For about 10 years big corporations have hired consulting firms to help plot "corporate strategy." Now a company must also ask if its personality can carry out its plans.

In the past year, a group at Arthur D. Little Inc., a Cambridge, Mass., consulting firm, headed by Robert M. Tomasko, has advised companies of all sizes on how to match corporate personalities to strategies. Tomasko sees five company personalities: pioneer, adapter, guardian, balancer, and responder.

Pioneer companies are the quintessential entrepreneurs. They invent new products or break new ground. They are young, structure is simple and fluid, and decisions are made mainly by the founder.

But most small companies aren't like that. Adapters already have a strong competitive position, generate high profit margins, and excel at maintaining their edge. They typically treat their employees well, stressing such paternalistic policies as no layoffs. Tomasko cites Zabar's delicatessen in New York (see INC., October 1981, page 102). Its owners refuse to expand to other locations or to sell franchises, because they don't want to risk killing the goose that lays their $12 million-a-year golden egg.

Guardians may be the most common type of small business, Tomasko says. They thrive where the winning strategy requires low-cost operations. Their product or service is narrowly focused on one customer group. Many are indistinguishable from competitors.

Balancers excel at trading off the needs of marketing and manufacturing -- tilting to marketing. They succeed in growth industries where market shares are in flux and advertising is crucial.

Responders thrive where rapid changes in tactics are needed. But as a responder grows, its frequent management changes can create confusion or instability.

But many companies can't be neatly pigeonholed. The categories should stimulate thinking, Tomasko says. He cites the case of a "capital-intensive service company" with about 25 employees. Although it was just starting up, it was organized, he says, partly like a guardian -- with "lots of rulebooks and position descriptions" -- and partly like a "chaotic responder." In its market, he counseled, it should have been more of a balancer. Tomasko says: "The trick is to match your organizational characteristics to the market you're in."