7 Ways CEOs Can Leverage Company History to Improve Results

So argues Bruce Weindruch, CEO and founder of The History Factory and author of a new book about capitalizing on the heritage and history of organizations. This can be effective in marketing the enterprise both to external constituencies, such as customers and shareholders, as well as to employees.

The History Factory works with top CPG and professional-services brands to extrapolate the rich assets associated with the company’s heritage, Weindruch explained, and looks for ways to merchandise those assets beyond historical perspectives.

At the same time, exploiting the history of an enterprise can be a great way for business leaders to motivate employees.

For example, Brooks Brothers worked with The History Factory at one point to extrapolate historical innovations that the men’s clothier brand launched into the mainstream, including ready-to-wear clothes for the American public in 1849, as well as one of the first button-down polo shirts.

At the turn of the 21st Century, thus, Brooks Brothers re-embraced its longstanding brand. And by educating and encouraging store employees about the importance of that history, they were more enthused and passed on that attitude to customers.

Weindruch shared 7 pointers for business chiefs who want to do a better job of generating results with “heritage management”.

1. Even new, small and mid-size companies can do it: Companies don’t need to have century-long histories like Coca-Cola and Procter & Gamble to have a heritage worth exploiting, and they can be of any size, Weindruch maintained. In fact, some of the companies that have become the most effective at tapping into their heritage are small, new brands that understand today’s consumers will embrace such narratives because of their quest for authenticity.

“All of the sudden, a premium is placed on authentic information,” Weindruch told Chief Executive. “And really, that’s history.”

2. Either you tell the story, or everyone else will: Weindruch argued that the past of a company, good or bad, is going to be plumbed eventually because of the availability of information and the ease of communicating it nowadays.

“There’s been a huge democratization of information,” he noted. “If people find a label or an old brochure they like or something else about a brand, they’ll put it on a Pinterest page. They themselves will thus make the decision if a brand is relevant to them. You can’t tell them; they’ll tell you. Therefore the organization’s reputation and history is pretty much in the hands of the people now.”

3. Use history to create “tribal identity”: “Stories based on history are how you make people belong to your tribe,” Weindruch said. “If you know the story, you belong. And as a company’s chief communicator, he said, such heritage in a CEO’s toolkit “can be one of the most effective tools” there is.

“Use history to telegraph in an authentic way the behavior [CEOs] want,” he said. “Find an individual or a milestone in that they can communicate, that they own, as authentic. Craft these stories so that people, the tribe, understand them. It’s much easier to follow such authentic stories rather than an abstract. Great leaders are great story tellers.”

4. Blunt the “Cinderella effect”: One of a new CEO’s biggest problems can occur if employees liked the old one better, what Weindruch called the “Cinderella effect.” People tend to believe that the ex-CEO “was better than he actually was.”

New chiefs can make the recent past work for them, however, by recognizing the departed CEO’s tenure as an “era” and giving it some historical appreciation as such. “That CEO can be seen as emblematic of an era, and the new CEO can say that we need to understand the successes of that era, including everyone else who was a part of the enterprise, ranging from employees to partners to consumers,” Weindruch said.

5. Learn from the past: Many CEOs can reap significant benefits from learning from their company’s history and repeating it — or not repeating it. For example, Jay Brown, who was a chief of Fireman’s Fund Insurance in the Eighties, studied how the San Francisco-based company was affected by the San Francisco Fire of 1906 to prepare the organization for the day when they might have to deal with another mega-disaster.

Sure enough, in 1989, the “World Series earthquake” struck the San Francisco Bay Area and did extensive damage. “But [Brown] was prepared” with his plan for Fireman’s Fund based on his delving into history, Weindruch said.

6. Use history to smooth a merger: Leaders of merging companies can use their individual heritages to help create the foundation for the history they will build together going forward.

For example, Weindruch said, when Kimberly-Clark acquired Scott Paper in the mid-Nineties, “the two companies looked at each other and saw the line between them and said, ‘We’re quite different.” But “historians took a step back” and were able to demonstrate that the two corporations actually were quite similar in terms of their business models, their markets and their performance.

“When they thought about it, they were almost exactly the same company,” he said. “And suddenly they saw themselves that way.”

7. Exorcise the past: Some companies harbor pieces of their history that CEOs would just as soon not revisit. But, Weindruch argued, maybe they should.

“We’ve had companies say that they don’t want to talk about an antitrust suit from 1927,” he said. “But these things are only skeletons in your closet until you let them out of the closet; then people understand them.

“And CEOs can play a tremendous role in helping shape what remains the same at a company and what must change – about how much may have changed but also to understand the character of the organization that must remain the same. The great CEOs continually drive change but maintain the character of the organization that makes it great.”

And history, he argued, can help business leaders do exactly that.

Dale Buss :Dale Buss is a long-time contributor to Chief Executive, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal and other business publications. He lives in Michigan.