Who are you? Building your Archetypal Corporate Identity

In the previous blog Values Underpin a Purpose Driven Organisation we discussed that to build a purpose driven organization, one must first establish the values that underpin the movement. Once embedded, these values outline the identity that the business will ignite to inspire employees, customers and consumers alike. There was a time when Disney was in the joy business. Animators, theme park employees, and executives were united in their quest to create enchanting experiences for children of all ages. Apple, for decades was the darling of disruptors as it sought to ‘think different’. I believe, it is now in the beauty business. It uses its prodigious talents to produce products and services that are aesthetic standouts. There are many within Google who believe their job is to enhance wisdom, democratize knowledge for everybody and empower people with information. Sadly, though this kind of dedication to big-hearted goals and high-minded ideals is all too rare in business. Nevertheless, I believe that long lasting success, both personal and corporate, stems from an allegiance to an identity that is sublime and majestic.

James C Collins in the seminal ‘Good to Great’ asserted that “companies that enjoy enduring success have core values, identity and purpose that remain fixed while their business strategies and practices endlessly adapt to a changing world.” Studying effective companies Collins discovered that those with strong and positive core identity had outperformed the general stock market by a factor of 12 since 1925. Examples cited were 3M, Johnson & Johnson, Procter & Gamble, Sony and Nordstrom. Latter day Wall St darlings such as Apple, Google and Tesla have a strong identity that all can associate with. The core philosophy of any organization defines its enduring character providing a consistent identity that transcends product or market life cycles, management fads and particularly individual leaders. Identity therefore, provides the glue that holds an organization together through tough times and inspires the ongoing embedment of disruptive philosophy.

It is not enough to get together for a 2-day workshop and thrash out your organizations’ identity. It is not even good enough to have them written up on post its or laminated on a wall. You have to mean them. They have to be the driving force of your business, or the identity is meaningless. The central figure of a well-established identity is an archetype. When that archetype and your stated values inform your real behavior, people recognize that you are the ‘real deal’. A company that does not break its’ promises. You don’t just sprout words but you walk your talk.

Often your corporate identity is not tested until a crisis hits. Such was the case with the Johnson & Johnson Corporation during the Tylenol crisis. For years, the Caregiver credo of Johnson & Johnson was admired in the industry as being one of the most inspirational in the industry and outer directed purpose in the corporate world. It was an expression of the company’s commitment to ‘give care’ to doctors, nurses, mothers, babies, and others all over the world. The company’s products, by and large, reflected that commitment, and it’s advertising for products from baby shampoo to pain killers like Tylenol was a lyrical expression of the company’s apparent concern for the well being of its consumers. Johnson & Johnson, like other highly successful companies, had intuitively and effectively embraced an archetypal identity and had managed it in a consistent way.

However, the best test of Johnson & Johnson as a genuine Caregiver resulted from a real-life tragedy. When criminal tampering with Tylenol resulted in deaths throughout the country, the CEO (Jim Burke) spent sleepless nights reviewing hard evidence but also going over countless stories of people who had trusted the brand beyond the normal measure of product reliability – had trusted it to be a Caregiver and a friend. It was these stories, along with a high ethical standard, that led Burke to order the most massive recall in history to protect, or care for, Tylenol’s loyal customers. Cynics in the industry claimed that the recall amounted to an admission of culpability and that it would destroy Tylenol’s credibility. Consumers knew better. They intuitively recognized a story expressing the self-sacrifice of the Caregiver in the service of the higher good. The business lived up to an authentic Caregiver story and the way that Johnson & Johnson responded was the proof of the pudding. The organization soared back after the recall to levels that exceeded those prior to the tampering incident.

Telling your Archetypal Identity Story

Companies and their leadership cannot stand behind their identity in trying times if their values are only skin deep. How does a leader instill values that stick? You tell your company story and retell it. Tell it to the public, to your board, to investors, to your employees, and to your leadership team and make sure someone tells it to all new hires during their orientation. By all means tell it daily via your social media channels. These stories must of course, distill organizational values and inspire passion. Where do you find such stories? Most companies have their own mythological creation stories (eg two hackers in a garage), stories of crises weathered, tales of exceptional performances, jokes that capture and define the organization’s human frailties, and visionary images of longed for future outcomes. If your company does not tell such stories, then it is not too late to take people down memory lane to reclaim the lost company heritage.

For people who were there at the start, help them remember what captured their imagination when they dreamed of the company. If they are no longer around, do research and find out what it was like for the founders. Have people remember when they were hired and what attracted them to the organization. Enlist them in detailing what they like best about the company – not just in the abstract, but in anecdotes that provide the substance and the feel of what is going right. It is easy to think that all stakeholders in your organization know the deeper and more high-minded values that inform your actions. However, in the hustle and bustle and rush of daily life, it is natural for them to forget why they care about what they are doing. Sacred stories of family and company bear repeating. The repetition helps the values to sink in and continually inspire ongoing belief and identity.

The growing consensus in organizational literature today is that an ‘attractor’ in a company, is its values – not necessarily its stated values, but its real values. I would add to this, the understanding that foundational to those values is an Archetype that identifies and unifies them. Therefore, it is the archetypal identity of an organization that keeps it from spinning out of control. You undoubtedly know this from experience. In values based businesses, people have a compass to guide their actions, even when the boss is not around. They also have a bond with one another. They are not just random strangers working together, but people committed to the same ends. People who share such convictions, moreover, have an advantage over those who do not, in being able to trust one another and to work out problems when they arise. Of course, this happy result occurs only if people know what those values are and what it means to live by them.

Clearly, good communication and collaborative systems are also necessary in today’s fluid environments. But it is even more important that people live the same archetypal story. Then there will not be loose cannons going off in their own direction to take actions that are incongruous with the overall identity of the company. This doesn’t mean that every division within an organization have to emulate the exact same archetypal identity. Different units and teams may also have active archetypes that relate to their function. For example, people in the financial area often unconsciously assume Ruler values, while those in training or organizational development units are more likely to be Lovers or Magicians. Members of these different groups may miscommunicate unless they learn to be archetypally bilingual, speaking across group boundaries in the language and from the perspective of the organization’s unifying archetypal identity.

Obviously in a free society, people cannot be compelled to have the same values and resonate with the same archetype. However if a corporate identity is clear, they do not have to be compelled. A company will attract employees, investors, suppliers and customers like metal fillings moving toward a magnet. Although everything is changing very fast, archetypes are eternal. They can evolve in the level of their expression in us, but they themselves do not change. If we share an archetypal perspective, we are anchored in permanence, even as the material structures of our lives shift their shapes around us.

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