Posts Tagged ‘business’
After several hours of questions and conversation earlier this week, my clients and I seemed only somewhat closer to nailing down their target customer. Then the business development manager shared a customer profile they drafted a couple months earlier. Funny thing, he could have just as easily been describing the people in his company.
Could it be that to know thyself is to know thy customer? At the very least, it’s a great place to start when your profiling a target audience. (more…)
An acquaintance from my years in high tech emailed me the other day. I let him know I had left the tech marketing firm I co-founded to move my work into sustainability. I cringed when I read his reply: “That’s a great cause and I wish you well.”
My response surprised me. What’s wrong with being associated with a great cause and someone wishing me well? Nothing, of course. It’s just that sustainability is not a cause for me, at least not any longer. And wishing me well made it sound like, well, I’d need all the help I can get.
Sustainability, for me, has evolved into a mindset, a practice, a method of operating a company, a basis for business purpose and competitive distinction. Defeating poverty is a great cause. Pursuing sustainability is simply smart business.
The work of idealists and activists
I’m guessing many in business still think of sustainability, to the degree they think of it at all, as the work of idealists and ideologues. You know, those people whose ardent support for their cause make them appear a tad unreliable as business executives or consultants.
Sustainability in business is growing in awareness and practice. But the breadth and depth of adoption is not nearly as great as it needs to be. I worry the association of sustainability with environmental or social activism deters many in business from embracing it.
Causes are the perceived stock-in-trade of nonprofits, governments, NGOs and religious institutions. Businesses trade in products and services. Unless business leaders can draw a direct line from sustainability to greater success in selling their goods and services (and, fortunately, growing numbers can and have), they will leave sustainability to the green crusaders.
Causes tend to be long-term, sometimes never-ending, in nature: civil rights, smoking prevention, food safety, pollution control, wetland conservation, climate change. Modern business, perhaps to its detriment, dwells in the short term. For lots of reasons, only about half of businesses are still around five years after their founding.
Obsessing over health of business, not planet
As someone who started an employee-based business and operated it for more than 13 years, I don’t believe most owners or executives lose sleep over the health of the planet. They do, however, obsess over the health of their companies.
And it’s in that obsession where they must discover sustainability as the source for business wellbeing. Not a cause for which they have precious little time or resources to entertain. But rather a method of organizing and operating that improves their chances of keeping the doors open, bills paid, employees, customers and shareholders satisfied, and competitors at bay.
Prominent sustainability consultants Bob Willard and Peter Senge speak of the five stages and drivers of sustainability in business. Starting at a place of non-compliance with environmental standards and regulations, a company moves into the second stage of compliance in response to regulatory demand and public pressure. Stage 3 is moving beyond compliance to seeing the possibilities for ongoing cost reductions and reputation or brand enhancement. The next stage is making sustainability an integrated strategy for creating business opportunity and managing risk. The fifth stage is a mission-driven business that places sustainability at the core of its values.
Except perhaps at Stage 5, the motivation isn’t saving the planet. Businesses are driven by the desire to be in compliance, make or save money and become more competitive. They need to know they can achieve these and other goals by becoming more sustainable. That’s cause enough for them.
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.”