Sense of self helps companies emerge from times of struggle

In the time since I chaired The Arthur Page Society's annual meeting, "Values Under Stress," I have been asked by members of our profession to describe what takeaways I gleaned from the diverse sessions.

In the time since I chaired The Arthur Page Society's annual meeting, "Values Under Stress," I have been asked by members of our profession to describe what takeaways I gleaned from the diverse sessions. To the extent that I can crystallize a theme from the proceedings, it was this: The element of a company that is most at risk during a crisis is its identity. When your organization endures a particularly stressful period, it will need a clear answer to the question, "Who are we and what do we stand for?"

When a company survives a crisis, more often than not you can see how it derives strength and stability from a strong sense of self. This is often true even as it struggles to regain its footing. Still, other companies are successful at altering that identity during a crisis. They advance using newly evolving identities, even as they reluctantly learn to shed parts of their former selves.

Companies that seem to lose their trajectory, with respect to values, lose the underlying definition of who they are and what they stand for. When their existence and heritage are at stake (perhaps via management shifts, takeover, or potential bankruptcy), companies lose their clarity of identity. With that comes a loss of core values. It is almost always discouraging to hear from folks at these firms - the organizations lose vibrancy and a sense of mission; there seems to be no chartered course through the vast tundra of free enterprise.

In the face of these observations regarding values under stress, our role as communications leaders is apparent: our first obligation is to ensure clarity in how our own organizations define themselves and for what they stand. If we lose that thread, we lose the first link to our organization's underlying values. Follow-up strategies for driving values within our organization also matter - but only after our self-definition becomes crystal clear. Having a strong sense of self, clearly communicating beliefs and values, and then acting according to those beliefs, will guide an organization through good times and bad.

Ray Jordan is corporate VP of public affairs and corporate communication at Johnson & Johnson. He is also a member of the Board of Trustees of The Arthur Page Society.

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