In 2006, in a corner of A.T. Kearney’s Chicago office, a seemingly immaterial but evocative find was made from among the firm’s archives. Amidst ephemera aged by neglect brought on by busyness and corporate turmoil, was a carefully typed letter to the firm that began with the words “Things We All Ought Always To Remember.” Written in 1961, and in a sort of King’s English formal even for that time, the document’s author was none other than the firm’s founder Andrew Thomas (Tom) Kearney who offered parting wisdom to the employees of his namesake firm at the time of his retirement and a year before he died. In addition to what are still timeless pieces of advice particularly for those who work in service industries, there was a very specific set of words that resonated with one of the people who discovered the document, current Managing Partner Johan Aurik. “It was really beautiful and elegant, and the character of the man and what he wanted for the firm came through very clearly,” says Johan. “But there was this sentence about ‘essential rightness’ in there, and immediately I knew it ... in here,” he says pointing to his heart. The sentence to which he refers has since become part of the intrinsic lore of the firm:
Why did a phrase so simple resonate so strongly? In a sense, the principle of rightness was responsible for the firm’s longevity. While Tom’s document had been forgotten over the years, the concept continued to define the cultural norm modeled by generations of people. “It was always there.” Johan says. “For us, essential rightness was really the common understanding that we are not here to just hand in a report but to be and feel accountable for the advice we give and the results we achieve for our clients. Accountability was always there.
“What spoke to me at that time and impresses me still was that the words have legs. The concept of rightness transcends time and geography,” explains Johan, who brings it to the fore selectively, and almost protectively, as if to shelter it from being manipulated by cliché or devalued by over-repetition. “We are a global firm,” he adds, “Rightness will always mean different things to different people, however at the same time the core value is ultimately the same.” The concept of rightness is straightforward but also highly nuanced. A simple turn of phrase can adjust definition in meaningful ways. Its beauty and usefulness lies in the fact that rightness is a concept open to interpretation. Do things right Rightness is an expression of fact and accuracy and professionalism. This definition is by far the least ambiguous and most indisputable—along the lines of two plus two equals four; there is only one right answer. In consulting, as with accounting, fact and accuracy are an assumed pre-condition of what is provided to clients. In the legal space, shedding doubt on even the most indisputable of facts is sometimes inherent to the profession’s value. Making things right Rightness is also an expression of condition. Many times, professional service firms are called in to restore order to and provide direction in situations of chaos. Making things right allows clients to move forward to do what they’re in the business of doing, and do it well. Adds Johan, “To improve organizations is what we do. There’s not always a script for that. What counts is the ability to listen and truly understand the needs of the client, and the capability and the commitment to see through that the results are achieved” Do the right thing Rightness is an expression of conduct as well. The concept of rightness is one of morality and, as such, it’s binary—we all know when something is fundamentally right or wrong. Some professional service firms are bound by conduct enforced or administered by a strict set of legal rules, such as with lawyers, accountants, or financial advisors. In consulting, codes of conduct are self-administered and, as such, much more dependent upon individual judgment calls. “Every year we ask our people to commit to our code of conduct, but the fact remains you can’t micromanage 3,500 people in more than 40 countries who are engaged every day with hundreds of clients. And, in today’s technology-driven world, the risk for firms has just gone up exponentially,” reflects Johan. “Firms need an anchor. Rightness is our cultural anchor.” All interpretations of rightness have trust at their core, which, for Johan, is why it’s crucial to longevity. “It takes years to develop a successful consultant and it takes years to build a great relationship,” he cautions, “and it only takes one serious issue of distrust and then it’s gone.” He adds, “In the end, trust is all we have.