Choosing a discipline is the choice of winners. –Michael Tracy and Fred Wiersema

The Nike swoosh on so many shoes and clothes has become synonymous with the “Just Do It” attitude.  It captures the soul of the youth culture and personifies Nike’s niche.  Brands like the Nike swoosh identify a product line for customers and connect the product with a set of ideas.

In addition to corporate branding as a marketing strategy, leaders must also create identity inside their organization.  Sometimes they do it though a statement of mission that captures a sense of purpose and reminds people of important ideas.  Sometimes it is done with a portfolio of stories that capture the imagination.  Sometimes it is a picture, an image and a reminder of who and what is important.  For Wal-Mart employees it is stories of Sam Walton that remind them of what he stood for.  Steve Jobs’s passion for elegant products was Apple.  A strong identity engages and encourages people to enroll in something larger than themselves.

Without a clear sense of mission employees are never sure what is most important and executives wander into unrelated businesses.  A clear focus on a particular set of customer needs creates alignment and momentum, both which must be constantly renewed and refocused.  Strong identity focuses creativity, it improves decision-making, and it encourages pride and a sense of belonging.

Organizations that fail do so as a result of identity: holding on to who they are too long or not finding out soon enough, staying the course after the destination changed or never leaving the harbor, losing sight of customers or never getting them in the sights.  It all comes down to identity: too much or not enough.

When I was a public school superintendent, I asked all of our principals to develop a strong and unique identity for their school.  We believe that schools must be the unit of coherency, and that school-based identity and initiative is likely to be more effective than district-wide improvement efforts.  Even with unique identities and distinctive programs, all of our schools share common goals, services, and policies.

When one of our best principals moved to a poorly performing school there were a number of things that I thought he needed to take care of right away.  Instead, he landscaped and planted flowers in the front, put up a new sign, took out the imposing counter in the office, got rid of the nasty smell, and bought everyone sweatshirts.  Then he organized a regional literacy conference that he hosted at his new school.  The staff conversations were refocused on the students.  And suddenly everyone had a new sense of pride, new expectations, and a new identity.

Like spiritual faith, identity is based upon intellectual understanding and strong sense of belonging.  It requires a clear identification of the targeted customers, needs to be met, and how customer’s need will be met — the delivery system.  But a well-defined business can still lack identity if it lacks a sense of teamwork based upon a compelling purpose and a sense of belonging.  It is not just an intellectual marketing exercise; it must also elicit powerful emotions.  Successful politicians understand this concept, they help us reframe our sense of place and time, and they make us proud.

Give other people a reason to come to work. Remind them of the people that they serve and why it is important.  Plant some flowers.  Help them be proud again.  Create identity.


Good Work is a Sunday series about finding and doing mission-related work.  It started as a series of journal entries while serving as a public school superintendent in the 1990s.  If you have a story about finding and living mission-related work, send us a note.  

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Tom Vander Ark is author of Difference Making at the Heart of Learning, The Power of Place, Better Together, Smart Parents, Smart Cities and Getting Smart. He is co-founder of Getting Smart and serves on the boards of Education Board Partners, 4.0 Schools, Digital Learning Institute, Latinx Education Collaborative, Mastery Transcript Consortium and eduInnovation. Follow Tom on Twitter, @tvanderark.


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