Lessons from Ozymandius

January 21, 2014

By: John Onoda

Lessons from Ozymandius

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.[4]

Poetry is wonderful because it forces your mind to look for personal connections and deeper meanings. Reading Percy Bysshe Shelley’s classic poem got me thinking about the transitory nature of corporate reputations and the people who help create them.

The main lesson is clear: It doesn’t last. My own reflection is that the winds of change are accelerating, getting even more efficient about wearing down edifices that once look like they would last forever. This includes corporate reputations. All you need do is go back and look at the past list of Fortune magazine’s Most Admired List. After a decade, only three of the top ten companies identified in 2003 remained on the list in 2013. Reading the inevitably laudable stories about the businesses making the top ten list every year, most people would think the companies will stay on top for a long time to come.

The ephemeral nature of reputation also holds true for entertainers, charities and politicians. The lesson of Ozymandius applies to almost all of them.

What does this mean for corporate communicators? Most companies that slip in regard to their reputation are overtaken by competitors or fail to keep up with the times. Some are rocked by scandal or go along with their industries to the reputational penalty box (currently, it looks like financial services companies are in the hot seat). In most of these instances, communications during their reputational descent appears to be slow-footed, inadequate and unimaginative; yet the people managing the function are often the same ones who help build their company’s reputation to the heights from which it is falling.

What happened?

Often, the corporate communications functions were unable to help steer their leadership teams through reputational mine fields or simply were not up to the task. The top communicators were slow to reallocate resources to address new problems, stopped coming up with game-changing ideas, or stuck with people in key communications roles who were in over their heads.

Usually after the companies’ corporate reputations were significantly diminished, the head of the function was replaced and so were people in top supporting roles, as well as their public relations agency of record. I’ve seen or heard about this drama playing out dozens of times over my time in the public relations industry.

I think this creative/destructive cycle keeps our professional ranks in a churn – and recruiters very busy! – in part because chief communications officers don’t learn the lesson of Ozymandius. They often have the idea that they are structuring and staffing their functions to achieve something perfect and unchanging. That is illusory thinking.

Corporate communications structures in most companies should be significantly realigned every 18 to 24 months to acknowledge changes in business objectives, competitors and the marketplace. What I see instead is heads of the function spending months or even years benchmarking other companies and trying to find the perfect org chart, or at least one they can sell to management. All that time precious time is being lost.

What they should be do is keep change their structures and switch around their staff to target the most high-value work, adjusting people, job responsibilities and reporting relationships on short notice. This requires is a new paradigm based on speed and flexibility, a belief that it’s better to be mostly on target today than it is to maintain old structures and approaches unsuited for the times.

If you’re moving with the wind, it can’t wear you down.

John Onoda, who has led the communications functions at Charles Schwab, Visa USA, General Motors and Levi Strauss, is a senior advisor at Gagen MacDonald, a firm that helps to develop and execute strategies related to organizational change and transformation.