Why companies should take a 'corporate selfie'

If you don't have an accurate perception of your business then you're in danger of making the wrong judgements, says Heather McGregor.

by Heather McGregor
Last Updated: 04 Feb 2016

Self-perception is rarely accurate. Take myself, for instance. I have an overly positive view of my figure. I see myself as a perfect size 10, who only appears to have a body mass index of 37. This self-mirage persists, even when I struggle to get into a size 16 dress, look in the mirror or get on the scales. Does it matter? My innate self-confidence has served me well at times of challenge, and I am always suggesting that it is something women lack and should work on improving.

But the gap between perception and reality caught up with me when I had my most recent aviation medical, essential for maintaining my Private Pilot's Licence. The Civil Aviation Authority, the doctor pointed out, dislike a BMI in excess of 35 and mine is now higher than 37. (I am not sharing the true figure; that would distort your view of me even more than my view of myself.) So now I have to take the time and expense to have a special flight test to assess my 'disability' and show that despite my weight, I can manage in the cockpit. Further, if my BMI has not reduced by the time of the next medical, in three months, I will be refused a certificate.

This only goes to show that a gap between perception and reality can affect your ability to function and fulfil your potential. Not only for people, it seems. In Professor Mike Brown's research for Britain's Most Admired Companies 2015, he observes that many companies have a distorted view of themselves. In particular, he thinks they are likely have a distorted view of the strength of their management.

Does the perception gap matter? Professor Brown thinks so; his view is that the companies with the smallest perception gaps perform better. With people, psychologists have long talked about 'ego-syntonic' personalities, ie people who find their own way of seeing and doing things acceptable and preferable, even if they are not considered so by others. Do we now have ego-syntonic companies?

The danger of being an ego-syntonic company is that it might, as it often does in people, breed complacency. No company can afford to be complacent; there are always competitors out there for its goods and services, for its talent.

The biggest gap that Professor Brown identifies is the perception of management. How should boards see this? I am for a 360 appraisal of senior management that takes into account not just the views of the people in the company, but other outside stakeholders such as investors, customers and (perhaps more controversially) competitors. This would give you a much more accurate view of how the quality of the company's management is perceived. And if the gap between the board's view and the outside world is markedly different, what should they do?

Perhaps what I am suggesting is not so controversial. After all, companies spend a lot of money finding out what people think. Customer surveys look at what people think of their product, investor audits find out what their shareholders think. Companies frequently look at their net promoter score, a measure of company loyalty. Do companies ever meaningfully and holistically compare the results of exercises such as these to their view of themselves? I suspect not. We value self-awareness in people, so why not in companies?

Of course, the perception gap could act the other way; companies might be less confident of their own abilities than others are. Yet in the hands of a management team who are more confident about the business, it will progress faster. I shall be watching closely to see what happens to the convenience stores bought from Morrisons by retail veteran Mike Greene with backing from Greybull Capital. Morrisons' management clearly didn't believe in the value of the business and Greene had a totally different view of its potential. If he turns out to be right, Morrisons' shareholders will have been short-changed. The ability (or otherwise) of management to hold an accurate view of their business, in this case, could lead to value destruction.

Perception gaps are not just management speak, they can cost the company money. If investors think your future is less rosy than you do, then your share price is likely to lag behind. If your bank has a more negative view than you do of the company, then your debt is likely to be priced accordingly.

If a company is ever going to be able to accurately view its competitors, customers, talent - all of which is necessary for it to thrive - then it must first remove the distortions in its perceptions of itself that cloud its judgement.

I have come to that conclusion too. My view of myself as so much thinner than I really am leads to eating and drinking things I really shouldn't, especially if I want to fly a plane. And if my judgement is that wrong, would you want me at the controls anyway? And if not, then consider if you would want a deluded management team in control of a company.

Heather McGregor is the managing director of communications executive search specialist Taylor Bennett. Follow her on Twitter: @mrsmoneypennyft

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