MT Expert - People: Pillars of Strength

In turbulent times, leaders need to identify what their company really stands for, says Virginia Merritt.

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Last Updated: 09 Jul 2013

Over the last few months my firm has been out speaking with top leaders in companies to find out how they are adapting and evolving to cope with the rapidly-changing conditions of a recessionary environment. It’s been fascinating to hear what they pay attention to when the going gets really tough (see www.strategyevolution.net).

What took me by surprise was how many talked about the need to strengthen their core identity or purpose as a priority – not just to give employees a greater sense of stability, but also as a secret weapon in the strategy execution process. It became clear that when external conditions are more stable, a degree of internal friction and dissonance can be tolerated. When there is real flux and it becomes harder to predict success, leaders turn their focus to find new points of stability and difference. So a number of the leaders I spoke to were putting effort into building up their core story to give employees something clear, positive and motivational to hang on to – something that would help employees to cope better with constant change. 

One HR director used the memorable image of a pier stretching out into a turbulent sea: the stuff on the deck may get moved around and buffeted by the stormy weather, but the pillars reaching down into the ‘bedrock of beliefs, culture and values’ are what’s important in keeping the company going through these darker days of recession.

So now IS a good time to think about what your company really stands for. Apart from anything else, it also gives you something positive as a leader to say to employees - to reassure them that the company does have a future, even when all the numbers may be telling a different story. This is actually easier to do in a small company, because employees are usually more aware of the ‘emotional roots’ of the company. But if you want to retain their commitment and loyalty, you need everyone to be able to answer consistently and confidently when you ask the question: ‘who do you think you we are as a company?’

How do you discover your true ‘organisational identity’? To get at a core expression of what you stand for, I think you have to be clear on your responses to these four questions – and make sure all your senior managers are on the same page:

  • What is this company brilliant at?
  • What do our customers, clients and partners say about us?
  • What do our people care passionately about?
  • What do our founders believe?


It’s a powerful mix of both visible, rational attributes and the deeper emotional bonds – and it helps you to draw on the rich legacy of the past. If you can distil all this into a simple core story, you can refer to it constantly in communications about strategy and goals as the thing you want to preserve at all costs. And since it’s living proof of your unique organisational identity, it is this that will be your passport to a brighter and more successful future.

Virginia Merritt is Managing Partner of organisation consultancy Stanton Marris – the only one of its kind focused on helping clients make their strategies work. For more details go to www.stantonmarris.com

To purchase a copy of the research report 'Strategy evolution: adapting to a new world' you can go direct to the dedicated site www.strategyevolution.net. This also gives details of latest developments about the research via a live blog.

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