What’s your story?

By Alan Webber on January 12, 2017

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Almost every company runs on numbers. Metrics like the company’s stock price, revenues and profits, productivity, sales or head count are frequently top-of-mind for business leaders. One way or another, numerical dashboards often guide strategy, evaluate talent, and commit resources. At the end of the day, facts are facts, numbers are numbers, and companies depend on both to make critical decisions.

However, there is another important and often missing ingredient that leaders are capable of incorporating into their agenda, but rarely make common practice: story. Yes, facts are facts, but stories are how we learn, share and grow. Today, the best leaders are also consummate storytellers. Here are some examples where leaders and stories have come together to make a difference.

Don’t have a story? Invent one.

Leaders use the idea of the “creation myth” to tell the story of a company’s founding. It’s a powerful way to establish the organization’s original purpose, explain its DNA, and give everyone who works there a central story that never changes, even as the company grows and evolves.

Sometimes, if your company doesn’t have an actual creation myth (“We were born in a garage”), you can invent one. That’s what I did to describe the inspiration behind Fast Company magazine: “Late one night I tripped on a Nike shoebox in my study and hit my head on my desk, where copies of Rolling Stone and the Harvard Business Review were lying side by side. In a flash, I had a vision of a new business magazine that combined Nike’s hip design, Rolling Stone’s generational message, and HBR’s intelligent authority.” With that one story, people understood our positioning, our sensibility, and our message.

In other cases when a company feels as though it might be at risk of losing its way, it goes back to the archives and constructs a myth to reestablish its purpose. Levi’s and Coca-Cola are two companies that have reached back in history to tap into the past as a way to navigate their future.

Story as Identity

Stories are how leaders define and build culture. Every company has a handbook of policies and procedures. In some cases, vision, mission and value statements get printed on pocket-sized cards and passed out to all employees as a constant reminder of what the company stands for. This is all well and good, but stories are what people remember and pass around to each other.

When asked, Ritz-Carlton employees share a story about their colleagues going out of their way not only to return a cherished lost stuffed animal to a child, but also to send along a photo album of the animal’s relaxing stay at the resort. Johnson & Johnson employees all know the Tylenol story. These stories define how the company sees its larger responsibility to its customers.

Leaders who carefully cultivate, curate, capture and pass along the iconic stories that define “who we are and how we do business” build cultural continuity and identity. Stories can recruit talent, overcome crises, and create important context that facts or numbers alone can’t provide.

Planning for the unexpected

Several decades ago, as oil availability and prices began to fluctuate wildly, Royal Dutch Shell developed a new tool for strategy: scenario planning. The company sent trained anthropologists, journalists and management consultants all over the world to meet with and interview all kinds of people: What were they seeing and hearing? What would be the key drivers of change? What did the future have in store, from their perspective?

Royal Dutch Shell then turned the answers they got into alternative “scenarios”—stories that represented different possibilities, unanticipated events for which the company needed to be prepared. The stories were better than numbers. They led to wide open conversations, thoughtful disagreements, and ultimately, well-considered strategies for dealing with volatile times.

Over the years leaders have refined, honed and applied the process not only to corporate strategy but also to national political planning, such as in post-apartheid South Africa.

What’s the story behind your story?

What brand of popcorn do you buy? What about eyeglass frames, sneakers, watches or razors? As products proliferate and choices multiply, leaders know that a compelling story can become the basis for customer preference. A childhood dream developed into a breakthrough product can tell a powerful story that embodies the larger purpose behind the company. The idea of bringing manufacturing back to the United States, captured as a compelling story, presents a reason to choose one product over another. The legendary J. Peterman catalog came to epitomize the idea of “the story behind the item”: what could have been just another sweater, shirt or hat became an adventure story that added romance to a purchase.

Today, with marketing and storytelling increasingly converging, leaders are going one step further to tell “the story behind the story”—an even deeper exploration of products and experiences embedded in a company’s myth making.

The truth is, sometimes a good story is simply a good story. But the best leaders know how to use storytelling to their advantage to build understanding, increase loyalty, tap into emotions, and emphasize differentiation. After all, we all want to hear a good story.

If you need a little inspiration to get started, this “how-to guide” has some questions that will help steer you in the right direction.

Posted in Blog, Executive Development, Leadership Development

About Alan Webber

Alan Webber is the former Editorial Director and Managing Director of Harvard Business Review and co-founder of the business/technology magazine Fast Company. He was recognized at Linkage’s 20th Global Institute for Leadership Development® with the 2016 Warren Bennis Award for Excellence in Leadership. In 2014, he ran in the Democratic primary for Governor of New Mexico, finishing second in a 5-person field.

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