(March 8, 2003) — What's your company? It may be easy to define a company's spirit in some business techno-speak, like “Delighting our customers with superior service,” or “Striving for excellence while adapting to shifting paradigms.”
But guess what — when most people hear that kind of talk, you're lucky if they only roll their eyes. The preferred response would be to snap you in the butt with a wet towel. That's because those platitudes often don't really have much meaning.
There are exceptions. For example, many chemical companies seem to do a pretty good job of summing up their business in just a few words, like BASF Corp.'s familiar catch-phrase: “We don't make a lot of the products you buy. We make a lot of the products you buy better.” Although it doesn't really differentiate BASF from many other chemical companies, it is an excellent way to describe what it does.
There's a cliche answer to the “What's your company?” question: “My company is its employees.” And that has a lot of merit. After all, employees are more than a bunch of people who punch timecards every Monday morning and wave goodbye when they walk out the door on Friday afternoon. They're the people who develop and nurture your corporate culture.
Here's an interesting exercise: Try to define your company's corporate culture. And while you're at it, define the culture of a few of your competitors, and imagine how they would define yours. Be honest, and you may come up with some insight that will help you market your firm. You may even generate some ideas that will help improve your bottom line.
So, what makes your company different? If you have trouble answering, consider how your company adjusts to the changing business landscape. For example:
* When the Internet first became commonly known in the business world, how did your company react? Was it an early adapter, the first in your sector with a Web site? How do you use the Web today? If you're not on the cutting edge, where do you put your efforts instead?
* How are you reacting to international competition? How many people at your company have visited processors, suppliers and customers in Mexico, China and Eastern Europe? How much business are you doing in those markets?
* What key challenges do your customers face today? Would they agree with your appraisal? How are you helping them?
* When customers take steps to reduce costs, like seeking bids via Internet auctions or demanding price cuts, how do you react?
There's one more test, and it really boils down to leadership. That's a rare trait, probably more extraordinary than most people realize. You notice leadership most in times of crisis — think Winston Churchill during the Battle of Britain.
If you wonder whether your company has exceptional leadership, consider how it has responded to the crises of the past 15 years. Look at attacks on plastics' solid waste record, and specific attacks on the environmental merits of polystyrene and PVC. Also consider your response to today's major challenges, including stronger international competition and a sluggish domestic economy.
Once you get a good idea of your company's strengths and weaknesses, you can get a better fix on your true company culture — and maybe even some ideas to make it better.