I’ve been involved in some incredible business turnarounds and corporate success stories. The truth is I’ve also been involved in some spectacular failures.
Having worked intimately with both market leaders and market losers I have found myself becoming intensely curious about what makes the difference? What allowed remarkably similar companies to forge quite different stories and futures?
I had been mulling over this question for some time when I stumbled across the answer in a most unexpected place.
I found it in the folds of the Strzelecki ranges a couple of hours drive east of Melbourne where the headwaters of the Tarwin River start their gentle meandering journey to the coast. In a picturesque valley on the banks of the river you'll find our holiday cabin, a quiet place where I often go to reflect.
On my very first visit to the property I had noticed a beautiful tall and silver flowering eucalypt tree growing on the banks of the river a few hundred metres from our house. I often stopped and just watched it gracefully waving its branches in the gentle winds of our protected river valley. It was both calming and relaxing.
Then one day several months ago we had terrible winds that roared up from the Southern Ocean and ripped across the countryside creating mayhem and plenty of work for our emergency services. I was pretty confident though that the beautiful trees in our river valley would survive because of their well-protected location.
I was wrong.
On my next visit I found that the graceful silver gum had broken in the winds. About ten feet from the ground it had snapped, with the dying branches, leaves and flowers littering the river below. I was confused though. All of the other trees on the property had survived, even though many of them were older and more exposed than the silver eucalypt.
Why had it succumbed to the wind and the others had not?
It wasn't until I clambered up the bank and was eye level with the broken and shattered tree trunk that I learned the answer. The trunk was hollow. There were only two or three inches of healthy living wood ad bark around the diameter of tree, the rest an empty, dark and hollow space. Even though the tree had appeared healthy from the outside, those appearances were deceptive. Clearly it had been diseased and weakened for some time and had been unable to withstand the forces of the storm winds.
It was in that moment that I understood why some of the companies I had worked with had thrived and grown in difficult challenging markets whilst others had broken and toppled. They too were hollow.
So what is a hollow organisation?
It is one that has nothing of substance at its core. As a result it does not have the strength or resilience to withstand the winds of competition, adversity and change. Nor can it properly grow, flourish and thrive.
I now understand that the core strength of a healthy thriving organisation comes from purpose. A reason for existing that goes beyond making profit. A shared belief of those that work within it that what they serve is something bigger and more important than themselves, and that the generation of profit simply provides a means through which to pursue that purpose more vigorously.
When I looked back at the companies that had succeeded and flourished I could without exception find a narrative and story that connected with an important and meaningful purpose. Likewise, without exception those that had become diseased, hollowed out or even fallen had been engaged in the pursuit of something self-serving or had been disconnected from anything that really mattered, instead pursuing the cynical and selfish interests of a fragmented misaligned set of stakeholders.
So what is this strength that is derived from the core?
Well, a hint lies in fact that the word core is derived from the French word coeur, which means heart. So perhaps it’s no surprise that the wood at the core of a tree is called heartwood. It's the wood that is prized by builders and carpenters because it is the strongest and most resilient part of the tree. It’s this wood that when attacked and destroyed leads to the tree become hollow and weakened. It's the same dynamic in organisations. When the purpose of the organisation is unclear or lost there’s an inevitable weakening of the organisation. Sure it may look healthy from the outside but those inside experience hollowness and know that a rot has set in.
I now use this powerful insight to help my clients nurture and grow their organisations and themselves - Resilient, adaptable, thriving organisations and people.
Ask yourself this important question. If you and your organisation stand for nothing, how do you remain standing?