Rekindling the corporate memory

By Jim Northover,
Chairman


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Many companies today are suffering from corporate amnesia, forgetting what made them successful at the outset. Jim Northover claims the failure to recognise a founding ethos can hold a company and its employees back.


IBM’€™s latest survey amongst the world’€™s corporate leaders (IBM Global CEOs Study 2012) includes an interview with the CEO of National Geographic, John Fahey, who says that he wants his magazine €˜to ‘inspire people to care about the planet’€™. The business lives by the belief that ‘€˜to know the world is to change it’. The assumption is, of course, to change it for the better. There is nothing here about shareholder returns or financial results. He claims that National Geographic employees should focus on a higher set of values, ones that go back to the very beginning of the operation

Many businesses start out with a simple idea, and with that idea comes a set of values that for the most part are intrinsic, never spoken, but totally understood. As time goes by these values become articulated, discussed and enshrined in documents, statements and codes. By then they often seem remote and irrelevant to employees, particularly when their own performance is being measured by quite different sets of criteria.

The longer a business exists the greater the capacity for corporate amnesia. As Edmund Burke opined over 200 years ago ‘those who don’€™t know history are condemned to repeat it’€™. The challenge then, facing many businesses, is how to re-connect employees with the beliefs and attitudes that made the business successful in the first place.

Working recently with a banking group in the Middle East we found that one of the essential truths about the business was the phenomenal vision and ambition of its founders. There was something so telling about the pioneering days of the founding team that could still resonate with their employees today. In helping the business articulate its positioning and developing its brand we needed to look no further than its early history to discover that essential truth. It was not something you could make up. It was clear, compelling and still relevant in a fast changing, ever growing market.

Although a strong ethos cannot ensure business success, it can help keep a business on course, while strategies and tactics necessarily change to keep pace with external conditions. It is instructive to see how banks that were founded on Quaker traditions of ethics, such as Barclays and Lloyds, are now beginning to revisit what they stand for in the wake of the banking crisis.

However, just re-stating founding principles will not be enough. It is not only the ‘€˜what’€™ but the ‘€˜why’ that is vital. To engage employees, companies need to provide a compelling narrative and the reasoning behind it.

These principles make most sense when they provide a memory that guides the business, serves as a promise and most importantly can be actioned day to day.