David Maister - Professional Business, Professional Life
David’s ResourcesAbout David
NEW! Browse my materials by topic of interest:StrategyManagingClient RelationsCareersGeneral

Passion, People and Principles

Living by the Principles

post # 402 — July 10, 2007 — a Managing, Strategy post

Here’s another question I received by email:

“I work for a consulting company (50 people) and have been in the business 10 years. Recently our partners rolled out a list of “guiding principles” for the company. You talk a lot about setting minimum standards of behavior and strict adherence to group values. So I tried to create a way whereby we could measure if we were living by these principles.

I suggested to the partners that we create a checklist whereby the employees can rate the partners on how well we think they are living up to the standards. This received a lukewarm response – “We’ll think about it”.

For reference, here are our “guiding principles” (by the way, it seems almost impossible for any one human to meet them all):


We believe that trust is fundamental to success in our business, which means we must be transparent, reliable, accepting and congruent. We must do what we’ve said we’ll do, we must be clear in our expectations and opinions, be accepting of mistakes and limitations of others, and “walk our talk”. We must also be sincere, hear and acknowledge others, be candid and straight, and demonstrate integrity and clarity with boundaries.


We believe that individuals are the source of who they are, how they feel, behave and perform. We can choose to be a player and not a victim, and can lead with head and heart. We recognize that we can choose to be inspiring, self-motivated and determined. We take on accountabilities out of creative cause, not for praise or credit, or out of burden, blame or guilt.


We seek out perspective because we don’t believe in “right” answers, just better interventions. This requires us to be thoughtful, self aware, humble and low ego. But we are not afraid to have a point of view on what we believe can work better.


We judge performance by what is achieved, but in the meantime we assume positive intent. We believe in courage and energy, look for the positive and are future focused. We recognise that performance is situational and some achievements need to be judged over longer time periods. We set high standards, welcome challenge and are honest and transparent about our own performance.


We are aware of our interactions with the world and the opportunity to learn from our successes and failures. We are comfortable with ambiguity and use an enabling leadership style that allows people to experiment and learn. We don’t take ourselves too seriously. We believe upsets are setups for learning.

Externally Open

We are externally curious and understand the value of seeing and acting beyond ourselves. We value the thoughts and suggestions of others and invite them into all our conversations. We actively encourage collaboration and interdependency.


We believe in people. We are supportive, and show empathy and compassion to see the potential in everyone. We understand the importance of meaning at a personal level, and how active appreciation can counteract fear. We believe we engage with the whole of a person, not just their work persona and are sensitive to cultural diversity. We encourage health and life balance. We believe businesses should do good when they’re doing great.

David, what do you think about such things? If we create these great aspirations but don’t hold people accountable what good are they? (Ironically, you’ll note that one of the guiding principles is “accountability.”)


The questioner has answered his or her own questions, right? If it’s humanly impossible to live up to the standards, what do the partners mean to convey when they pronounce them? What is achieved by stating your commitments to the unachievable? And if you’re not willing to be evaluated on what you say you stand for, what do people think you mean?

Note that I don’t think it “immoral” to enunciate principles you’re not prepared to be accountable for — I just think you’re fooling yourself as to the beneficial impact of preaching them. My experience says it’s even worse than neutral: you train people to see that you cannot be depended upon to act according to what you advocate, and they end up either trusting you less or just ignoring what you preach.


What do the rest of you think? Does all this mean that firms shouldn’t even try to enunciate their principles? Should they survey everyone each year and publish the results? Internally? Externally? How many firms — good or bad, successful or unsuccessful, actually do that?


Carl Singer said:

In the Army we had “Be, Know, Do” as leadership principles.

Behind that texts and training and a strong adherence ethic.

Many organizations have guidelines or principles — I believe important initial question to ask revolves around the purpose of having such a list. Four alternatives (good, bad & indifferent) follow:

1 – to capture the current spirit of the organization and its current behavior. Or perhaps to “maintain” for experienced staff and “instill” for new staff.

2 – to establish a new benchmark or target as part of a campaign to change corporate behavior.

3 – something in between #1 & #2 — to cope with a few rough spots with a renewed focus on principles.

4 – as a hollow marketing tool — internal (makes great posters) or external.

posted on July 10, 2007

Bryan I. Schwartz said:

I run a law firm. About 8 years ago we announced principles. About 5 years ago I announced that every single person in the firm would survey the partners of the firm and the parnters would also provide a peer rating for each other relative to their accountability to our standards. I received a lukewarm response as well and did it anyway. No single thing we can ever say or do will replace the power and value of annual comprehensive review. Nothing holds people more accountable to our cultural standards than these surveys. We have used it to confirm our beliefs about people who are a good cultural fit and those that are not. When there is a wave of people who comment about a person negatively (usually with a lot of business) we use this as a tool to manage their behavior back up to our standards, use it as a basis for counseling or if these things do not work, we use it as a basis to counsel them out of the firm. Of all the decisions we have made to enforce our cultural standards, this method is second to none.

If you are a rotten to a subordinate because you are having a bad day, you know you will see a negative comment on these surveys. So will all your partners. So will the compensation committee.

I view a lukewarm response about as green a light as one can achieve. Good luck. You will have to crack some eggs in the beginning.

posted on July 10, 2007

Wally Bock said:

In his most recent book on fly fishing and life, Howell Raines has this to say about Alabama football coach Bear Bryant.

“Coach Bryant had an idea about how a man ought to act and if you watched him, you could figure it out.” If you can’t figure out the guiding principles by looking at behavior, what good are they?

posted on July 10, 2007

Glen Cooper said:

I agree with setting principles to maintain and instill group values. As a leader of my company, I think that’s my job.

To address the specific issue of professional review, we are just beginning to consider doing what you, David, laid out in your 1993 book. Managing the Professional Service Firm in Chapter 8 – A Service Quality Program.

We discussed it in last month’s staff meeting and I passed out my first draft of a questionnaire. I am now receiving revisions of the questions and various brokers in my office are beginning to test it in various contexts to see what works best before we work on a system for the whole company.

I got better than a luke warm reaction, but I agree that the leadership for it must come from me, as president of the company. I intend to push it through, but not without a lot of feedback and careful implementation over, perhaps, a couple of years. In my context, I’m not yet talking about peer review at all. Ours is initially just a customer/client review that we are taking baby steps with first.

The purpose of what we’re doing is feedback from the clients and customers, not yet from peers. Both review systems, however, have to be created with care to design procedures that help achieve what we all want. The goal is to deliver professional services in a way that keeps our promises to clients AND motivates us, too, to continue to excel at what we do. That’s a pretty tall order.

That’s my 2 cents worth today.

posted on July 10, 2007

Stuart Cross said:

I fully agree with Wally. The critical thing is how people act, not what they write. I think that surveys are great when they are based on integrity and a desire to improve, and will only lead to cynicism if they are not.

Thinking about the integrity of values reminds me of my first day working for Price Waterhouse. The welcoming partner said to us (the latest group of graduates), “I want you to know that my door is always open to you. Of course, though, make sure that it’s important before you come and see me!” Guess how many times we searched out that partner?

posted on July 10, 2007

Irene said:

I think principles are still needed in firms in order for it be successful. Every principle should be considered, separate those which are unachievable and stick with the important and achievable ones.

posted on July 17, 2007

Nancy said:

I think the question should be about the people who can’t live up to the standard and not about the principles they think is unreasonable for them. They most likely agreed with these principles the moment they started working for the company.

posted on July 18, 2007