A Company's Personality

Bill Abbate

Have you noticed how much some companies’ personalities are much like ours? Why is this? From where do these personalities come? How does a company’s personality affect the stability and longevity of the company? Let’s find some answers to these questions and more.

Observation of a young manager

I moved from a small company to a large organization with 20 divisions scattered around Florida some decades ago.

Because we regularly loaned equipment throughout the divisions, I started noticing how different each division was. All of them seemed to have unique personalities.

The division managers operated autonomously, with full P&L accountability. Other than shared back-office systems, they had little in common. This was so many years ago the HR department for this large corporation consisted of only two people!

Starting as an assistant division manager at the ripe old age of 27, I had no experience in such a large organization. My prior experience was in the military and working for a small company. Because of my military background, I assumed larger organizations operated in a much more structured way. Boy, was I ever wrong!

Since each division produced the same products, I thought the company was schizophrenic. Okay, maybe I am exaggerating a little, but there was a big difference in how each division ran its day-to-day operations. The divisions were so different when customers purchased from another division, they often commented how it was like dealing with a different company.

As I moved from this company to other larger companies, I learned why this first company had such distinctive faces in each area they served. With a different person leading each division and virtually no centralization, the leader’s personality came through as clear as day.

The effect of leadership on an organization’s personality

As I continued to work for larger and more centralized companies, other things came to light. I found how an individual manager or leader would affect an organization’s employees’ and customers’ perceptions.

The more autonomy a leader has, the greater their effect on how those outside it view the operation. Before continuing, let me clarify the definition of personality.

The Oxford Languages dictionary defines personality as “the combination of characteristics or qualities that form an individual’s distinctive character.” When you change the word “individual’s” to “organization’s,” the definition still holds. By the way, a business's personality is similar to its brand personality, a term you may be more familiar with.

“You now have to decide what ‘image’ you want for your brand. Image means personality.” David Ogilvy (1911–1999)

Think about the various companies you buy from. Whether it’s a supermarket chain, a franchised fast-food restaurant, a mom-and-pop store, or some other local business, each has its own combination of characteristics or qualities that make it unique. The difference is that a highly centralized chain or franchise can control its personality across more operations than any individually operated company.

When every SOP (standard operating procedure) comes from HQ, the organization has more uniformity. Tied to this control is less autonomy in the operations.

When more autonomy is allowed in individual operations, they take on more of the local leader’s personality, a common trait in decentralized organizations.

In other words, the “personality” of any operation, company, division, or organization comes from the one who is genuinely leading. It comes from the person or people with the greatest autonomy.

“Develop and build your business’s personality that stands out. People want to buy from people.” Yanik Silver (1974-present)

Sure, the local manager will have some influence, but the more centralized and controlling the company is, the less individuality there is “out there” in the operations.

There is one other influence on the personality of an organization, and that is its traditions. Some older organizations are very steeped in them. This is true for universities, hospitals, and the government. The effect of tradition moderates the leader’s impact and autonomy to the point such an organization will change slowly, if at all. Tradition can place internal and external limits on a leader’s changes.

Have you ever thought about how your customers see the personality of your business? Even if you are a solopreneur, give some thought to this question. Why not ask some employees and customers how they view your company’s personality? It may change the way you do business.

Final thoughts

Okay, Bill, why does any of this talk about personality, autonomy, the leader’s influence, and tradition matter? It matters because it helps us understand why an organization is seen and behaves as it does. Understanding this can help you decide where you spend your hard-earned money or how to run your business. It can speak volumes to you and your customers about how stable the organization is and what kind of longevity it might have.

When you purchase from a company, you can make a better decision by paying attention to its personality. Do the same when you sell to a customer. Who wants to deal with a company that mistreats customers, has poor customer service, or is entirely inflexible when they have competitors that are the opposite of those things?

You may also wish to consider a company’s personality if you intend to work for them. It can help you choose which company is a better fit.

To sum up, the more autonomy and authority the person at the top of an organization has, and the less steeped in tradition the organization is, the more radically the company can change in the near and long term.

Every organization, in part or whole, reflects its top leadership in the marketplace.

Good to know, don’t you think? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comment section below!

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Semi-Retired-Leadership/Executive Coach -Personal & Career Growth Expert -Editor and Leadership Writer at Illumination -Author

Richmond, VA

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