01 September 2019

The Hollowing of an Organization

"How did you go bankrupt? Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly."

--Ernest Hemingway, "The Sun Also Rises"

This summer saw the removal of a nearly 100-year-old, 100-foot sassafras tree from a property in Michigan. During a recent inspection of all our trees arborist, John Wardlaw noticed a "cavity" in the side of that particular tree (see picture below) indicating probable damage to the center of the trunk. However, he said the outside could look okay while the inside was deteriorating.

Sassafras tree in Michigan.  

After two very large branches fell this past year we decided to take down the tree. Unfortunately, the
 combination of shade and sassafras fragrance paled compared to the dangers of a falling tree causing bodily harm.

How a tree hollows

Our research into this topic shows that trees suffer injury just as humans do. That was news to me. When limbs break it sometimes creates an opening through the bark exposing the sapwood. Being attacked by fungi and bacteria forms a cavity.  

Stress happens through wind, fire, heat, and lightning. We've had lots of rain this spring in Michigan, which is also a contributing factor.

Can a tree be hollow and still live?

Indeed a hollow tree can be alive--and fruitful.  

Emily Stone, a naturalist, and educator at the Cable Natural History Museum says, "All of the growth and water transport continues in the outer shell of the tree--the sapwood--even as the center rots away.

"In order for a tree to become hollow, though, it must start the process while it is still alive," she added. 

How a business hollows

In the same way trees stay healthy and avoid hollowing out, businesses require the right conditions to grow and be strong.   

A corporate soul (purpose, beliefs, and values) resides inside an "organizational tree."  That core is strategic to the enterprise and therefore needs constant attention.   

Author Lim Lay Hsuan observed, "If leadership fails to nurture the soul, like a deprived garden, it will eventually die."

Nurturing a company begins with nurturing oneself. Leaders who are clear about their own purpose and goals have a head start in that process.  

What else should have our attention?

"Why" the business; hiring decisions; who is the customer; developing associates; the quality of being special; ethics; changing environments; and exemplary performance or execution, not just what's required. 

Those ingredients necessitate maintenance and contribute to a healthy corporate culture, the most overlooked competitive advantage.  


-What's the current condition of your organizational soul? 

-Who are the guardians?  

-Do the company's beliefs and values matter to a new workforce?  

-How do you keep, and strengthen, the soul during periods of significant demographic change?

Circumvent the hollowing

While there are no guarantees it's worth trying to safeguard what's important to an organization. A short checklist suggests ways of impeding the hollowing process--

1. Identify what matters most to your business and communicate it frequently.

2. Apply your beliefs and values consistently, especially in decision-making.

3. Be aware of the stresses that can do long-term damage.

4. Businesses, like trees, need trimming to stay healthy and flourish.

5. Hire for corporate culture. There's nothing like a good fit.  


© Bredholt & Co.