Five questions your business should be asking
My business inspiration today comes from an unlikely source, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
Tom Friedman, in his latest New York Times column, credits Fayyad for his leadership in improving conditions in the West Bank. Here’s the part I like. Freidman quotes Fayyad about his approach to governing: “tell people who you are, what you are about and what you intend to do and then actually do it.”
Those are words to live by as a politician. I could imagine them coming just as easily from the mouth of an effective business owner or executive. Fayyad’s simple philosophy can instruct any of us in business, especially after an unforgivable period of corporate excess and ethical lapses have left so many of us staggered, angry and jaded. In this environment, opportunity lies with businesses that act with higher purpose and integrity — the ones that keep their promises.
Here are five questions every business ought to be asking (and answering) today:
- What is my business ultimately pursuing? For many companies, the honest answer to this one is maximum shareholder return or more sales or more profits. The pursuit is financial. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But it’s worth asking, is financial success really what you want the measure of your business to be? Or is money only an enabler, making it possible to pursue a larger social or environmental vision?
- What is my business trying to accomplish? I’ve heard vision described as something to be pursued and mission as something to be accomplished. I like that distinction. For example: “We pursue clean, fresh water for all. Our contribution to this effort is producing low-cost, long-lasting water purification systems for individuals.” I also think of mission as the reason a business exists. We exist to accomplish something. What is that for your business? Is your purpose clear? Does it inspire you and your employees and customers?
- What do we promise? Ask yourself what you want every stakeholder — customer, employee, supplier, partner, investor, community citizen — to experience from your business. This is an experience you strive to create for everyone, at all times. It’s what you stand for, the essence of your business. It’s what keeps customers returning and employees staying. And it can’t be taken lightly. As Fayyad has demonstrated, doing what you say you’ll do can have profound impact.
- What makes us different? So you’re clear-eyed about the difference your business is trying to make and the experience you want others to have of your firm. The question now is where that places you versus the businesses competing directly or indirectly for the customers and other stakeholders you’re targeting. Study your competitors and what others are saying about them. Ask customers and others what makes your firm different. If you don’t like their answers, you have some work to do.
- What makes us relevant? A company may have the distinction of producing the world’s only sustainably made, solar-powered 8-track player, but, really, who cares? Sure, the business is different. It’s also irrelevant! The key is to be distinct and relevant. What do your stakeholders most value about your firm today? Do you matter to them in important ways or only superficially? Survey them to find out.
My work is helping businesses wrestle with these fundamental questions. It’s far more than a marketing or branding exercise. My clients establish their firm’s reason for being and core identity. They give purpose and direction to the decisions and actions of every individual and group within their company. Best of all they put themselves in position to make a difference — “and then actually do it.”