firm in the face of an offer from another firm is an invigorated person. One who resigns to join another firm is not a traitor, but an opportunity for Firm 1 to learn why it is not meeting its employees’ needs.

posted on December 15, 2006

Steve Roesler said:

A very useful idea—and one that law firms should quickly see as helpful. It is, for all intents and purposes, a meeting of the minds and thus, a contract.

I’m with Phil Gott on letting the group generate the items. Experience says that you could use the lists, or at least some of the items, to start the thought process rolling.

This kind of agreement is also quite useful in the hiring process. Potential candidates can decide whether they are willing to live up to the standards set forth. In fact, it could be part of the employment contract itself.

posted on December 15, 2006

david foster said:

The list is good, but values such as these are best inculcated through personal example, like this.

posted on December 15, 2006

Dave Livingston said:

David – a good to decent list but a better idea. You could do a real service as well as add to your icap assets for consulting by developing it further. Given all the positives let me take that as a baseline and focus on development. A couple of critical things need to stand out. First, it needs to be clearer and simpler. What are the core value propositions for the employee, the firm and the client ?

Lord knows how but when Fred Smith started Fedex he coined the phrase/motto “People, Service, Profit” – the company takes care of the people, they take care of the customer thru service above and beyond (supported and enabled by the company) and that yields sustainable and renewable long-term profit. Unlike almost every other organization there were then manuals, processes and procedures built up beneath each of these. AND each had metrics, people were measured on them and their compensation was based on a balance with clear local objectives and goals as well as metrics.

2nd – it needs to be real. Annoucing and writing all this stuff up is not just wasted effort but counter-productive if it’s not reflected in the basic strategies, goals, on-going operatioins and daily execution. People will get cynical rather than view these as a set of organizing principles.

My experience with prof. service firms, mostly large-scale management consulting is that during the recruiting and/or selling the engagement all the warm, fuzzies are talked up but when the wheels start grinding most are fungible commodities ground up to grease those wheels in a tournement where the payoff goes to the few partners left standing. And the scramble to get there leaves a lot of clients with under-delivered and over-charged legacies.

posted on December 16, 2006

peter vajda said:

Adding another 1/2 inch of materials such as core or espoused values, rights and obligations lists to the “manual” doesn’t necesarily correlate with effective, and lasting change or transformation in performance, behavior or attitude…it’a all about action…taking the high road as Mr. Westinghouse does in Mr. Foster’s example (and thanks for that).

Since, in my experience, there are such wide gaps between what’s on the paper and what’s done in pactice, and many folks lose sight of these quallities “at 9:00 Monday morning,” I would pose the question, “What’s right about NOT following through on the values, rights and obligations that we seem to “verbally” espouse?” Why was it that Mr. Westinghouse responded in the manner he did while others took the low road? “What’s right about taking the low road?”

The response can’t be “nothing” since so many seem to drive on that road in their day-to-day dealings, work, interactions and relastionships.

Lists are just lists, items are items, like furniture in a room -which we often rearrange, move around, re-cover, dust off ..but the room is still there, furniture not reallly different, doors closed, windows closed, air musty….no real change. What would it take to open the doors, the windows, and welcome in fresh air? Perhaps it’s not about “the furniture”.

posted on December 16, 2006

Tim Burrows said:

This is a great list, and I agree with all of them. However, maybe I’m a bit mentally challenged. I find that I have trouble remembering all of the items on the two lists. No doubt they are all relevant, but which are the really key, essential, must-do, don’t-even-think-about-not-doing ones that you can live your life around?

Are lots of goals the same as no goals? My capacity to remember things starts to max out around the six or seven mark, and I think the optimal number is around three – for example Passion, People and Principals!

How about it David (and others), can we boil it down into three absolutely essential points? I’ll even stretch myself and try to remember three of each – obligations and rights.

posted on December 18, 2006

Tim Burrows said:

Goodness – Principles, not Principals (although maybe having some Principals around is a good thing too…)!

posted on December 18, 2006

David (Maister) said:

The various comments illustrate the difficulty of tackling this subject. I understand the desire for brevity and “memorability”, but I’m just as nervous about ambiguity.

One of the things i like about the ‘rights and obligations’ approach, compared to things like vision, purpose, mission, principles and values is that it has the potential for clarity – you MUST do these things and these things MUST be done for you.

The problem with (even memorable) vision, purpose, mission, principles and values are that they often allow ambiguity, come across as aspirations, and permit non-enforcement. The language of ‘rights and obligations’ is an attempt to overcome this weakness.

The disadvantage, however, is that rights and obligations cannot be simply categorized – or at least I don’t think so. The US constitution tries to capture basic rights in the amendments to the Constitution, but each one of those amendments has led to two centuries of interpretation when written so concisely.

But then, maybe all that proves is that the ‘rights and obligations’ approach does not have any better functionality than the others it is designed to replace.

posted on December 18, 2006

Tim Burrows said:

It’s true, but I think you will always have ambiguity. Look at how may pages of legislation has been written in an attempt to cover all eventualities.

I guess I just pose the question – if these are meant to guide behaviour on a daily basis (and I think they should), then you can’t be referring to a list the whole time.

But as I say, perhaps others have better memories than I.

posted on December 19, 2006