Here’s the toughest question that most companies can’t answer: “Who are you?” This means trouble. It’s trouble because if they have no sense of who they are, what’s really important, and what the point of it all is, they are going to find it difficult to compete with a competitor who has got these basics figured out. What we’re talking about is a sense of purpose. Every truly successful company that I’ve ever worked with has created clarity around the “why” of their business, not just the “what” of their business.

Some companies will say that the point is to make money or make a profit. That’s like saying that the point of life is to eat. It’s backwards. Of course you have to eat to stay alive and you have to make a profit to stay in business, but surely eating or making a profit aren’t the point of it all. Assuming we all agree that making a profit is a good and necessary thing, then perhaps the question to ask is what’s the best way for us to go about making a profit.

I’ll often ask the question of a group of managers, “How many of you believe that you’ve got a great team?” And virtually all of them believe that they do have a great team. But a team, by definition, is a group of people with a common focus and a shared purpose or vision -- a sense of “who they are”. That means that I should be able to approach any member of your team, any employee of your company, and ask them who they are as a team, and get an immediate answer. It should be the easiest question in the world.

But most employees have trouble answering the questions “Who are you?” or “What’s important here?” because it never gets talked about. The reality is that it should be being talked about all the time. It’s the essence of leadership to constantly remind everybody of who we are and what’s important here. Sadly, many people in positions of leadership confuse leadership with management. Management is about how the organization works. Leadership is about why it works and what the point of it all is.

Most companies these days have a mission statement, or a vision statement, or both. These are usually carefully crafted missives that say things like “we will be the market leader in providing quality products and services” and “creating a superior return for our stakeholders” and “be a positive place for people to work and reach their potential” and other uninspiring corporate-speak that means little or nothing to anyone in the real world. It’s nice to have a mission statement. It’s necessary to have a mission statement. But what’s the point of the mission statement if not to get to the guts of what we’re all about in a way that actually means something significant, personal, and, dare I say it, exciting to the people in the organization?

A weakness of so many companies is their reluctance to use powerful language to express what they claim are powerful ideas. Sometimes people in business are so afraid of being “inappropriate” that they get stuck in using bland, flavorless corporate-speak that accomplishes absolutely nothing.

It happens all the time. A group of executives go off to some resort with a consultant for three days to come up with a mission statement that will be the foundation for everything that they want to accomplish. And what they do is slowly squeeze the life out of their words until they end up with some disgustingly tepid statement about being the market leader and providing a good return for their shareholders. Good grief!

You want to know what’s really inappropriate? What’s really inappropriate is having a mission or vision statement that means absolutely nothing to anyone. What purpose does a mission statement serve if no one gets excited about it? Now that’s inappropriate. If you have strong feelings about your company, your people, your customers, and your work, then use strong language.

I was in a meeting recently in which the company had put the various elements of their vision statement on the walls around the conference room. I loved one of the statements in particular. It read “We hate bureaucracy and all the nonsense that comes with it. We will kill red tape wherever we find it.” Now you’re talking. They could have said something along the lines of “In the interest of becoming a more efficient and effective organization, we will constantly strive to improve our processes and procedures.” How utterly, completely emotionless. And it would have elicited an emotionless response that would have accomplished nothing.

The problem with most business leaders is that they’re scared to death of words that really mean something. They’d rather stay within the nice, neat and, above all, safe confines of traditional vanilla corporate language that doesn’t say anything truly meaningful. Actually, most business leaders prefer numbers. You can get your arms around numbers. You can quantify with numbers. You can make charts and graphs with numbers. But you can’t reach anybody emotionally with numbers. And that’s the inherent weakness of numbers.

If I were asked to identify the one thing that virtually all truly great companies have in common, it would be that they talk about the same things over and over. This is how cultures are created. You decide what’s important, then you talk about it. Over. And over. And over. For years. Repetition is the mother of a strong corporate culture.

Companies that have no sense of who they are or what they stand for will have a different theme for each year’s annual meeting, a constantly changing set of priorities, and no real foundation to depend on during times of change. Extraordinary companies are, in one sense, incredibly boring. They are always talking about the same thing. It’s such a simple idea that many people reject it out of hand. Decide what’s important and talk about it all the time. It’s not a sexy idea. It just works.

I believe that great leaders are creative, innovative, and always looking for ways to improve their organizations. I also believe that great leaders are one trick ponies. When it comes down to what really counts, they don’t have a lot of changing ideas. They stick with what’s important and they talk about it over and over and over. Remember, leaders remind us of who we are.

To me, a of sense of commitment to a purpose greater than self-interest is the most motivating and useful answer to the question, “Who are you?” George Bernard Shaw put it this way when he wrote, “This is the true joy in life, being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one. Being thoroughly used up and worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap. Being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.”

© 2007 Joe Calloway

Author's Bio: 

Joe Calloway is a business author, performance consultant, and restaurant owner whose client list reads like a “Who’s Who” in business. From Saks Fifth Avenue and BMW to American Express and IBM, a wide range of companies depend on Joe for insight into today’s marketplace.

Joe is on the faculty of The Center for Professional Development at Belmont University, and is a partner in Mirror, an award-winning restaurant in Nashville, which was recently featured on television’s Food Network.

Sales and Marketing Management magazine called Joe “an expert on developing customer focused teams,” and a National Customer Services Advisory Board called Joe “one of the most innovative and compelling people in customer service.”

Joe is the best-selling author of Becoming a Category of One, which received rave reviews from the New York Times, Retailing Today and many others. He is also the author of Indispensable: How to Become the Company Your Customers Can’t Live Without.

Joe’s newest book is Work Like You’re Showing Off! -- The Joy, Jazz, and Kick of Being Better Tomorrow Than You Were Today.

For more information on Joe Calloway, visit http://www.joecalloway.com.