Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Survival? Sustainability? Stewardship? What word best describes "long-term business success?"

When writing my book on common practices of companies over 100 years old, I struggled with what term to use to describe them. With the help of my editor, Clark Malcolm, I landed on Century Club Companies, which certainly sounds better than "old companies," and referred to their longevity practices as "managing for long-term success." When presenting papers on my research at academic conferences I often call these "survival factors," which somehow seems to downplay the fact that these companies have done much more than merely survive: though most have gone through periods of barely surviving, most actually thrive or they wouldn't have lasted for over 100 years. Early on I liked to talk about the sustainability of these companies, but that term has become identified almost exclusively with the environmental movement. (At the last conference where I presented a paper, one of the discussants actually thanked me for using the term "survival" instead of "sustainable.") Use of the term sustainable business practices becomes even more confusing because one of the five factors in my longevity model is that of deep relationships these companies have with their community --including being at the forefront of many environmental sustainability practices. 

When talking about the leadership approach used by people running Century Club Companies another term that comes into play is "stewardship," because these leaders tend to see themselves as caretakers of their companies. The role of leader comes with a sort of obligation to make decisions that will ensure the continuity of the firm rather than those that would make a big splash or fulfill the leader's personal ambitions or need for recognition. But I have been told that the term stewardship comes with either religious or servant-like overtones that some find off-putting. (Also I need to say that many Century Club leaders readily describe themselves as either stewards or servants of the company.)

What do you think? When talking about practices leaders can use to keep their companies in business for the long term, what term makes the most sense? 

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