It isn’t often that a senior executive of a Fortune 500 company laughs in my face. I wish I could say he was laughing with me. I may be able to say by the end of this that I am having the last laugh, albeit a shared one very supportive of a continuing business relationship. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Cue the sound of party music in the background and the clinking of champagne flutes.
Several years ago I was at a milestone birthday party for a college chum, standing next to a senior executive of the company for which my buddy worked. I toasted our mutual friend’s continued health and receding hairline. When talk turned to The History Factory and what I do for a living — oral history interviews with C-suite executives, writing and editing corporate histories — the executive started laughing. While I’ve had worse reactions to my CV, I must have looked surprised. The executive stopped laughing long enough to explain.
“You don’t understand,” he said, “we’ve been running away from our heritage for years.”
Why would he or anyone at a company with moonshot revenues and earnings care about where they had been? They were all about where they were going, he made clear as he plucked two more flutes from a passing tray. At least he gave one to me. The industry was reinventing itself and his company was at the leading edge. My counter argument, which I’ll get to below, at that moment crashed and burned like the booster stage of a Saturn V rocket.
Times, and senior executives, change. The company is in the midst of a wide-ranging, multi-year, hyphen-inducing rethinking and reordering of businesses as they search for and develop their next-generation engines of growth.
Company executives recognize that it wasn’t just the must-have products and services they were selling back in the day that made all the difference. Those were the end results of the culture and values, their corporate DNA, which they brought to the workplace and the marketplace.
Instead of running away from their heritage, today’s executives are running toward it.
They recognize a valuable asset that differentiates them from the competition. And it’s already paid for. They are going wide and going deep to seek a better understanding of what made and continues to make them different from the competition. And what’s the best way to make that resonate with today’s workforce and the employees who are going to be the ones to build the company of the future?
Cue updated party music and more clinking champagne flutes. Another milestone birthday is approaching for my buddy, and I hope to run into the now-retired senior executive again. We met in a more formal setting recently as he participated in an oral history interview for the company in question. He is 100-percent on board with the heritage management project and went well over our allotted interview time as he enthusiastically recounted important turning points in the development of the company’s winning culture and strategy.
He doesn’t remember our exchange of years’ gone by exactly as I do, though he doesn’t contest the basic point. It was a good year for the company, we agreed, and the vintage champagne. And next year may be even better.