Look after it or lose it

Post #12: How to make sure you’ll be in business for years to come

My to-do list today goes something like this:

  1. Write this blog (about Established: Lessons from the World’s Oldest Companies published by Unbound last week, co-authored by me – please buy the book, a snip at £20!)
  2. Write outraged parent letter to son’s school
  3. Oh yes, mustn’t forget – sign off annual report.

As I muse on how to fit it all in, I realise that tasks 1 and 2 are essentially the same – although I may take out the sales message from task 2, in case it undermines my rant…

How so? Our book is about lasting legacy. It tells the stories of 12 businesses with a combined age of nearly 5,000 years, and an average age of 391. As well as household names like Guinness and Wrigley, it includes gems such as RJ Balson butchers – the UK’s oldest family business, now in its 26th generation, having passed 24 times from father to son and twice to a brother. And the Hampton Ferry, which has been carrying passengers across the Thames since Henry VIII’s time.

It’s this idea of lasting legacy – or of a possible threat to it – that has occasioned my rant. Last week I scrawled my signature on the dog-eared ‘attending Mothering Sunday service’ letter that had been forgotten at the bottom of the schoolbag. Late as usual, I didn’t bother to read it – and therefore missed the changes it contained, namely that attendance is now optional for staff and the school would no longer be running the service.

Why should I care so much? What business is it of mine whether the staff attend the service, or, indeed, whether other parents take their children?

It matters because it’s a Church of England school, founded on a Christian ethos defined by the values of affection, service, peace, inclusion, respect and empathy. (ASPIRE – yes, schools love their acronyms too!) As a modern C of E school, it quite rightly accepts many non-Christian children – children of other faiths or none at all – to the great benefit of everyone.

Twice a year, on Mothering Sunday and Harvest Festival, the whole school, staff and children, has until now joined – and led – the Sunday morning family service. It’s a fundamentally important reminder to the children, C of E or not, that they’re part of a much bigger community. One that supports and helps each other, including, particularly at Harvest, those less fortunate than themselves. It’s a living reminder of the school’s ethos and its values in action.

The school is what it is, not in spite of its C of E foundation (in 1845) and ethos, but because of it. And, in my view, the staff (who, I understand, are behind this change) have a duty to protect and nurture that ethos – not only for themselves and my son’s cohort, but for those who follow. Yes, it’s a bore having to go to church on a Sunday if you’re not a believer (and especially on Mothering Sunday when you may well want to be elsewhere with your own mother). It can be a bore even when you are a believer – although I must say the kids do a great job and the Mothering Sunday service has always been a joy!

But, just because it’s a bore to arrange, say, house insurance, does that mean you don’t do it? Of course not. You protect the things that matter. And it’s even more important to protect intangible things like ethos, culture and values, because they’re easy to lose and far harder to regain.

Which brings me back to Established, in which we aim to uncover the secrets of longevity – each author through the study of a different, long-lasting business. My own chapter is on Cambridge University Press, founded in 1534 under Henry VIII for ‘the furtherance of the acquisition, advancement, conservation and dissemination of knowledge in all subjects’, which it’s still doing successfully to this day. Its title, ‘True to Purpose’, reveals a fundamental truth about successful organisations. The why – their purpose, their ethos, their values – endures. How they do what they do may change over time, with advances in technology, changing environments and so forth. But the ones that succeed value and protect their ‘why’.

So should we all.




Buy the book!

Support your local bookshop and order it there – ask for Established, by the Dark Angels Collective, published by Unbound.

Or, if need be, you can order it on Amazon.

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