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Know Thy Company’s Self

What kind of personality does your organization have?

In the eyes of the law, a company is a person. It has various legal rights: it can own property, it can sue or be sued, and so on. But does a company have a personality in more than a legal sense?

Yes, say some observers, though their understanding of what makes for a corporate personality varies. The 2003 documentary film The Corporation, for example, contends that if companies could be put on a psychiatrist’s couch, they would be diagnosed as psychopaths. On a more constructive note, Decision Technology Group, a British research group, recently created a four-factor model (Honest, Innovative, Prestigious, Powerful) that defines corporate personality as how companies are perceived. The group reports strong correlations between the four factors and various financial measures; profitability is related to prestige, for example, and total shareholder return is associated with honesty.

Here in the United States, management consultants at Booz Allen Hamilton Inc. operate a Website profiler that enables companies to identify themselves as one of seven distinct types, ranging from Passive-Aggressive (very bad) to Resilient (very good). And Sandra Fekete, president of Fekete & Co., a Columbus, Ohio-based marketing communications firm, has developed a diagnostic tool that classifies corporate personalities along the lines of the well-known Myers-Briggs instrument used by many personnel departments. To make the results more concrete, Fekete may help a company translate its assessment into a persona — in the case of one construction company, “Pop,” an ultradependable fellow who wears jeans, loves rare steak and cold beer, watches David Letterman and “60 Minutes,” and prizes his reputation.

No doubt many businesspeople will regard such notions as nothing more than consultants’ fantasies. But Fekete and Gary L. Neilson, senior vice president in Booz Allen’s Chicago office, say their assessments have converted many skeptics. Invariably, they say, CEOs validate the corporate personalities revealed through self-assessments, even when the revelation may come as a surprise to them. And the assessment is more than a mere exercise: corporate self-knowledge, say consultants, is essential to running a business.

“The CEO’s job is to help that [corporate] person become all it can be, and the [management] team is there to help that person, too,” says Fekete. Among the important benefits that come from recognizing the corporate personality, she says, are consistency of mission, a shared framework for decision making, an understanding of information gathering and work style, and an ability to identify who the company’s ideal customers, employees, and suppliers are.

Sick or Healthy?

“I believe it’s definitely real,” says Neilson when asked whether companies have a distinct personality, or identity. According to Neilson, a company’s personality almost always belongs to one of four “unhealthy” kinds — Passive-Aggressive, Fits-and-Starts, Outgrown, or Overmanaged — or three “healthy” types: Just-in-Time, Military Precision, and Resilient. (He notes that most companies are mosaics of more than one type, with one personality trait dominating.)

The seven organizational types evolved from Booz Allen’s collective consulting experience, says Neilson. They are shorthand explanations of “why some companies hit the ground running, while others stumble over their shoelaces.” Corporate personalities are formed by combinations of four key factors: decision rights (who decides what), information (who knows what), motivators (how people are rewarded), and structure (what the organization chart looks like).

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