Companies Are People, Too

Forget all the talk about corporate culture. It's time to analyze your company's personality. This diagnostic will help.

Plenty of business gurus — especially New Age thinkers such as Arie de Geus, Peter Senge, and Margaret Wheatley — have argued for years that companies aren't just boxes and bubbles on org charts. Instead, they've argued, companies are more like biological organisms — living things that learn, evolve, and eventually die. Are you ready to take this biological worldview to the next level? According to marketing consultant Sandy Fekete, companies can best be understood when thought of as people — as unique creatures with their own values, their own personalities, and sometimes, if her clients really get into the spirit, their own names.

"Most people assume that a company's personality matches its CEO's personality," says Fekete, 43, founder of Fekete + Company, a marketing-communications firm based in Columbus, Ohio. "But that's not true. An organization has its own ways of being."

Fekete's job is to help her clients understand their company's personality — its strengths and its weaknesses. Her main tool is a diagnostic called, appropriately, "Companies Are People, Too." The 74-question test draws on several bodies of work: the legendary Myers-Briggs Type Indicator instrument; the principles of psychoanalyst Carl Jung; and insights from William Bridges's book "The Character of Organizations" (Consulting Psychologists Press, 1993). So far, people in 63 organizations ranging from museums to construction firms to medical practices have put pen to paper to scrutinize their companies' personalities. Actually, make that 64: Fast Company couldn't resist the chance to take the test

It may sound like psychobabble, but the idea behind the tool is fairly simple: An organization, like a person, has preferred ways of focusing energy, gathering information, making decisions, and structuring work. Once people inside an organization understand those preferences, argues Fekete, they can do a better job of articulating their company's identity and values, and they can figure out better ways to work and to communicate. Some of her clients even elect "keepers of the personality" — volunteers who make sure that their organization is clear about the attributes that it prizes.

"Change comes from awareness," Fekete says. "Once you figure out who you are, you can begin to differentiate yourself from your competitors."

Elford Inc., a family-owned commercial-construction company, used the tool several years ago — and created a fictitious character, Pop, with eating habits, clothes, and favorite TV shows that are meant to capture the company's personality. What are some of Pop's best traits? He's a "superdependable leader" who "always follows through on commitments." What does he need to work on? He "may use energies anticipating dire events that do not occur."

Dixon Schwabl Advertising Inc., a fast-growing agency based in upstate New York, has actually undergone a personality change as a result of using the tool. After taking the test for the first time, the agency created a character, named Samm, to embody the company's strengths and weaknesses. But a year later, after the agency worked on its weaknesses, Samm gave way to Jaz. "Samm was too deadline-focused," muses Lauren Dixon, 45, founder and president of Dixon Schwabl. "We're still driven to meet our deadlines, but not at the risk of compromising the creative. We needed a different character to personify who we had become."

Indeed, Dixon claims that Jaz has not only helped her company better understand its values; the personality has also contributed to the firm's phenomenal growth — from billings of $18 million in 1997 to $49 million last year. "In any situation," she says, "we ask ourselves, 'What would Jaz do?' " Given Samm's brief tenure, does Jaz face a limited life span? "It depends," says Dixon. "We are going to take 'Companies Are People, Too' every year. If we change our personality, then Jaz has to change too."

Contact Sandy Fekete by email (sfekete@feketeco.com), or learn more about ''Companies Are People, Too'' on the Web (www.companiesarepeopletoo.com).

Sidebar: Who Are We?

It sounded like a good idea at the time.

If companies are people, we wondered, then what kind of person is Fast Company? After asking all of the predictable questions — Does it test for schizophrenia? Does it measure organizational pathologies? — 16 FC staffers agreed to complete Sandy Fekete's 74-question diagnostic.

Well, here's the good news: Fast Company is a lively, upbeat personality that thrives on change and does its best work in an atmosphere of spontaneity and upheaval. We enthusiastically present ideas, possibilities, and values by developing imaginative angles and providing innovative articles. And we seek to stimulate change in our industry — and in the world.

Now the bad news: Fast Company apparently has relatively few rules and standard procedures — which can upset some team members. We can easily get bored after the creative work is finished and may tend to focus our energies on the next big idea, rather than on finishing up the last one. We can sometimes be so optimistic that we just assume that things will work out. But we also tend to be overly critical of our work.

Like any smart person committed to self-improvement, we've all agreed to work on our weaknesses — or at least to pray that things will get better. In the spirit of helping us along, Fekete gave us the "personality prayer" that best fits our character type. We hope someone up there is listening: "Lord, help me to keep my mind on one thing — look, a bird! — at a time."

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