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What is a Business' DNA?

By Leanne Cullen

This short course provides insight into how important the DNA of a business is to both your customers and your employees.

Business DNA

How can a business define it?

I remember a story from many years ago that I was told by our founder Sally Waterston; it was a story where a customer described Waterstons’ people as sticks of seaside rock. ‘Cut any Waterstons’ person in half and it’s like your see the words ‘Waterstons’ running right through them, exactly like you would see the word ‘Blackpool’ run through a stick of rock’. Now, I don’t believe that customer had a morbid interest in cutting any of our people open but what they were describing was the fact that our people demonstrated our DNA – that we were consistent, we were all aligned to our ‘Why’ and our behaviours demonstrated it. It was a huge indication that we had got it right!

So how do you define it?

You already have a DNA. You might not realise it and it might not be the DNA you want it to be, but it will already exist. Even as a start-up business, the founders will have a clear idea of exactly why they started that business, how they want it to run and what it is they do. Usually the best businesses are founded on the basis on the personal WHYs of the founding members – their beliefs, their passions, their principles – it’s the reason a lot of businesses start up, not just to capitalise on a market opportunity but that strong belief that they can build a better business than already exists.

This is true of Waterstons – Sally and Mike Waterston have always had a passion to ensure that the business they founded continues to run with the principles (the non-negotiables) that they setup the business on. They want the DNA of the business to remain indefinitely and as non-exec directors, it continues to be their focus with the Board, rightly so, as it is fundamental to the success of the business.

So, the way a business is setup and the people it employs in the very beginning will set the tone for the business – so for any start-up, thinking about the business’ DNA from the outset is fundamental to its long term success and longevity.

So if it already exists, how do you articulate it?

You have to ask yourself WHY you exist? WHY do you/your employees get out of bed in a morning? WHY should anyone care?

You then have to think about your non-negotiables in terms of your principles? What values do you want imbued in your people? What behaviours do you expect them to always epitomise?

Think of ways you can articulate that but be careful – you can come up with all the adjectives in the world to describe your DNA but actions always speak lounder than words. Every action you (and your employees) take and every decision you (and your employees) make needs to be fully aligned.

Also beware of the marketing spin – putting a set of words on your website, having mugs printed, coasters re-affirming values and posters around the walls of your office is not your DNA – it might well be required to be able to articulate it to new people or to customers, but your DNA is more than a set of words and its more ambiguous than a set of words can describe. Getting too focussed on the ‘merch’ takes away the meaning – and hands up – we’ve made that mistake at Waterstons too – we haven’t gone as far as posters and mugs but historically we’ve become perilously close to undermining our DNA by trying to articulate it. It’s not a bad thing to have it written down, but it’s important to remember that, that shouldn’t be the main focus. The focus of your DNA should be in the behaviour you display, the actions you take and the decisions you make. That’s how you define it.

So, if you pride yourself on being open and honest with employees and clients – then you have to continuously demonstrate that – any time you feel you need to keep a secret you need to question why you feel that way as doing so undermines your DNA.

Whatever you choose to say you are, you have to live by and constantly re-enforce it through the actions you take day in and day out. If you don’t, then it’s pure spin, complete propaganda and you are in danger of damaging your reputation. There is a huge different in ‘talking the talk’ and ‘walking the walk’ – you have to be who you say you are!

A recent example for us at Waterstons has been Covid – openness and transparency has always been part of our DNA. We went global (officially) at the beginning of March, opening up business in Australia, just before the global pandemic hit! A worrying time for our brand-new people who had just joined us and our embryonic business in Sydney! So it was essential that throughout the ‘unprecedented’ period we kept people informed (and consulted) every step of the way; sharing difficult decisions and fully explaining them, demonstrating what we are thinking and not shying away from being completely honest about the situation and our predictions for the future. Whilst not always easy, it has been the right thing to do, people have pulled together and we’ve come out the back of it stronger than ever (our team in Australia are growing and our new people have all settled in and have stayed with us). The feedback from our people has been incredibly positive and have commented that the whole situation was managed well and fully aligned to our DNA.