We were once a society of workers who punched a clock and worked at well-defined roles from 9 to 5, for managers who gave us clearly defined tasks, at companies that employed for life, where change happened slowly. Well, no more. Median tenure in the US workforce is four years, work has seeped into our whole lives, competitive pressures drive the need for revolutionary change, and workers are looking for purpose not just a paycheck. If you don’t get it right, you can face the perfect storm of rudderless teams that don’t innovate quickly enough, while your best workers flee as they seek out someplace more rewarding.
In order to succeed, we must build workplaces where team members are valued, passionate, and energized, and where what they work to accomplish has purpose. We must create tightly knit communities with common goals, in which employees band together to deliver against a shared higher calling. In families, stories communicate who we are, what we value, and what our purpose is. They create the collective “we” from a bunch of individual “me”s.
My grandmother could not do anything herself, but that woman could supervise any activity, particularly when undertaken by her husband, Michael. Whenever he was working on a project, the soundtrack we heard was always her voice. We heard, “Now, Michael, are you doing that right?” “Now, Michael, I don’t think that goes that way.” “Now, Michael, isn’t there a better way to do that?” “Now, Michael, I don’t think that will work!” Because we have told this story over and over, “Now, Michael” is the way we call one another out when someone is over-supervising. When we are given the “Now, Michael” we laugh about it, correct our current behavior, and also reinforce our shared sense of knowing “we” are in this together.
The best companies use this same approach in their organizations, and their leaders are their chief authors and storytellers. They grow our sense of belonging and transform the company from an employer to an energized place where phenomenal goals are achieved.
Stories Unite and Define
As leaders, it is our responsibility to create for our teams a shared sense of “we,” communicating exactly who we are as a company, what we value, and how that came to be (for more information on telling origin stories, see this blog post). Our teams need this shared understanding in order to come together as a community, and to understand what makes the company unique. When we share stories, we create a common foundation that establishes our joint values and ethics. We may value flexibility, determination, customer service, integrity, drive, humor, or technical excellence. But whatever we value, our stories must be examples of how these shaped our past actions, and how that drove our success. They must clarify rather than confuse. They should be memorable and compelling, while providing a context for explaining criteria for future decisions. Our stories should be broad enough to create a moral compass and communicate a greater purpose, yet specific enough to create a clear guide for future choices.
Choose Your Stories Wisely
As leaders we must actively craft these stories from the raw material of our history. We must determine which events support our corporate vision, and then shape them within that context rather than just retell them – all the while ensuring that we never cross into the realm of fiction.
For example, the story of the Apple Newton (Apple’s first handheld PDA that worked on handwriting input and while interesting, was a financial failure) could have been crafted in a number of different ways to support very different organizational cultures, including as a:
- Complete failure –internal company data predicted failure, yet management chose to go ahead with launch anyway.
- Controlled failure –the product was pulled from the market before losses became overwhelming.
- Limited success –it brought to market a set of new product experiences for consumers, but at a high financial cost to the company.
- Resounding success –it developed a portfolio of leading edge technologies, and created a set of processes and skills within the company that established the foundation of success for years to come.
While all of the above versions of the story are equally truthful, they each originate from a very different perspective, serve different purposes, support a different identity, and reinforce a different value. Leaders must take the raw materials of historic events and choose how to shape and re-tell them so that we encourage the organizational values we wish to espouse. For example, a technology-led Silicon Valley company might choose a story similar to 4, while a cash-strapped, risk-averse company might choose a version similar to 1. Both would be equally valid, but contribute to building very different organizations and cultures.
Use Values and Purpose to Shape Your Stories
When crafting these stories, we need to determine where our story will begin and end, who will be the heroes, who will be the villains, and what the moral of the story will be. Each will send a message to our teams about what we value, what we want them to do, and help them determine if the leader’s vision fits with their vision of who they want to be. We are not passive recipients of our history, nor are we merely casual observers of it. We have an obligation to be shapers and interpreters of our history, and creators of our stories, so that our employees may identify and engage in shared purpose at work. We must also make them compelling stories whose very natures demand retelling.
Integrate your Stories into the Fabric of your Company
Employee satisfaction and engagement naturally rises when there is a shared purpose, transparency of decision criteria, and a sense that work has significance. These stories must be a part of the context as you set strategy, hire and train new employees, and communicate goals and decisions. If you consistently tie the decisions and actions your executives and employees face today to the stories you have given them, you can enhance the cohesiveness of the team and raise the likelihood that team members will make the best decisions going forward. You will also grow future leaders who are passionate and committed.
Leaders who invest in their capabilities as storytellers reap high rewards. It may not be a skill taught in business schools or in boardrooms, but it is certainly one that has a high ROI. The return comes from having more engaged employees who share a passion and a vision, and as a result stay longer and contribute more. It may not be the first thing you think of as part of your leadership development program, but storytelling may be the thing your company needs most. And it is likely to have a measurable impact on your bottom line.
Melissa Norcross is the VP of Finance & Strategy for Ontario Systems, and a student in the Ph.D./D.B.A. Program in Values-Driven Leadership, for senior executives.