Commentary: Your company is more than just a simple description

June 30, 2013

I’ve seen many organizations lose their way because of a failure to know what they were about. My study of failed mergers and acquisitions carries that as a basic theme. To know what your firm is about is to be able to answer crisply questions about mission, vision, values, strategy and positioning — perhaps the most common of such questions is, “What business are you in?”

I’m least impressed with answers that have to do with things (such as “plastics,” as the father said to Dustin Hoffman in “The Graduate.”) Rather, the best answers have to do with activities.

An exemplar of the good kind of answers is William H. Neukom, who served as the lead lawyer for Microsoft for 24 years, and then as chief executive of the San Francisco Giants for three years. The other day, I heard him explain the business that the Giants are in. He could have simply said, “baseball.” Instead, he offered the following:

We are in the entertainment business. We compete with any other way that people spend discretionary time.

We are in the talent management business. Recruiting, developing, and measuring talent are crucial to our success.

We are in the education business. Baseball is a very subtle game. Those who understand the subtleties of the game are in it for life.

We are in the customer service business. We have to offer a safe, comfortable and welcoming venue.

We are in the community service business. Baseball can’t be about a few millionaires playing ball down on a diamond; we have to reach out to the community and help even the marginalized people in society to engage with our sport.

We are stewards of a quasi-public trust. Our constituents are our colleagues, our customers, our fans and our communities.

And I suspect that given more time, he could extend the list further.

Neukom’s definition of the Giants’ “business” illustrates the sheer complexity of that enterprise: The Giants must be good at many things, not just one thing; the Giants serve many different stakeholders; and the elements of the “business” form a system that support one another — neglect one and the others will suffer.

Robert F. Bruner is dean of the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. This column is adapted from his blog.

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