One of the country's top 30 home builders took its team through a companywide gut check recently. Its $600 million-plus operations are concentrated in the teeth of one of the nation's hardest hit markets; it had weathered a change at the helm just as investors bolted and home buyer paralysis set in; and its succeeding senior leadership needed to find out whether the company had what it would take to ride it through a long, deep downturn to the other side.

John McManus "We had to find out whether it was going to be worth it to go through all that we have to [in order] to create a future for this company," says one of the company's two top executives. So they gathered their employees in one place at one time and gave them a single task: "If you were to describe our company as an animal ?" You may be familiar with the exercise. What animal would it be?

When you do that sort of thing, without a doubt, you naturally anticipate and expect the answers to be lions, tigers, bulls, eagles, and all the creatures notable for cunning, nobility, grace, acuity, ferocity, and stamina.

However, that's not what the responses were in this crowd.

"Broken-legged ducks, manatees, baboons, feral cats, rodents, snakes, and old dogs with no teeth" was the kind of thing employees of this particular company wrote down to describe their own organization, according to one of its appalled senior executives. No kidding. But after all, they were asked to be honest in their answers.

Since that moment, with some coaching and coaxing, the image everybody has now agreed to settle on and strive for is of a strong and valiant steed–not of the race horse variety, but more of a workaday mount. If there's a tomorrow for this organization–after all the negative headlines, and the right-sizings, and the endless searches for yet another $50 of savings for each new-home under construction, and the white-knuckle renegotiations with lenders, and the equally jittery passage for each customer from their order and deposit to the closing table–that tomorrow won't arrive on the back of a broken-legged duck. A horse, however, might do the trick.

Great companies know who and what they are. Only part of the answer comes from the product or service features and benefits they offer to the marketplace. The more important part of who and what you are comes from listening. You may have heard of user-generated content, which is information or amusement that online visitors create for one another on the Web–like YouTube or Wikipedia. Likewise, in a very real way, strategic leaders must recognize that, in the knowledge economy, one only has part of the say in who and what one's company is and does. It's not just about you.

It's about your employees, and about your customers. They're the ones who tell you what business you're in. Products and processes don't, by themselves, make for companies that survive and thrive through business cycles. Whether your company is a manatee or a workhorse may well make the difference between a future or simply a lustrous history and a pulverized present.

What's more, it amazes us–although maybe it shouldn't–how quickly and intelligently you as an industry have transformed your companies in light of the overnight changes that hit most of your markets. True, it's of necessity. But it's also a testimony not only to the passions that motivate you, but to the adaptive nature of your business models to adjust to such dramatic change in demand as well.

Clearly, smarter balance sheet and land supply management were perhaps the biggest lessons from downturns past. From this one, the inalterable shift might be as simple as the realization that home building never was, and never will be, a transactions business. It's a relationship business from top to bottom and from one side to another. Those who best craft their relationships will prevail. Go teams!