CEF Spotlight

Finding your Company’s Essence—and Using it for Growth

By Carol Sanford, author, The Responsible Entrepreneur: Four Game Changing Archetypes for Founders, Leaders and Impact Investors (July 2014).

Carol SanfordDuPont sold its Fibers and Textiles business, which had been the heart and soul of its business—the operations that made such well-known products as Stainmaster nylon carpet fibers and Lycra stretch fabric. At the time, the deal reduced the company’s revenue from a peak of $45 billion in 1997 to roughly $20 billion. But it shortly drove growth through the roof. How did DuPont know to sell off its Fibers business?

How does Unilever continue to succeed with the acquisition of Ben and Jerry’s, a seemingly strange bedfellow? How does Google hire people that are a perfect fit for its strategic innovation path? There is an underlying answer that is true in each case. I call it essence alignment.

Essence can provide the foundation of a business if it sources the unique and differentiated nature of who the company is. Essence has been there since the company’s founding, but often recedes from it rightful role. Under DuPont CEO Chad Holliday, it was a matter of us working with the executive team to revisit the founding story. E.I. DuPont had been an expert at managing risk, particularly in making explosives in France, and then gun powder specifically, the first product. Not long after, he was creating businesses that managed risks that others were much less able to handle. To this day, DuPont is known for exemplifying and teaching safety in the production and shipping process. As the revealing process unfolded, it became clear to Chad and the executive team that Fibers was a commodity product that pretty much anyone could make. It was not aligned with their essence—undertaking endeavors that required their unique ability to manage huge risks. Fibers did not benefit from their essence.

Essence is unique to each company, and cannot be made up. Once it is discovered or revealed, it can then be used to evoke alignment across the entire business, from suppliers to customers; executives to front-line creators. It is used in branding, but is not branding per se. It is similar to the uniqueness each child has in a family. Children prosper best when their essence is honored and contributed. Only years later will you know their brand and how they apply it to their work in the world. They will be most successful and creative when their life and work are aligned with their essence. The same is true for business.

Without this essence alignment, a business gets fragmented in product development, market messaging, acquisition, and divestiture, and in how they produce, manage, and deliver their offerings. With fragmented and unaligned effort, a company wastes resources, makes poor decisions, and sends the organization and the market mixed messages. Essence alignment acts like a tuning fork that brings everything into harmony.

Unilever did something unique when it acquired a great brand in Ben and Jerry’s: they left it alone. What’s more, they used the brand and its values to reimagine their own way of doing business. Ben and Jerry’s was closely associated with being culturally and socially relevant and knowing that reciprocity with social and planetary systems was necessary to thrive. The pop cultural connection showed up in the names of flavors–like Cherry Garcia, a nod to Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead. Unilever understood this unique aspect of the company’s culture and continued to honor it. The essence connection is often lost for customers during a transition, but Unilever aligned itself with the social reciprocity that was central to Ben & Jerry’s essence. This allowed the business to grow its acquired brand in harmony with Unilever, but maintain its distinctiveness. It was a great integration as a result.

Google is looking for an essence-to-essence connection when it hires. It expects anyone looking for a job to have an idea big enough to change the company’s contribution in the world. New hires will learn more about how to do that at Google, but the company initially expects them to bring their own uniqueness to that aim. Google assumes everyone has a unique contribution to make from their own essence. New hires are expected to align it with Google’s mission to develop and distribute information that changes the world by empowering everyone. Google does not expect a polished idea in a series of interviews, but rather the courage to bring a unique idea into the conversation that might make a huge difference if employee had the resources to develop it. In this process, Google is testing essence alignment. Larry Page speaks of Google changing the world by providing resources to uniquely creative minds.

To identify your company’s essence and build a strategy around it, you must go back to the founding story. For DuPont, the story began over 200 hundred years ago. We started the process by asking “what unique contributions did the founder make that transformed the market.” We then asked, “how do we design engagements so that each person discovers their uniqueness and contributes it in every decision, design, and task.” Leading companies understand that essence is a primary source of profit and purpose, giving meaning and innovation a strong foundation.

Carol Sanford is an advisor, coach and educator to Fortune 500 executives and entrepreneurial businesses, including DuPont and Google. She is the multiple award-winning author of The Responsible Business: Reimagining Sustainability and Success (Forward by Chad Holliday) and The Responsible Entrepreneur: Four Game Changing Archetypes for Founders, Leaders and Impact Investors (July 2014), both of which are filled with dozens of stories including these.

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