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Chip Conley Headshot

What Business Are You In?

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This is my favorite rhetorical business question of all time spoken by the true sage of management wisdom, Peter Drucker. But, this is a more complex question than it used to be. There may have been a time when the ball bearings manufacturer was purely in the business of creating a satisfactory little round ball with an assembly line of employees who would spend their lifetime toiling away in the factory. It was a localized business and their customer had grown accustomed to just giving the same old order to the company year after year.

There are no customers any more - if you define customers literally as buyers of your product who just unconsciously customize their buying without considering their alternatives. We have promiscuous consumers for whom satisfaction is not enough. We have the internet that has given these consumers the full array of choices available in the marketplace. And, we have employees who no longer are willing to be quite so loyal to a boss that doesn't show loyalty in return. Of course, we also have the complexity of investors who treat their businesses like one-night stands, vendors who - in this economy - are living a survival of the fittest existence, and the community and government who have ever-growing expectations of what business' role is in creating a better world. Maybe your father could afford to leave the office at 3:00pm to play a round of golf 30 years ago, but, if you're in management today, you're just a quarter of the way through your email inbox by that time of the day.

Amidst this gladiator pit of a marketplace, Drucker's question has even more relevance. Gather a few of your fellow execs in a quiet room and ask the question "What business are we in?" I know when we first asked that question in my hotel company, the obvious answer was we're in the business of providing people a place to stay overnight when they're on the road. You may arrive at a similar banal answer. But ask the question again because any hotelier - from Four Seasons to Motel 6 - could spit out that answer. In fact, ask the question five times and you'll find out what's truly unique and essential about your business. You'll get a sense of what's the purity that draws employees, customers, vendors, the community, and investors to you like a magnet. For my company, this exercise got us to a place where we understood we're in the "identity refreshment" business as each of our boutique hotels tries to create an experience that gives its niche of customers the feeling that they're in the perfect habitat for them. It's like our product is a mirror for the aspirations of our customer. Coming to this conclusion was both enlightening and enriching for all of us associated with the business as it gave us a deeper sense of our purpose and why we exist.

During the week of October 25-29, tens of thousands of us will be asking that question "What business are you in?" as I will be hosting one of the largest business teleconferences in history, the Enlightened Business Summit . With 40 world-renowned speakers from Zappos' Tony Hsieh to famed psychologist and author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, this free telesummit will explore how a great business can transform the lives of those associated with it while making a positive contribution to the world at the same time. Most businesses don't get to this place. They are purely in survival mode or they go as far as just being successful. Transformative leaders and transformative companies have an impact that revolutionizes their industries and everyone around them.

We used to talk about business responsibility, but the "ability" to "respond" (the literal translation of this word) suggests that business is passive until there's a need or an obligation to respond. 21st Century leaders needs to exhibit "impactibility," the ability to anticipate and impact the world in ways that recognize the systemic effect that business has on everything around it. I hope you'll join us when we explore how you as a business leader can positively impact the world.