Why community is good for business

Authenticity. Purpose. Value. We often speak about these corporate virtues without emphasising who they are for.

Authenticity and purpose mean nothing without a community to benefit from them. Indeed, many would argue—myself included—that community is what lays the bedrock for a successful business.

Channelling the Igbo “it takes a village” proverb, Paul Ryan puts it succinctly: “Every successful individual knows that his or her achievement depends on a community of persons working together.”

Corporate culture or true community?

The animal kingdom is full of collective nouns, describing the communities of other species. As children—and as grown-ups—we are often delighted by the variations in language to express these. Swarms of bees, colonies of bats, droves of donkeys, schools of fish. But in the business world, success is often framed in the singular. There’s no collective noun for entrepreneurs.

There is, however, a lot of emphasis on corporate team-building and company culture. But away days and training sessions almost always favour the extroverts and those who already show Myers-Briggs-type leadership characteristics. For many, they are a hideous reinforcement of previously held biases, where the louder sporty types charge forward and self-appoint themselves winners.

Community, properly conceived, is something different.

It is softer and more inclusive, it avoids clear competition and prioritises participation over domination. Just as with the soft power of diplomacy, community can often triumph without resorting to heavy-handed tactics.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines community in a number of ways, but my attention is drawn to a less frequent framing: “The fact of having a quality or qualities in common; shared character, similarity; identity; unity.”

So what should that shared quality be?

If you can manage it, the answer is your business.

Community as the soft power of business

A successful business is one that can embody a sense of community—a group of people committed to a shared project and or goal, whether that be your team, your clients or your wider network.

I often define business success as repeat business from engaged customers who tell their contacts about their customer experience. This can happen quickly—as we often like to celebrate in the internet age—but can also take place at a slower pace, accumulating prestige and a network, quietly over time. If bright flames burn out quicker, then those who can lay the seeds of community early on are less likely to be disappointed.

Placing too much emphasis on a closed idea community also carries some downsides. You risk creating a self-serving echo chamber that lacks a diversity of opinions and experience. This inward-looking version of community tends not to thrive over the long term and restricts its own abilities to regenerate and grow. Open up the doors, learn from others, bring them in.

Businesses that want to grow and fulfil their full potential need to have a pattern of customer engagement that nurtures buyers with intent, colleagues with enthusiasm, and networks with praise. Community is the key to that engagement. As it grows, so too does the business.

Don’t neglect the softer powers at your disposal. In the long-run, they are all that really matter.

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