How to Make Your Corporate Identity More Than Just a Poster on the Wall

We’ve all seen the PowerPoint, the plaque or the “About Us” page with feel-good concepts like Respect for Employees, Safety First, Concern for Customers or Be the Industry Leader. These typically come from well-intentioned leaders who want to document what the company stands for and where it’s going.

Too often, though, those words become corporate jargon disconnected from reality rather than a true organizational constitution.


The most obvious and extreme example is Enron, which imploded in ethics violations despite a well-published charter of Communication, Respect, Integrity, and Excellence.

While the fallout may not be on the level of Enron, many companies continue to publish lofty and unoriginal aspirations that only breed cynicism when it becomes apparent to everyone that the words are hollow.

In his article “If I Read One More Platitude-Filled Mission Statement, I’ll Scream,” Greg McKeown points out that many mission, vision and value statements are “almost entirely ignored.”

And after surveying alumni of Notre Dame, the Notre Dame Deloitte Center for Ethical Leadership recently concluded, “the simple presence of values statements—and even their presence in an organization’s general ‘culture’—may not be enough for them to have an effect.”

So, is the act of documenting corporate identity, purpose and direction a futile exercise, one that only serves to keep consultants employed and boards content?

Several prominent thinkers have made a strong case for the importance of doing the exercise. Jim Collins and Jerry Porras make the argument in the classic 1996 Harvard Business Review article, “Building Your Company’s Vision,” as does Patrick Lencioni in his 2002 article, “Make Your Values Mean Something.”

The key to making these statements matter, as Notre Dame’s study concludes, is to ensure that they are:

  1. Constantly discussed between supervisors and employees. Most supervisor-employee dialogue centers on work status and problem solving. Focusing on tactical issues and opportunities can generate action, but it can also leave employees disconnected from organizational direction. This leads to misalignment and lower engagement. Supervisors at all levels, including senior leaders, should continuously link decisions, activities and projects to corporate identity and direction.
  2. Incorporated into employee review and goal-setting processes. The link from mission, vision and values should also cascade to performance management and objective setting. Unfortunately, performance reviews are frequently viewed as tactical exercises managed through Human Resources rather than a strategic activity designed to engage every employee in the purpose and future of the organization. People management is the critical path for the fulfillment of organizational direction and character.

Lencioni highlights Nordstrom as a model for integration of mission, vision and values:

Consider how Nordstrom…constantly reminds employees of its core value of customer service. During orientation, rather than receiving a detailed handbook describing how to deliver great service to customers, new employees are told elaborate stories recounting the lengths fellow employees have gone to in order to wow clientele. The story of the representative who took back a customer’s two-year-old blouse with no questions asked, told over and over, reinforces employees’ belief that they work for an extraordinary company. And during nonstore hours, managers read customer comments, both positive and negative, over the intercom so that employees can hear firsthand how they are doing.

What is your organization’s stated direction and identity? Is it lived by all employees, or does it mostly live in words on a poster on the wall?



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