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What does it mean to be a company?

I'm guessing most people never really take much time to think about what "company" means, but it's been on my mind recently as I've been talking to people more and more about the V-REEL® Framework. As you may have noticed by reading my articles, I often take inspiration from music. Lyrics are thought provoking, and even on this topic, I've found some lyrics that present very different answers to my question. Justin Bieber's take on "company" seems to suggest there is some warmth to the meaning behind the word:

"Can we, we keep, keep each other company

Maybe we, can be, be each other's company

Oh company

Can be, can be, be each other's company"

Lyrics from Company as sung by Justin Bieber

Songwriters: Thomas Troelsen / Jason Boyd / James Abrahart / Justin Bieber / Andreas Schuller / James Wong / Leroy Clampitt. Company lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Warner/Chappell Music, Inc, Universal Music Publishing Group, Cypmp, BMG Rights Management US, LLC

We get an entirely different picture of "company" from the characters of Twimble and Finch in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.  

Twimble: When I joined this firm

As a brash young man,

Well, I said to myself,

"Now, brash young man,

Don't get any ideas."

Well, I stuck to that,

And I haven't had one in years.

Finch: You play it safe.

Twimble: I play it the company way;

Wherever the company puts me

There I stay.

Finch: But what is your point of view?

Twimble: I have no point of view.

Finch: Supposing the company thinks . . .

Twimble: I think so too.

Finch: Now, what would you say . . .?

Twimble: I wouldn't say.

Finch: Your face is a company face.

Twimble: It smiles at executives

Then goes back in place.

Finch: The company furniture?

Twimble: Oh, it suits me fine.

Finch: The company letterhead?

Twimble: A valentine.

Finch: Anything you're against?

Twimble: Unemployment.

Lyrics from The Company Way in the musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying – Frank Loesser music and lyrics

The simple word “company” is a loaded word. It means different things depending on context of usage and surrounding circumstances. I began this essay with lyrics from these two very different songs, both referring to “company” in some way. The first song is sung by Justin Bieber, and it refers to people spending time with each other as company. When I was young, my mother used to say that if my nose itched, that meant company was coming. While I suppose my family at times did refer to friends or neighbors, most of my memories of people visiting the family farm have the word “company” instead of the terms friends and neighbors. That is the way I remember my parents referring to people coming for a visit. They were company. Now, Justin Bieber seems to imply in his song that some of the company he desires is a little more familiar than a simple visit from someone, but the underlying implication is that company is not an organization of people. It is time that people spend together, much like having company come to visit on the farm. 

In the second song, which is from the musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, the company is very much understood to be an organization of people. The Company Way is a humorous but grim song about the suppression of human individuality, creativity, and freedom in the pursuit of remaining employed inside a company. The kind of company that creates that atmosphere is soul crushing and dark, no matter how humorous the lyrics to a song about it might be. Don’t misunderstand me, I enjoyed seeing that musical on Broadway years ago, and I laughed at the lyrics to the song. But… I’d rather be doing almost anything else in this world other than working in the company depicted in the musical if it were real.

So, which is it? Is the meaning of company primarily about spending meaningful time with other people, or is it a means-to-an-end organization that tends to negate the individual? Let’s hold off on answering that question for a little longer.

When I teach strategic management for organizations, the emphases from my direction always include (although sometimes indirectly) the concepts that are found in the V-REEL® Framework as discussed in Think Beyond Value. However, I have found over the decades of teaching that very often people need to think about what being engaged in a market economy system means for them. That is why I push the concept of value creation as the primary activity of being engaged in a market economy. A business endeavor simply doesn’t survive as an ongoing enterprise unless it creates more value than it consumes. The main point of doing business is to create value for other people. That’s also true for not-for-profit endeavors, but of course, the value creation and consumption can play out differently as compared to a for-profit endeavor. The need for value creation above value consumption over time is also true for individuals in their working careers and in their personal budgets and lifestyles. Finding ways to create value for others is, very simply, the heart of a market system. Yes, the market economy is the worst system thus far developed for distributing scarce resources to humanity… except for all the other systems. It can be ruthlessly efficient at times. It can be disastrously inefficient at times. It’s not perfect. But, it does compel people to figure out how to create value for other people, and it compels others to figure out how to create value for you.

Having gotten that critical point of the need to create value out of the way, there’s one more vitally important aspect of a market system to consider: Most of what a person does in a market system to create value is done in cooperation with others. That is why we have organizations of people working together in businesses (of several types), not-for-profits, and even in the public sector. People generally must work together to create value. Yes, the solitary artists or day-trading investors may push the boundary of what I have just stated, but even those lonely individuals sitting with a palette of paint or a humming computer and under the direction of only a Muse or an algorithm still exist within a web of commerce that provides the tools they need and allows them to find a way to create value. And for the sizable majority of people in a market economy, work is done within an organization. People work with others. If you want to dive deeply into the academic explanations about how people work with others and why firms exist, look up the works of Coase or Williamson (yes, there are others, but those are two very big, groundbreaking researchers) about transaction costs and agency theory.

Now, I’ve tried to establish two important things here. First thing, you must create value, more than you consume. Second thing, you probably are going to be working with others to accomplish the first thing. Somehow, this is leading back to where this collection of thoughts began: company.

The etymology of words can sometimes provide insights about ideas and meanings of things that have been lost but should not have been lost. In the case of company, the etymology is very helpful. The English word traces back through French, Latin, and even old forms of German, but a simple separation of the two Latin roots that form the word is enough to get where we want to go. The first root portion is “com” and the second is “pan”. For the speakers of languages with Latin backgrounds, seeing that “com” means with / together and “pan” means bread should not be difficult. How odd is that? The English word company comes from roots that mean “with bread” when put together. That is where the insight about the word lives, though.

In the earliest uses of the term that became “company” in English, the word meant the band of people with whom you would share your bread. Maybe today the sharing of bread doesn’t sound like a big whoop-tee-do here in our comfortable, overweight, carbs-and-gluten-are-evil culture, but bread was the staple of life back in the day. Bread was such a central part of sustaining life that it was used as a central symbol in the formation period of the Christian church: the eucharist / communion. In other words, when you agreed to share bread with another person, you were sharing the source of life. Companies were groups of people who had pledged their lives to each other. They were living life together, sharing their bread.

And so, we return to that question posed above. Which is it? Company – Spending meaningful time with other people? Company – An organization designed to crush the life out of individuals? In my opinion, it is not either one of the two. Bieber might be closer than The Company Way, but he’s still not there. A company is the people with whom I have determined I will share my life, creating value, working toward a common goal of… living. In some ways, I think that I’ve read and heard many instances where people are using the word “family” to mean what I’ve just written. But I think that family should mean something in terms of relationship and generational succession that is distinct from company. I want to be in company with people who, like me, are intent on creating the value that will allow us together to live onward, to live better, to succeed in this thing called life. The military uses the term company to refer to a grouping of soldiers who are committed to a unified command for accomplishing their duties and to keep each other alive. I don’t want to equate all the duties and actions of the military company to a market company, but I do see the similarity.

Years ago when I first learned about the etymology of company, a flicker of understanding and a spark of hope developed within me. Where do most people spend the greatest number of their waking hours in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, and even 60s of life? They spend those hours in the company of other members of the organizations in which they work. My observation is that people don’t tend to think of their organizations as companies in the original sense of the word, though. What I observe, what I read, what people say to me, and what the lyrics of The Company Way all suggest is that people think of a company as just a place where they do what they must do to get the paycheck. If that is true, then people, in general, don’t think of the people around them in their organizations as those with whom they are sharing life, those who are helping them create value in this world, those to whom they are sharing themselves.

Ponder with me for a few minutes. What would it be like to work in a company, a real company, where people understood that what they were doing was helping each other to live, sharing with each other, supporting each other, all moving toward a goal of achieving a better life for the people in the company? Some organizations have had glimpses of that type of thinking. Southwest Airlines is the subject of many case write-ups that focus upon the culture of the organization as a key component to the success of the business. For decades, Southwest has had a culture in which people do what needs to be done to accomplish the goals of efficiency, fun, and service. The loyalty of many of Southwest’s employees to the business is often noted by case writers. I’m not suggesting that every business endeavor can be like Southwest, nor that Southwest is the perfect example of what I think about when I ponder what being in a company could mean. But, it is an example of a business endeavor that has been closer to a company in the original sense of the word than many other businesses.

Unfortunately, I have seen far too many instances in which organizations were filled with people who had no sense of company at all. When organizations are filled with people who are not committed to a common purpose and to each other’s progress in life, watch out. Those are the places where life is pulled out of people, where resentment roots and grows, and over time, the organizations become toxic unless substantial changes can be made. Life is too short to be stuck in that kind of place. Really.

One of my goals in life has become to help people understand that being in a company can be a good thing. Focusing on creating value for others, supporting each other in that effort, rewarding each other as the company succeeds… those are things that can make being in a company a life-affirming, want-to-be-there experience. Those are some things that make sharing life enjoyable, not drudgery. Oh, and by the way, there’s something truly beneficial about having a place where people in the organization can eat together, even if it is not on a regular basis. There’s something about “breaking bread” together that draws people in and helps them relate to each other in better, deeper ways.

Well, my nose has been itchy off and on today. Perhaps my mother was correct and that means some company is coming. I suppose that in the farming communities where my parents were raised, people generally shared meals when they visited. Maybe that’s why a visit from someone was referred to as having company over. Visitors to the farm were almost never allowed to leave without having either eaten something or being given something edible to eat later after leaving. After all, they were company.

Dr. David Flint is the author of "Think Beyond Value: Building Strategy to Win" and the creator of the V-REEL® Framework for strategy formulation. Download free resources to begin thinking beyond value and building strategy to win atDrDavidFlint.com. When he is not walking his dog, traveling, or teaching strategy at Mays Business School, David consults with Fortune 500 companies and start-up organizations.