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The Milestone Series: How to Celebrate Your 50th Anniversary

September 16, 2020 • Jason Dressel

When you’re in the business of studying company histories, you start to understand the nuances of organizations at different ages and different points of their life cycles. The same goes for when you have helped dozens of organizations plan and celebrate anniversaries.

What we’ve collectively learned over 40 years is that anniversaries can be incredible once-in-a-generation opportunities for change. Smart organizations are opportunistic, and an anniversary creates an opportunity. On its face, an anniversary milestone is just an arbitrary number. But as a client once said, “An anniversary milestone is a gift from the Calendar Gods. It’s your decision what to do with it.”

Whether it’s making a new brand take root, rolling out your new purpose, driving transformation, integrating a newly acquired entity, entering a new market, or simply reigniting passion and pride in a workforce that’s become complacent, anniversaries are opportunities for organizations to make the most of. And, as we learned during the Great Recession and are re-learning now, anniversaries can be even more important during times of challenge.

But as we said before, different anniversary milestones are different. Think about your own personal milestones. Your 10th birthday was probably a lot different than your 21st, and, if you’re old enough to have celebrated your 40th, it was probably a lot different than your 21st (or maybe it wasn’t, but you get the point).

 

 

Life@50

So, let’s give you some ideas for how to celebrate a company’s 50th anniversary. If your company is approaching its 50th year in business, this is a unique milestone for a few reasons:

Back to the Beginning. First, this is probably the last major anniversary where there are people still around who were part of the founding generation. While your founders and other early leaders of the organization are likely long gone from the day-to-day, there are probably some employees, customers and certainly retirees who go pretty far back. And there are likely still people who knew those founders and early leaders. As organizations get older, the founders and other early leaders change from being real people to icons or caricatures. There’s a body of research that affirms that the longer a company sustains its “Founder’s Mentality,” the longer it sustains its growth. If you haven’t done so already, the 50th anniversary may be the last opportunity to capture the insights, characters and reality of the company’s early eras from the people who actually have firsthand knowledge.

Broadening the Company’s Unifying Myths. As a 50-year old, your company has probably accomplished one of the most difficult feats in business: It has successfully made the leap from being a founder-run organization to a scalable enterprise. This is one of the greatest challenges that any organization of any size faces when its founding visionary and leader passes the baton. Steve Ballmer at Microsoft. Gary Kelly at Southwest. Tim Cook at Apple. Kevin Johnson at Starbucks. All of these individuals took over from some of the most effective founders and CEOs in modern business yet managed to sustain success. Organizations that are 50 years old tend to still place a disproportionate amount of attention on their founders and early eras, but it’s often the subsequent generations that have enabled the scalability that could allow the company to reach 100. And especially if those second- or third-generation leaders are headed toward the end of their careers, the 50th anniversary is a terrific time to give them their due.

Bigger and More Diverse. How is the company different as it approaches its 50th milestone compared to 25 years ago? Chances are it’s now far bigger, far more diverse and encompasses a far broader geographical and cultural footprint. The reality is that more businesses than most start largely white and male. But now more than ever, diversity is not just nice to have, but a business imperative. Capturing and reflecting the more diverse representation of the company is critical to celebrating the milestone and an organization’s history in a way that is more inclusive and in step with its present and future.

Evading the Digital Black Hole. A company turning 50 in the next few years hits the milestone at an interesting time: Roughly half of its lifespan has occurred in the 21st century and the other half in the 20th. What this means is that the second half of the lifespan has been exponentially more digital than the first. If you haven’t already, the 50th anniversary is an opportunity to get your archives in order and capture the history of the last 25 years with an emphasis on digital preservation. Many companies use a 50th anniversary to establish an archives as a lasting legacy of the milestone—and make an investment in the future.

Focusing on the Future. We hear it over and over. We want our anniversary focused on the future. At the mid-century mark, your 50th anniversary is a time to emphasize the qualities the organization must preserve or acquire to make it another 50 years. Over the last half-century, your company has survived recessions, wars, health crises, technology and societal transformations, and a whole host of other innovations and events that could have potentially killed it. The next 50 will likely be even more challenging, so this milestone can be used to put a stake in the ground for how you’re prepared for what comes next.

 

The Bottom Line

As you have noticed by now, we did not give you specific tactical ideas for what you should do for your company’s 50th anniversary. And there’s a few reasons for that. For one thing, figuring out the tactics should be the relatively easy part. All organizations are different, so depending on your audience, you can determine whether you should produce a book or a video (or both). Or a series of videos and other digital assets. Likewise, events, branding, philanthropic programs and commemorative items are all standard tactical ingredients of what we call the anniversary gumbo.

Your anniversary plan needs to begin with what you hope to accomplish? What will senior leadership consider an investment well made after the year is over? A good rule of thumb: Many of the things you do for the anniversary should make good business sense whether the company is turning 49, 50 or 51. The 50th just creates the excuse and the platform to do it.

Too many companies spend way too much in angst over what they’re going to do—and not enough time executing what they actually do creatively and effectively. What you do should be driven by what you want to accomplish, who your audiences are, and the unique assets and characteristics that make up your company’s culture, brand, purpose and values. How and why you execute those ideas for your company’s 50th anniversary should align with many of the observations we’ve shared in this article. Because one thing is certain: Your company will look very different when your successors are preparing for the 75th.

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