Pictured: a screenshot of the cover image for the webinar The Case for Character: In Times of Uncertainty, produced by the Communications Network.

By Alex Sorosa, Grinnell College, Class of 2020

There is no greater test of corporate character than during times of change. As a major transition in our nation is taking place, how will companies define their future legacy? Equally important: how will companies preserve and celebrate their heritage? In a recent webinar, The History Factory CEO Bruce Weindruch and The Communications Network executive director Sean Gibbons discussed the historical precedence of, and strategies for, using character to overcome challenges in an uncertain future.

Before learning the strategies for using character, we must define what character is. Consider the difference between reputation and character. The allegory of a tree and its shadow encapsulates this difference. If a tree is firmly rooted and one is fairly conscious of that tree, its extension — or shadow — will reflect that tree. In the same manner, your character is the basis of your organization; it is rooted in your founding. The preservation and consideration of your company’s heritage will be shadowed in its reputation.

But just because character is rooted in heritage does not mean it cannot grow or change. Take USAA, a company that offers insurance rates for military members and their families. The company came about after a small group of airmen who could not receive insurance decided to found their own insurance company. Though the company now has a liberal eligibility policy, this was not always the case. The company had to evolve as it considered its heritage, and expanded eligibility to a more diverse and inclusive group of people. Growing can be an important part of a corporation’s future, but it doesn’t mean you have to change your character or core values.

So how do you actually leverage character when your company is faced with a challenge?

Take the recent L.L. Bean boycott. The boycott was proposed after a member of the Bean family demonstrated support of then-President-elect Donald Trump. Almost immediately, the company pivoted to the vision of its founder, which emphasized familial respect for all its employees and customers. The company’s statement was unambiguous. To achieve this, L.L. Bean stressed its respected brand heritage to reinforce its reputation and establish clarity in a time of uncertainty. It’s important to examine your organization’s character as it responds to conflicts.

Organizations must look inward to define themselves. When taken advantage of, corporate heritage can be an invaluable tool for organizations looking for guidance. Consider these action strategies to make sure your company’s character shelf is ready when the time comes.

  1. Know Your Organization:

    Review your company’s roots, its mission statements and founders’ stories.

  2. Continually Examine and Reexamine:

    Your organization’s heritage can be changing. Encourage debate to foster diverse ideas in order to be able to react quickly.

  3. Go to Your Inventory of Experience and Find Examples of Character:

    Collect meaningful quotations from your founders, and images to supplement their words. Oftentimes, celebrating one’s heritage keeps it alive and demonstrates depth and appreciation.

If you missed the webinar live, you can watch a full replay here.


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