#1 International Best Seller
#1 International Best Seller
As we listen to or read a story, it’s natural to free-associate and be reminded of things we have long ago forgotten. These can often act like lit fuses in our imagination. From this point of view, storytelling is the perfect knowledge-management catalyst, igniting associations with the things we know about a particular topic, which we may not even know we know. In this way, listening to stories can help us build a latticework of knowledge, connecting what we know with what we’re currently learning. The effect is multiplicative. So, pay attention to what emerges in your imagination as you listen and learn. These seemingly disparate bits of information are the building blocks for deepening future understanding.
Whether things go as planned or crash and burn, by viewing the experience through the lens of story you can learn to see each event in the light of what you might learn from it. Debriefing your successes in this manner will reveal areas where you could have done even better. There is always room for improvement. Seeing your failures in the light of learning can redeem even the most difficult and painful experience, allowing you to see all was not entirely lost if you can learn from it.
The art of developing or writing a story depends on our capacity to recognize the universal in the particular. Imagine being almost run over by an ambulance that came tearing down the country road. The ambulance could represent, in a sense, the double-edged sword of technology. How ironic it is that the very things that we depend on to save us may end up killing us. Can you see how this “point” goes even beyond the context of technology, to a farther-reaching point? This is an excellent example of the universal in the particular. Because the universal resides in the particular (holographically), your predicament is your material. If you can make your vision coherent enough, like the laser light used to create a hologram, you will discern the universal theme or themes in your particular experience, or that of someone whose story you are creating or telling.
Now, you may be the kind of leader who believes you don’t want to be too transparent with your team. People getting to know you personally may make it doubly tricky down the road if you have to make the tough decision to let someone go. If leaders are to earn the trust of those who are following them, our bias is they must be authentic. Authenticity comes from knowing yourself and your story. While it’s not necessary to wear your biography on your sleeve, by sharing facets of your life at the right times, you will be perceived as more accessible and caring by your staff, all of which lead to greater trust.
There are a host of ways you can go about this. One hospital CEO we knew of would weekly put out a note to the entire staff sharing what had occurred in the previous days with his family. If his daughter had fallen and broken her arm and ended up in the hospital’s ER, he’d share what the experience was like for him as a concerned dad. If his son kicked the winning goal in the previous weekend’s soccer match, he’d proudly recount his excitement. If his wife had brought in a record crop of tomatoes from her garden, he included a photo of a ripe tomato sliced up in their evening salad. Invariably, as he walked the halls of the hospital, people he didn’t even know by name would stop to congratulate him or express concern for something difficult that had just occurred. That opened the door for him to ask about how things were going for this employee. It also allowed him to forge a new relationship on a first-name basis. You can bet when the hospital faced difficult times, and he had to ask people to make an extra sacrifice for the good of the institution, they rallied around him because they felt he was like them.
Your organization’s history can be a source of inspiration and identity for every member of the team. Included in that is what we call your “Foundation Story.” It details how you got your start and the many challenges you had to overcome. These kinds of stories remind everyone what you stand for and give new employees a sense that they were there in the beginning.
There is one challenge with these kinds of historical tales, though. Companies change over time. Frequently the stories about the past no longer reflect the culture and values of the company today. Our friends who were part of the Disney organization in its early years in Orlando lament the changes they have seen since Walt passed out of the picture. It’s a different company today, and the lore of yesterday now seems quaint. At worst, it’s entirely out of step with the twenty-first-century conglomerate Disney has become.
Every organization must reckon with its evolution, preserving what is best about the past and jettisoning things not reflective of contemporary reality.
Your customers are your lifeblood. Teaching your staff to treat them as precious resources is crucial to your success. There is no better way to get this point across than through the sharing of customer success and service recovery stories. A good story can accomplish way more to attune your team to the complex needs of the customer than a written script.
In the early days of Universal Studios Orlando, someone got the bright idea tourists would love to have breakfast with Woody Woodpecker. Tour operators would make the reservation weeks in advance. The morning of the event, buses filled with tourists eager to meet Woody would pull up to the entrance gate around seven a.m. before the park opened.
One morning due to someone’s blunder, a bus pulled up, but there was nothing in the books saying they were coming. The cooks hadn’t clocked in, nor had the person who regularly donned the Woody Woodpecker costume. Only a couple of custodial staff cleaning up were there. When the guard called back to announce a busload of hungry guests was at the gate, no one would have blamed them if they responded there would be no breakfast. But they didn’t do that. They told the guard to let them in. One of them went into the kitchen, put on an apron, and prepped scrambled eggs and toast for forty people. The other slipped into the costume and was there to welcome the guests to the backlot, keeping them entertained long enough to give his partner time to get the breakfast ready. The tourists left happy and excited to have gotten in on something exclusive and unique. The two custodians recognized that everyone, regardless of their role, is in the business of making the guest happy. To not collect and share these kinds of stories is to fly into a competitive storm at your peril.
In Ireland and Scotland, there is a venerable tradition still alive today. People from all walks of life gather in someone’s home or a community hall to tell stories, recite poetry, sing ballads, and dance. They call these gatherings cèilidhs, an ancient Gaelic word pronounced “kay-lee.” Years ago, I held cèilidhs in my home, and they proved to be a big hit. I’d select a theme for the evening, like “travel to exotic places,” or “biggest mistake,” or “most unusual experience you’ve ever had.” The response was always positive, but several people would say they’d come and listen, preferring not to speak. Invariably, though, they would be reminded of a story and share it, and they were off to the races telling a spellbinding account of something exotic and quite extraordinary. We had no stage. Everyone just sat around listening and enjoying each other’s company. The tough thing was getting people to leave as we approached the midnight hour. We wanted to go to bed. Sharing in this way nurtures people’s souls in ways they don’t even know they miss, especially as we emerge from COVID lockdowns and isolation.
In addition to inviting people to come and share a story, have them bring a favorite song or ballad, an instrument to play, a poem to read, or teach everyone a traditional dance. Expect to build a depth of community that’s hard to replicate through most any other activity we know. In this time of social distancing, you can easily replicate cèilidhs online.
Whether things go as planned or crash and burn, see each event in the light of what you might learn from it. Debriefing your failures and successes in this manner will reveal areas where you could have done even better. There is always room for improvement. Plus, seeing your failures in the light of learning can redeem a difficult and perhaps painful experience, allowing you to see that all was not entirely lost if you can learn from it. Whereas we can't alter events that have occurred in our lives, we can always revise the story we choose to tell about them.