002 Early Life Influences Shaping My Views on Corporate Reputation


Corporate reputation has been the focus of my work for the past 20 years.   Today, I want to tell my story of what has led to my own fascination with corporate reputation. My hope is that you will see an alternative perspective for helping organizations to become who they are meant to be. With clarity of focus on materializing the organizational purpose, health, wellness, and flourishing of all, and greater relevance and connection to the benefit of all of society. Creating organizations that matter for the people who matter. (Who are they? All people.)

#1. Launch of the popular business book movement

The first major event that pulled me into corporate reputation was reading the books In Search of Excellence (ISOE), Leaders: Strategies for Taking Charge, and Iacocca: An Autobiography while I was in high school  I profusely apologize to the damage I inflicted on classmates (and thus myself) while trying to apply the ideas from the books.

In Search of Excellence is regarded as the first pop-management book, and launching the business genre. It was also an influence on the International Association for Business Communicators and the IABC Foundation that went on to fund research on what makes for excellent public relations. This was a series of studies that have had tremendous impact on public relations research and education. (But that is another story.) The authors’ project fascinated me. They traveled across the U.S., meeting executives from well-known (dare I say reputable?) companies, interviewing them, and culling together all they learned. Their focus was what made some companies more successful than others. (In retrospect, it may be fair to say that they helped construct these companies’ reputations.)

Iacocca’s experience resonated with me because he talked about his failures publicly. He openly described how that fueled his comeback as the CEO of Chrysler.  Then Bennis and Nanus talked about leadership. In particular, managing yourself, attention through vision (as a form of strategy), communication and social architecture, and positioning. There are far more dangerous things to have in the hands of a high schooler, but in my hands, some may question that.

#2. Fundamentals of organizational communication

My favorite course as an undergrad was “Organizational Communication.” I looked forward to it from the day I was in high school scanning college course catalogs for their curriculum. (I confess, it is true.) It just sounded like what Bennis and Nanus were writing about–and it was. We used Pamela Shockley-Zalabak’s 1st edition of Fundamentals of Organizational Communication, where In Search of Excellence, Deal and Kennedy’s Corporate Culture–which I also owned and read in high school– were also included in a chapter on history. It simply confirmed that for me organizational communication was the major for me.

Full disclosure: I had no context at all for any of the ideas of Corporate Culture while I was in high school. My understanding was purely a fiction of my imagination—and a needle in the side of my classmates.

Most of my training as an undergrad concerned mass communication. The other related class that shaped me as an undergrad was Small Group Communication where our instructor used experiential exercises in every single class. I wish I had the exercises, the directions & the materials, because these would be so handy today.

#3 MA combining organizational communication with training and development

After my undergrad, I was lucky enough to find a graduate program that focused exclusively on organizational communication. I got deeper perspectives, plus courses on instructional design, communication consulting and assessment, and training and development. I also had a course on corporate advocacy. While these courses laid the groundwork for my thinking on corporate reputation building, it was my master’s thesis topic that shaped me most. I started out with a Peters & Waterman type of project (Q: What do all types of organizational change initiatives have in common? —A: They are difficult to implement).

My adviser Jeffrey Hobbs, now a professor at Phuket Rajabhat University, gifted me the topic of metaphor as a way of engaging these questions about successful and less successful organizational change initiatives. Yes, metaphor. Handed to me on a silver platter.

With a deep dive on metaphor in organizational life–starting with Gareth Morgan’s Images of Organization) and John Clancy’s book The Invisible Powers: the Language of Business, and writings from Eric Eisenberg and Frank Barrett, I came to understand how centrally-defining metaphors could be used strategically to capture organizational worldviews, lead large-scale organizational change efforts, and overcome defensive traps that interfere with change.

This was the age before e-mail, so I sought out the masters. Through phone-calls and in person visits, I received encouragement and feedback from the likes of Peter Senge at MIT, author of The Fifth DisciplineChris Argyris at Harvard, and Eric Eisenberg who was at USC at the time. Stephen Covey (7 Habits of Highly Successful People), Tom Peters, and Kenneth Blanchard (One Minute Manager) were also quite responsive through meetings at the American Society for Training and Development. Each of these authors confirmed my direction and deepened my interest in the topic.

#4 Linking internal and external communication through organizational identity

I was far into my field work when I began to see how the metaphors organizational leaders and employees used to explain the conflicts between the official corporate vision, the mandated organizational changes, and their personal lived organizational experiences were ones of (organizational) identity. It was there that I sought out George Cheney who was writing extensively on identity and identification in organizations. He shared an early draft of his chapter for the New Handbook of Organizational Communication entitled Identity at Issue: linking internal and external communication. The 1994 draft of the chapter co-authored with Lars Thøger Christensen at Copenhagen Business School (published 6 years later!) is when and where my interest in organizational identity developed. This interest later “flipped” into corporate reputation.

#5 No time for gray hair

After graduate school, I began working with Priority Management, a franchised consulting firm that specializes in executive communications, organizational skills, project planning and tracking. Through this position, I was working with senior-level executives (CEOs, EVPS) of banks, hospitals, and the like. The local franchise owner was also running for U.S. Congress. As the election neared, he sold his firm to another franchise owner across the state. The new owner bought the firm on one condition. That the existing owner now candidate name someone to take his place as the regional manager for the territory. I was 25. My new boss gave me my first signing bonus…and $20 for a haircut.

Involvement in the local Chamber of Commerce catapulted me onto a taskforce charged with keeping the local Air Force Base off the U.S. President’s list for base closures. My boss had already given me coaching lessons on frowning and giving stern looks. Clients told my boss that I smiled too much which made them nervous. But what the other taskforce committee members taught me was to keep my mouth closed during meetings until I had (enough) gray hair. (The other committee members were bank and hospital presidents, among others.) Obviously, this last one did not take.

Flash Forwards

Flashforward #1: The framework underlying the Peters and Waterman’s In Search of Excellence is now known as the McKinsey 7-S model.

Flashforward #2: In Search of Excellence, as popular as it was, has been called into question in many ways on many occasions. But the critique that stands out to me was the study by financial analyst Michelle Clayman with New Amsterdam Partners in New York. She found that the financial health of 29 of the companies studied began to decline right from the date the book was published. Over the next five years, the set of exemplars beat the S&P 500 by 1 per cent per year. But the portfolio of “unexcellent” companies went on to beat the S&P 500 by over 12 percent over those five years.

Flashforward #3: Twenty years later, I had the pleasure of teaching at USC when Warren Bennis was there. It was a confirmation of a vision begun with the reading of his book while in high school. I never told him. He died 3 years ago. And Chris Argyris 4 years ago. Never saying thank you to Argyris is a life regret. Why? That’s the subject of another post.

Personal takeaways

These early life experiences meld together in several ways. Here are the first few that come to mind:

  1. I did not have the patience for waiting 30 years to rise to the top of corporate America to comment on organizational practices that lead to or hinder reputation. (At this stage, I would still have another 10 years to go!)
  2. In the absence of gray hair, relevant data that speaks to the reputation problem or opportunity at hand can earn you a seat at the table. In any case, the gray hair is here now. (But having data is the better way to go.)
  3. Leading reputational change efforts in organizations entails an understanding of source credibility, audiences, channels, context, listening, feedback, media, nonverbal and culture—as well as strategy and execution.
  4. Metaphors offer a powerful graphical lens for understanding how to change and preserve organizational realities, and how to leverage reputation and identity against one another.
  5. Understanding organizational behavior (collectively or individually) that impacs reputation—including how to change them—requires an understanding of design, systems, power/politics, culture, change, continuity, and development.

The details of these personal takeaways will come out more fully in the coming weeks and months for how they relate more explicitly to corporate reputation. In my next entry, I will talk about the top 5 events during graduate school where corporate reputation as a topic solidified as gelled for me. I can draw many other lessons drawn from these life experiences. What these are will unfold over the coming weeks and months through this blog.

Thanks for joining me.  I appreciate any thoughts you have on these personal take-aways. Please share them below.

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  • James Grunig

    Nice work, Craig. I hope to see your next blogs.

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