One External Corporate Brand Built On Internal Employee Character

“A man is known by the company he keeps. A company is known by the men it keeps.”  -Thomas J. Watson Sr., The World’s Greatest Salesman

In the 1920’s, corporations were in their infancy. The cadre of C-EIEIO’s—CFO, CIO, COO, CCO, CSO, and CTO—that assist today’s Chief Executive Officers were non-existent. There was no Chief Marketing Officer position or even the concept of a corporate brand. Chief Executive Officers were leading without historical precedent, learning through trial and error, and leaning on their instincts. One Chief Executive Officer’s intuition proved worthy. He laid the foundation for one of the twentieth century’s greatest brands—International Business Machines Corporation.

IBM’s traditional founder, Thomas J. Watson Sr., believed his employees could hone a corporate brand. In 1930, he told his employee-owners, “There are very few of the people with whom you come in contact who will ever see our factories, our executives or our home offices. Therefore, they judge our company and our ideals by you.” He knew that every interaction between his 6,700 employees and their customers would determine IBM’s reputation—its corporate brand. Watson Sr. trusted that his corporation would eventually be known by the men and women he employed. For long-term success, he looked inside each man, not their exterior.

Internal Qualities Built IBM’s External Brand
In a day when salesmen were seen more as ruffians than businessmen, Watson Sr. had to find a balance. History records well IBM’s fascination with blue suits, white shirts, ties and wing tip shoes. Personal appearance was important to Watson Sr. He told his employees that first impressions are lasting ones but that, although appearances were important, no successful businessman came in a pre-determined package of physical characteristics. They could be, “tall or short, corpulent or slight of build, old or young, handsome or homely. In short, they may be almost anything so far as externals are concerned.” He focused on what made the person tick on the inside because after the first impression, it was the individual’s internal qualities that solidified the customer’s perceptions. The blue suit was only intended to open the door; it did not guarantee an ongoing, profitable relationship.

History has it wrong. IBM’s twentieth century priorities were always on an individual’s internal qualities; these qualities just happen to show up on the corporate doorstep packaged in a blue suit. Over the course of the Great Depression, in speeches and writings, Watson Sr. defined the hallmarks of an employee-owner—those who would build a corporate brand unlike any other of the century. He was focused maniacally on internals—both personal and corporate—to achieve a positive external result. Be humble in confidence and courageous in character.

At the top of his list of internal characteristics were character and moral courage—that which compels a man to do the right thing, when it should be done, no matter how much the physical being shrinks from the task. In contrast to a person’s external reputation—what people think you are—character is who you truly are: it is your moral fiber. Character defines a person as accepting responsibility for their actions and decisions. To Watson Sr., such a quality ensured right over might.

Be Kind and Courteous to Everyone You Meet
Expecting courtesy almost seems like a yesteryear’s quality. As Watson Sr.’s organization grew, he knew that courtesy got things done. His son, Watson Jr. imbedded this concept into one of his basic beliefs—respect for the individual. If an organization of a few hundred, a few thousand or hundreds of thousands is to move forward, it takes respect to resolve the conflicts motivated by the underlying passions that permeate ideas and ideals.

Wisdom is Advice that Works
Watson Sr. believed there was no “saturation point when it comes to education.” But he also believed that knowledge not applied was useless. He wanted his employees to strive for wisdom––that understanding derived from applying knowledge to achieve an advantage. He encouraged and emboldened the individual’s pursuit of wisdom by forgiving thoughtful mistakes. He told his employee-owners that the only person that does not make mistakes is the person that does not try anything.

You Can Lead a Man to Knowledge, But You Can’t Make Him Think
“No man ever attained greatness who did not think for himself,” was the standard set by Watson Sr. THINK was the word that decentralized and empowered. This singular word recognized that every customer engagement was unique. No centralized corporate intelligence or standardized rulebook could capture every customer’s unique temperament, distinct business situation, future sales opportunities or comprehend the complexities of worldwide social differences; that was left to thinking individuals at the point of engagement. Centralization destroys a brand through the blandness of standardization. Thinking decentralizes and empowers the growth of a brand through individual imagination and creativity.

Character Speaks Louder Than Words
If you want your brand to be known for doing what’s right, inspire character and moral courage; if you want your brand to be known for getting things done, inspire mutual respect; if you want your brand to be known for powerful forward movement, inspire the pursuit of wisdom; if you want your brand to be known for creativity and imagination, inspire thinking. If you want your brand to be real, focus on your corporation’s internal character and your corporate brand and its external reputation will follow. 

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