Dear Company: Who are you?

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One of the most common pieces of work I do with clients involves reminding them who they are and what they are trying to do. That may sound like something I only do with individuals, but in fact it’s a critical part of business, too. So many places of work scribbled down some ideas about what they were doing, got started, and never looked back to those original ideas. Then I come in and ask, “So, what do you do?” That’s when things start to get interesting. Every place to some extent deviates from their stated ideas, some drastically so.

While I don’t really ascribe to the idea that a company needs to daily recite its values in team meetings, or plaster them on walls or business cards, they do need to be present in the team’s actions. A great example of a company that allows its teams to act on its values is Zappos, which makes sense because Tony Hseih founded the company specifically to create a strong culture. Their proudest stories are not about the weird forts they build or the sales they make, but the actions their team members take to do what they call “WOW” customer service. Those actions are at the core of everything they do, and lead directly back to their values statements.

Can you say the same about your values, and your actions?

The following is an exercise that uses some of the questions I ask that help process why that deviation exists. Hopefully it will help you better understand your company’s identity and next steps to align with or change what it is now.


  1. Gather a group of stakeholders from your company, from various departments and backgrounds. The more diversity, the better the outcomes.
  2. Emphasize that this task is a safe meeting environment – there are no wrong answers and honesty is critical to the process.
  3. Provide everyone with a copy of your company’s current written mission statement, goals, values, etc. – any documents that are guiding principles intended to be used throughout the company.
  4. Go through your statements, one sentence at a time, and consider the following questions:
  • Is this statement true for our company? Why or why not?
  • Do we want to continue to use this statement in our mission? (If the answer to this is no, you can skip to the next question).
  • Does this statement have a clear meaning? Do all stakeholders agree that it means the same thing?
  • Does our company demonstrate the actions spelled out in this statement? Are we close to it? Are we far from it? Why?
  • What obstacles are between our current state and this stated goal? (A lack of Equipment, Communication, Training, Marketing, and Customer Service are all common obstacles).
  • What are current achievements that demonstrate how we are aligned to this statement?

Take about 15-20 minutes for each statement in your document. Consider them carefully, and consider the answers your group provides. Be very careful to listen objectively and take into account words unspoken. Often this discussion brings a healthy dialogue of constructive feedback, with the usual same mild uneasiness one gets when making critical self-assessments. But sharp silences, uncomfortable laughter, and vague answers may be signs that something more deeply troubling may be afoot in your company’s culture. Don’t force answers out of your team then and there, instead, take a note and check in with those staff at a later time.

By the end of your meeting, you’ll likely find a healthy list of work to do. Some things may be small tweaks, while others might be very large changes. Focus on which are the highest importance to the company, and start chipping away. You’ll notice almost immediately an increased sense in comfort and productivity when your team realizes your company’s words once again matches the team’s collective actions. 

This exercise looks simple when written out, but it often produces a surprising amount of emotion and discourse in the meeting itself. This is a good thing! It means the team is passionate and self-aware, and they want to align the company to its goals or adjust its goals to create balance. Much as in life, fixing bad habits or tendencies can be just as challenging for companies, if not moreso. The first step is admitting you may not be exactly who you say you are.

Anne NylanderComment