Your company’s history is a strategic advantage

Your company’s history is a humanizing force for your brand, as it tells the stories of the people and communities that have worked together to build its successful legacy.

In reality, a company’s history is extremely valuable, and it pervades every level of the organisation, from initial customer interactions through corporate leadership and the fundamental foundations of company culture.

We also know that leaders who are uninterested in history are missing a crucial fact: a deep understanding of the past is one of the most potent weapons we have for moulding the future. Consider Kraft Foods’ acquisition of the British confectioner Cadbury in 2010. Cadbury’s management had fought the acquisition vehemently, and many of the business’s 45,000 employees feared the loss of their values and the end of the product quality for which the company was known. As the conflict of cultures became widely publicised, many analysts predicted that this would turn out to be another value-destroying transaction, a nightmare of post-merger failure to assimilate.

That masterful use of company history to alleviate tension was brilliant, but the storey barely scratches the surface of how a company may exploit its past. Most people agree that a leader’s role is to motivate people to work together and develop wise solutions for the future. On both fronts, history can be advantageous. When a leader is trying to persuade people to work together productively, sharing the company’s history can help to build a sense of identity and purpose, as well as offer goals that will resonate. History is a powerful explanatory tool that leaders can use to establish a case for change and motivate employees to overcome problems in its most known form, as a narrative about the past.

When taken to a higher level, it may also be used as a powerful problem-solving tool, providing practical insights, sound generalisations, and insightful viewpoints that help people see past managerial fads and the noise of the time to what actually counts. The problem for a leader is to find a usable past in a company’s history.

Recalling History to Bring People Together and Inspire Them

Kraft’s decision to use the past to bring people together may have been intuitive, but its effectiveness is in line with what many historians have discovered: a common history is a big

part of what bonds people together and gives them a distinct identity. People can better understand what is going on around them if they have a past with a narrative thread.

According to historian and philosopher David Carr, the present derives its meaning from the context of similar occurrences to which it belongs. Finding or rediscovering the tale, picking up the thread, and reminding ourselves of where we are, where we’ve been, and where we’re going are all vital for organisations as well as individuals. In other words, knowing the history of a group to which we belong might help us perceive events, and ourselves, as part of a bigger storey that is continuously developing.

Thus, one application of company history is to simply remind individuals “who we are.” The relationship between people is so strong in organisations that historical narratives can become a true mythology, with or without the approval of the group’s leaders.

How to Think Like a Historian?

When it comes to making decisions, the truth is that we are all historians. Personal experience, enhanced by our greater social understanding of what has gone before, is necessary for identifying possibilities or challenges in the present (and framing hopes for the future). “How can you know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been?” asked Alfred D. Chandler Jr., a brilliant historian of business strategy and organisation who never tired of questioning his Harvard Business School pupils and colleagues. That’s why company’s history is important. So it’s no surprise when we find business leaders who have history degrees or who read a lot of history and biography in their spare time. In many ways, corporate leaders must think like historians, regardless of their educational background.

Looking Back to Prepare for the Future

The traditional approach to problem resolution starts with two questions: What is the issue? and What is the solution? What can be done about it, and how can it be fixed? It’s more odd to inquire, how did we get here? You risk pulling down barriers without knowing why they were put up, warns Michael Watkins, author of a book on how to make the most of an executive’s first 90 days in office. With historical knowledge, you may discover that the fence is unnecessary and must be removed. Alternatively, you may discover that there is a compelling reason to leave it alone. The way a company’s management thinks about vision, strategy, and entrepreneurship is inextricably shaped by its history, and past actions frequently limit the

options available.

Leaving a Mark

Leading with a sense of history is acknowledging the past’s power rather than being a slave to it. The amount of experience a company has, its growing culture and capabilities, its growth within the broader contexts in which it has competed, and its contacts with government and other factors all influence the decisions executives must make and how people think about the future. That fundamental fact is respected and honoured by great leaders.

They don’t forget about history until it’s time to organise their company’s next anniversary. Even though they don’t consider themselves historians, they find it useful to ponder and discuss about the past in real time and in vivid detail. They incorporate their company’s collective experience into their thinking to better understand the types of changes that may and should be made. They discover a wealth of stories in it that can inspire people to accept change even in the most difficult of circumstances. They not only improve the efficiency of their businesses, but they also secure their own position in history.

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