Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Standing on Manifesto Mountain

One of the toughest questions any business owner ever has to answer is this one:

"What exactly does your company stand for?"

No fewer than 9 out of 10 owners will be stopped dead in their tracks before struggling and stammering to come up with responses that sound like:

a) "We're committed to achieving new standards of excellence by providing superior human capital management services and maximizing the potential of all stakeholders - clients, candidates and employees - through the delivery of the most reliable, responsive, flexible, and cost-effective services possible."
b) "We aim to satisfy the needs and expectations of our customers with quality products and services by building an empowered organization to unleash our creativity and focus our energies in a cooperative effort."
c) "We provide total solutions geared towards the shared values of our customers, employees and shareholders, while serving our community and protecting the environment."
d) Parts of or all of the above.

The vast majority of companies only know how to talk in the humdrum, humorless monotone of the mission statement, marketing brochure, and your-call-is-important-to-us busy signal. Products of soul-killing, factory model schools and universities, most highly educated corporate leaders are like sheep in suits; often at a loss to provide answers to questions no academic ever taught them to memorize.

"What exactly does your company stand for?"

But, every once in a while you come across a roll-up-the-sleeves business owner like Harvey who has an unusually clear grasp on what his company and its people stand for.

Harvey's company, Trout River Industries, manufactures "live bottom trailers" - heavy equipment designed to unload cargo in a safer, more efficient manner than traditional dump trucks. Back in the spring of 2001 when Harvey was on the road trying to sell the product to prospects in Ontario, he made a fateful telephone call back to the home office in Coleman, PEI.

To his shock and disbelief Harvey's call went to voicemail.

On a voicemail machine installed without his knowledge.

Hanging up, Harvey swore that would be the last time anyone's call to Trout River went to voicemail in the middle of a business day. Once he got back to the Island, Harvey illustrated his values in a way that would never be misunderstood or misinterpreted by empty business jargon.

Gathering the Trout River team of a half-dozen people at the time, Harvey took everyone outside where he proceeded to crush the offending voice mail machine with a 15-ton loader!

As Harvey remembers it, " My partner at the time thought we should have answering machines, but I said, if we do that I'll go home first - that will be the beginning of the end, because as soon as you do you have lost touch with the customer. I know people will say we're too busy to always answer the phone but hey the person that is calling doesn't have a lot of time either. They're busy too. The way I see it is if you don't answer the phone it means you don't care".

To this day, anyone dialing Trout River Industries during regular business hours - (902)859-1200 - will discover a real person on the other end of the line, ready and willing to help direct your call or solve your problem. At Trout River, "Answer the Phone - Always" is a manifesto ingrained in the company's culture that represents much more than the simple act of picking up a receiver. It vividly communicates how deeply Harvey's company cares about its customers, respecting their time and concerns. And it doesn't confuse any of the 40-plus employees like so many muddied mission statements.

Once upon a time a British author named Jeremy Bullmore sat down and counted the words most frequently used in no fewer than 301 mission statements. Here's his tally:

1. Service (230 times)
2. Customers (211 times)
3. Quality (194 times)
4. Value (183 times)
5. Employees (157 times)
6. Growth (118 times)
7. Environment (117 times)
8. Profit (114 times)
9. Leader (104 times)
10. Best (102 times)

Is it any wonder most companies stuff mission statements in gold frames and hang them in their lobbies where self-serving managers ignore them? Take Enron, for example, with a mission statement noting the company prided itself on four key values - respect, integrity, communication and excellence.

Erect a pompous mission statement and your people will outwardly smile and nod, but inwardly yawn and move on to other things.

Create a manifesto - with something of substance you alone stand for - and you will amaze yourself when you attract top people willing to die for the flag you plant on top of that mountain.

One such manifesto, originating from a singular event in time, helped Harvey Stewart capture the 2008 Ernst and Young Atlantic Manufacturing Entrepreneur of the Year Award. It is also a key reason why Trout River Industries has grown from humble beginnings to become a significant player in the road-construction industry with customers across Canada and throughout South America and Eastern Europe. Sales have grown by 1,847% over the last five years and an affiliate operation is now up and running in Australia.

It's been said that if you don't stand for something you will fall for anything.

But the "something" you stand for will often be discovered in an otherwise insignificant event buried in your past; a moment in time where your actions defined what you and your brand are all about.

There is zero doubt about Trout River Industries and what it stands for:

"Answer the Phone - Always".

A manifesto is not a mission statement.

It is a declaration of independence and no one else can write it but you.

So ... "What exactly does your company stand for?"

p.s. ... You can test Trout River Industries yourself at(902)859-1200 and discover an entire company of what Nick Lowe sang about on 1979's "Labour of Lust".

“A Mission Statement is a dense slab of words that a large organization produces when it needs to establish that its workers are not just sitting around downloading Internet porn”


No comments: