Tell me the facts and I’ll learn. Tell me the truth and I’ll believe. But tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever. ~An old Native American proverb
In the last 18 months I have been blessed to become a grandmother – twice! One of my major tasks as Grandma Carol is to read stories to my grandsons. It’s been a reminder of how stories surround us, entertain us and influence us. Even in the corporate world, stories abound. There are stories of unlikely heroes, leaders who’ve lost their way and villains who have abused their position of authority.
The most successful leaders are great communicators and they are also powerful storytellers. Howard Schulz, Starbucks Chairman and CEO, has three stories that keep him focused on his vision for Starbucks. The first is about his introduction to the original Starbucks in Seattle and a quality product – dark roasted coffee. The second is based on a trip to Milan where he discovered the “ritual and romance of coffee bars”. And thirdly, he watched his father struggle to find dignity and meaning in the workplace.
Even as recently as July 11, 2016 in an announcement to his employees about improved wages and benefits, he referenced his father. “Every day, I strive to build the kind of company that my father never had a chance to work for, one that not only cares for it people but gives them opportunities to be their best selves.” These stories help support the history and the culture of the organization.
Stories vs Data
Data-driven information tends to speak to people’s intellect while stories stir your employee’s imagination and reach their feelings. That’s what makes stories such a powerful tool to engage and motivate. Susan Luke, corporate mythologist and consultant, has worked with leaders for over 20 years assisting them in helping their people accept change and move through challenges. She says “Harnessing the power of stories to shape corporate culture and provide an accelerated decision making process throughout each organization, has been a key element of the process. It’s about connecting the dots”.
Your organization isn’t made up of charts and graphs and dashboards, it’s made up of people. Your organization didn’t just break $1M in revenue, the people in your organization created that breakthrough moment. What’s the story you can tell about this event? Everyday there are interactions taking place in your organization that you can use to reinforce your culture.
Stories and the Hiring Process
When you’re interviewing people and they ask you about your culture – do you rhyme off the standard phrases “we are a company of teamwork, innovation and customer service”? Blah blah blah. Or do you tell a story to describe the culture? For example, instead of just saying “teamwork” why not tell the story of how Bill, Karina and Jawad were working on a software installation that was dangerously close to going off the rails. They decided to hunker down and brainstorm ways to get back on track. They brought in other experts within the organization for advice and perspective. They worked late into the night to come up with a plan. Because of their commitment to teamwork and customer service the project was saved and the customer continues to do work with us. These are the type of employees that make our company successful. These are people committed to quality, who take pride in their work and enjoy a challenge.
What are your stories?
Your values and beliefs are based on your own experiences. Authentically sharing these experiences in the form of story helps to crystallize the things that are important to you. And what’s important to you, as a leader, is important to the rest of the organization. When you think about the type of company you’re trying to build, what stories can you draw upon to provide context and inspire your employees? And ultimately, what story do you want your culture to tell? Don’t let your culture be the villain in your organization’s tale. Take up the challenge and create the chronicle where culture is the hero in your company’s success!