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Company history – bulky baggage or fuel for the future?

Valeria SchiftValeria Schift·

Having spent the majority of my working life in companies with more than 180 years and 350 years of history respectively, I’ve heard my fair share of “But we’ve always done it that way!” internally.

And whenever I mention to other people the age of those two companies, the reaction is usually “Wow!” – right before prejudice kicks in and they want to hand me a feather duster to clean off the fluff and cobwebs of the past.

The truth of the matter is, I wouldn’t want to trade in the experience! Every old company was a young start-up once. And while organizations that have grown – both in size and years on the clock – might well have lost some of their early-day agility, they would not have survived and prospered if they didn’t still have that start-up spirit at their core.

A lot can be said about the life of an internal communicator in a history-rich environment, particularly when your focus is on culture and driving change. Having worked for Deere & Company, founded in 1837, and Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, founded in 1668, here are five aspects that I consider paramount.

Uphold your values.

Blacksmith John Deere is said to have stated: “I will never put my name on a product that does not have in it the best that is in me.” In a similar way, the German pharmacist Emanuel Merck once guaranteed the purity of his products to customers.

From its modest 19th century beginnings in the US Midwest, Deere & Company has become a global corporation. It is today at the forefront of digital farming and long ago has extended its product offering to construction equipment.

And Merck, whose story began as a small pharmacy in 1668, today demonstrates vivid presence in the Healthcare, Life Science, and Performance Materials sphere around the globe.

The words of the two founders still hold true in 2018 and are reflected in the core values both companies uphold today.

If you ask me, it serves you well to link change to your values as a framework of reference for employees to identify with and navigate within.

Your product or service offering may alter and evolve over time but your values and higher purpose, if defined carefully, can provide stability and likely will stand the many tests of time.

Think in terms of generations.

At Merck, we often say that we think in generations, not quarters. To me, longevity is a mindset and an asset. If used wisely in your communication, longevity can give purpose, security and a strong sense of pride – internally as much as externally.

For one, it’s a sign of maturity and certainty for patients, customers and business partners.

For employees, in turn, moving the business forward may evolve into becoming part of something bigger than themselves that will serve many generations yet to come.

Even more so, in a company where frequently you come across third or fourth generation employees, for many of them building an even better tomorrow becomes a way of honoring the legacy of their own families.

Longevity may also convey stability. In today’s world of uncertainty, you can’t know who’s going to be around for the long haul. Yet companies that have survived civil, industrial and technological revolutions – that have retained integrity while staying innovative – with the experience and maturity that they have gained can fuel a strong sense of confidence.

Agriculture, for instance, is a cyclical business and I’ll always remember how Deere’s CEO reminded us during through mode that this is not the first downturn we’re experiencing, and that throughout its history the company has always come out stronger than before.

There is an inspirational strength and confidence to those words – and the share price development speaks for itself.

Stay bold and curious.

Is there a surefire strategy for longevity? A recent article in “pro” magazine quotes Bernd Venor, a management consultant and professor of business administration, who has looked at the 50 oldest companies on a list of global leaders from Germany.

“For centuries, companies like these have been able to anticipate the markets,” he says. “Rather than following in other’s footsteps, they have sought to innovate. Time and time again, they have adapted and found new niche markets.”

It is easy to drool over successes of the past, especially when there is an abundance of them.

But don’t rest on your laurels: remember to be rooted in the now and to stay forward-looking at the same time, keeping alive the startup mindset that laid the foundation of your company.

“Feet on the ground, eyes on the horizon,” we used to say at Deere. What you really need is to communicate in a well-balanced trinity of yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

This is why at Merck, we recently initiated what is likely one of the world’s boldest rebranding efforts. At 350 years of age, we dared to look closer: under the microscope, we discovered the vibrant essence of our identity in science and technology that has validity across the trinity of yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

And because breakthroughs begin with curiosity, as we celebrate our 350th anniversary in 2018, we first and foremost celebrate curiosity as the driving force behind human progress and development, and a threat to monotony. Just imagine the next 350 years!

Go all the way.

Elephants are said to have remarkable recall power. In my experience, the same holds true for employees when it comes to failed change efforts.

A history of badly managed changes will take its toll: the day you announce “the next big thing”, either they will shut down instantly, feeling the pain and scars of the past, or they count on doing nothing because surely, “the flavor of the day” will pass.

Change Management 101: follow through with change! All the way, and do it well.

If you don’t have a strong reason for change, or can’t clearly articulate it, pursue a different path. A series of well-managed, sustainable changes can become a powerful foundation of trust and excitement for a mindset of constant evolution.

Whichever road for change you choose, ensure you’re being human and empowering. A little empathy and having employees chip in on shaping the future can go a long way.

Oh, and cut the word “initiative” from your vocabulary. Now! Change is a constant.

Write history.

One of my most vivid memories from almost a decade at Deere is a visit to its corporate archives. It holds uncountable, invaluable artifacts from almost two centuries of company history. My favorite piece amongst all the odd and unexpected curiosities? – John Deere’s bathing suit!

In today’s fast-paced digital age where we are quick to hit “delete”, the collection of physical keepsakes and digital documentation is becoming more and more difficult, and may often even be – albeit unintentionally – neglected.

Keep in mind that regardless of whether your company is three, 30 or 300 years old: you don’t know where the future will take you.

As a communicator, essentially you’re writing history: what you create today may become an invaluable record or entertaining anecdote for generations of employees and communicators to come.

Just take a simple news article on your intranet: it’s your daily share of capturing aspects of your company’s history.

Do you have a plan to keep it alive?

 


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