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Who Are You?

Joe Calloway, CSP

Let's start with a few questions about your business.

  1. What's the deal with you guys?
  2. What are you about?
  3. What's important here?
  4. What I'd really like to find out, and what you'd darn well better be finding out, is quite simply this - who are you?

You'd be amazed at the number of companies I work with whose owners, executives, managers, and employees can't answer that question. These are companies, large and small, that are out there in the marketplace every day supposedly trying to be a "brand". Trying to differentiate themselves from their competition. Trying to create high performance teams. And they can't answer the question "Who are you?"

What a shame. All this talk about branding and differentiating and teaming and nobody ever bothered to get the whole gang together and figure out what's important.

And what's important is to answer the question "Who are we?" The truly great organizations all have this in common. Shared vision. It's the heart and soul of a winning team. It's probably not in your corporate mission statement, assuming that you have a mission statement. I'm talking about something much more gut level. Much juicier. Much less "professional sounding" and much more powerful in the real world with real people.

Corporate mission statements can serve a useful purpose in terms of establishing priorities and direction. They can also validate a company in the minds of the executives and the shareholders. As in, "Woosh. What a beautifully and impressively worded mission statement. This company must be legit."

Your mission statement might contain what have become all the required elements about things like being the market leader (yawn) and creating standards of service (yawn) and return to shareholders (yawn). Don't get me wrong. Being the market leader with high standards of service and a fat return to shareholders are all grand and glorious things.

Joe Calloway, Professional Speaker, Building customer focused organizaions.
Joe Calloway
But those words don't turn many people on. They usually just turn on the people who wrote them and not much of anybody else. The mission statement gets read at the annual kick-off meeting and it gets put up on the screen in somebody's computerized presentation and everyone applauds half-heartedly at the notion of excellence and performance because, well, heck you're supposed to. What are you gonna do? Boo when the company president says "let's go be excellent!"? No. Because there's nothing wrong with excellence.

There's just something wrong with the word. It's flat. It's overused. It's bland and meaningless. A shared vision is much sloppier than a mission statement. It's gut level stuff using words that have some magic to them. And the words will vary from company to company. What turns people on at Hewlett Packard will almost certainly be different than what turns people on at Rollerblade.

Keep your mission statement if you want to. But try peeling away the layers of corporate speak and the assumptions about sounding professional. Get down to what turns people on.

At a regional sales meeting for an international telecommunications company the regional manager brought the entire group to it's feet in wild applause when he talked about their shared vision. It was something along the lines of "Sell tons of product! Make a bunch of money! Take cool trips! Impress your friends! Buy a lot neat stuff!"

Not professional? Bull. These people were fired up by that shared vision and the senior executives in attendance were purring like contented cats at this wacky gut level display of emotion because this particular region was leading the country in sales and profit.

That's not to say that your shared vision needs to be somebody else's version of cheerleading. It might not be your style. Your style might be a shared vision of "producing the ultimate drop-dead incredible hand held computer in the universe". That might be enough to light the fuse of everyone on the team. Different strokes for different folks.

Do this. Have everyone on your team write their answer to this question, "What business are we in?" That's your starting point. Don't talk about it yet. Just have everyone write it to find out where you stand as a team. You may be pleasantly surprised to find out that everyone agrees. You may be horrified that what you thought was your highly focused team is really a bunch of people with totally different ideas about who you are and what you do.

A variation on the question that might prove even more revealing is to have everyone answer the question "What's the point of your job?"  Again, this isn't to catch anybody in a wrong answer. It's to begin to get to the guts of who you are as an organization.

In their great book "Built To Last", James Collins and Jerry Porras talk about this vision thing and where a shared vision comes from:  "The essence of a visionary company comes in the translation of its vision into the very fabric of the organization and into everything that the company does. It creates a total environment that envelopes people, bombarding them with a set of signals so consistent and mutually reinforcing that it's impossible to misunderstand the company's vision."  It's a matter of picking that one thing that is the soul of your company.

In the movie "City Slickers", Billy Crystal asks Jack Palance what it's all about. What's the meaning of life? "One thing" replies Palance. "That's great," says Crystal, "what's the one thing?" "Kid, that's what you've got to figure out", Palance says.

What's your one thing? A Gallup Poll conducted for MCI found the following: CEOs, owners and presidents of companies with 100 or more employees say the following issues will have the most effect on a firm's competitive advantage in the coming decade:

  • Customer service 27%
  • Product/service quality 25%
  • Operating efficiency 18%
  • Communication/information technology 9%
  • Flexibility/adaptability 9%
  • Innovation 7%
  • Speed to market 2%
  • other 3%

Why customer service? How could customer service edge out quality as being the most important competitive factor? Two reasons come to mind. Product quality, like competitive price, has become a given. It is so important that it's like saying you should turn on the lights every morning when you open the office. Of course your product has to be good, and, if it's not, that's where you should start. Without basic product quality you won't be given a ticket into the marketplace.

But if you have a competitive product at a competitive price, where should your focus be? Your focus should be on the one thing that ultimately determines the success or failure of your business. Your focus should be on the customer. This incredibly basic bit of logic and common sense continues to escape many companies and individuals in business today.

There are those who would say that their product should be the focus. Fine. Make your product. But why? What's the point? The point is that someone will buy the product. The customer.

Or you might say that revenue, or profit, or market share should be your focus. Wonderful. Then lock the doors and spend your days pouring over the books. Keep you eye on the scoreboard. Just watch the numbers. And while you do that, one of your competitors will be watching the customers and keeping an eye on service. And they will grab your market share, increase their revenue, and walk away with the profit.

Xerox is a wonderful example of a company that had to redefine itself and establish a new focus in order to survive and ultimately succeed. In the 1980's Xerox had lost considerable market share in the copier business. David Kearns took over as head of the company and one of the first things he and his band of revolutionaries did was to establish a new sense of focus. Their challenge was to try and get everyone in this huge company, including all the different departments with all their different priorities and views of the business, to focus on one thing. The leadership team ultimately determined that there were three basic priorities for Xerox. These were operational efficiency, product quality, and customer satisfaction.

But what should the true focus be? Ultimately they decided that the only factor that truly made sense as a universal focus for the entire company was customer satisfaction.

Note that this new focus caused a radical re-positioning of Xerox in the marketplace. In the past, Xerox had been like most companies, defining who they were by what they did. And what they did was make copiers. So, as they proudly proclaimed in all of their advertising, they were 'Xerox - The Copier Company". Everything revolved around a focus on the product. And they were losing in the market.

The new focus, a focus on the customer, drove a new definition. They now defined themselves, not in terms of what they made or what they did, but who they did it for. Xerox was no longer about copiers. Xerox was about the people who used their copiers. The customers. And the customers weren't really concerned with copiers in the first place. They only cared about the paper that came out of the copiers - the documents. Customers don't succeed because of copiers. Customers succeed because of the efficient and effective use of documents. And a new Xerox was born. "Xerox - The Document Company".

To survive, Xerox had to expand it's view of who it was and what it should do. To be a copier company restricts you to just making better copiers. But a document company? Documents are basically information. Documents don't have to be paper. They can be electronic. So that means it's not just about copiers anymore.

Lots of companies will say that they have focus, because they have a mission statement. The mission statement defines their focus. Their mission statement talks about their "one thing".

Have you ever sat down and read a stack of corporate mission statements?  They tend to go something like this: "We will endeavor to create standards of excellence in our stated markets, establishing levels of service and quality that enhance not only our customers lives, but the lives of the community, our employees, our vendors, and people from throughout the world, allowing each individual the opportunity to grow and reach his or her full potential, while at the same time maximizing our shareholders' return on investment, being at one with profit, goodness, and the market forces which ultimately shape out destiny, and determine the success of our company in the market of products and services in which we intend to grow and prosper."

What utter gibberish. It means nothing. And, while I may obviously be poking fun at the standard mission statement, the point remains. The typical mission statement is ineffective because it means nothing on a gut level. It doesn't turn anybody on. It doesn't get anybody excited. It doesn't define the point.

Joe Calloway speaks on how great companies keep getting better.  
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