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The Power of Storytelling

December 1, 1998
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After a cross-country flight one rainy evening in July, my husband and I stopped on the way to Cape Cod at a well-known family restaurant outside Boston to have dinner. When we arrived, a harried greeter seated us near the kitchen.

While waiting for someone to take our order, we noticed that the waitstaff looked sweaty and disheveled, and the patrons seemed to be impatient. Our waitress mumbled something about the manager doing the cooking because the cook had failed to show up.

We weren’t in a hurry. Being optimistic, we waited.

Soon, angry patrons appeared at the kitchen entrance, asking when their orders would be ready. We couldn’t recall having ever seen that before. As the buzz in the store grew louder, one portly patron marched into the kitchen with his plate and yelled: “This pot roast is s___!” He then scooped handfuls of mashed potatoes and pot roast and threw them -- overhand -- at the manager. Back at his table, his wife tried to disappear into the vinyl banquette. We knew we hadn’t ever seen that before.

We canceled our dinners. Our waitress could only say, “I don’t blame you,” as we left the restaurant, still hungry.

We now tell the story to friends as a sign of America’s breakdown of civility. But what if we were restaurant managers? We would use that story to illustrate the importance of the staff working together -- and what could happen if they didn’t. We would use it to illustrate a powerful image of everything going wrong and ask employees to think of ways to head off a similar disaster in one’s own restaurant. We would turn the story to our advantage by using it to teach employees about teambuilding.

Storytelling in the workplace is a dynamic strategy for empowering employees to understand and embody an organization’s core values. Leaders at all levels can learn how to use storytelling to educate, inform, motivate and inspire their employees.

Storytelling can impart the corporate culture and values.
Chris Dunblazier, who is in the restaurant business, says, “Storytelling is the most effective way to show what happens if you don’t do [something] the right way, and what happens if you do. Stories stick in a person’s mind.”

Dunblazier, director of operations at Souper Salad in Oklahoma City, has worked for the company since its inception 15 years ago. During the first 12 years, Souper Salad, a privately owned restaurant chain based in San Antonio, Texas, opened 50 stores. (Fifty more have opened in the last three years, and there will be about 200 more by the year 2000.) In her region alone, Dunblazier will open 20 stores next year.

In the face of such rapid growth, regional directors of operations and the company’s officers need to impart company culture to large numbers of new hires very quickly. She explains, “We expect stories to come in handy.”

One story Dunblazier shares explains why the company insists on uniform appearance standards, especially among store managers. “Once I had a call from a general manager who told me, ‘You won’t believe this, but our manager, John, just walked in here in full makeup, in uniform, with long red fingernails.’

I consulted with HR, then explained to John that he was free to wear whatever he wanted outside of work, but the restaurant doesn’t even allow heavy makeup for women employees, and no restaurant employee can have long fingernails at work. I told him that anything that makes a guest look twice at the manager is not a good idea. The next day, John didn’t have the nails, and had just a small amount of eyeliner.

Months later, I was wearing my corporate shirt on a flight. I found myself seated on the plane beside a visitor who told me he’d gone into one of our stores once and an employee -- he was pretty sure it was the manager -- had been in full makeup. He said he’d never gone back.”

When Dunblazier tells this story, she hopes that it will remind an employee to think twice about wearing a particular “look” at work. Could this story help employees make decisions consistent with the company’s appearance standards? Could it help them understand why the appearance standards exist? Employees will know that those decisions matter in the company’s overall goal of increasing guest counts.

Stories can build an organization’s identity. “Anyone who has had an experience has a story to tell and, with some coaching, has the capacity to tell it,” Kaye believes.

Stories like Dunblazier’s can shape an organizational culture and build an organization’s identity, according to Beverly Kaye, organizational consultant and author of Up Is Not The Only Way (Consulting Psychologists Press, 1997). Kaye has worked with numerous Fortune 500 companies on using stories to convey a company’s corporate culture. “Anyone who has had an experience has a story to tell and, with some coaching, has the capacity to tell it,” she believes. Leaders, she adds, can learn to tell stories and can be taught to be more effective. Kaye often finds that they warm to the experience because storytelling gives them a forum they otherwise wouldn’t have. She also believes the telling is as good for the teller as it is for the audience.

Kaye offers a dramatic example of a business leader who told employees the story of his own episode of acute stress and depression.

“Many in the organization knew about it, but not how it happened or why. He told it to a group of ‘high potential’ employees with such honesty and such detail. He described how he had been driven to the point of the episode, what acute stress and depression was like, what it took to recover and how he runs his life now as a result.

When I asked if he had heard that story from someone else when he was in his 30s, could it have prevented his episode, he said yes.

‘This is my legacy,’ he explained. ‘To tell them, warn them, help them avoid it.’”

Will the 30 year-old “high potential” who is tempted to go into overdrive remember that story? A high potential forgets it only at his or her own peril.

Kaye calls stories “devices for creating and maintaining a widespread understanding of the subtle cultural and political realities underlying a specific organization’s life.” One of those political realities is the risk of driving oneself too hard. How can a story help someone avoid doing that?

Kaye explains that we can “view our lives as a movie rather than a slide show, seeing connections among actions and significance in experiences.” Remembering the story helps people “watch” the movie of their lives inside their heads, casting themselves in the role portrayed by the storyteller.

Storytelling can help employees accept a new initiative.
When HR needs to facilitate acceptance of a new initiative or program, telling a story can help people imagine what the workplace will be like after the change -- not something that many people do very easily.

Managers at TRW’s Space and Electronics Group (S&EG) in Redondo Beach, California, tell the story of competing for the contract to build China’s first satellite. By doing so, they’re selling employees on the benefits of TRW’s Workforce Diversity Program.

In 1994, TRW bid for a satellite contract with the People’s Republic of China’s National Space Program Office (NSPO). The successful bidder would build the first Chinese satellite.

Chinese-American TRW employees organized themselves into a Chinese Employee Network Group, and assumed a major role in making sure that the proposal was compliant and culturally coherent, according to Lou Rosales, then HR manager for TRW. Chinese-American employees who were skilled in speaking Mandarin, and reading and writing Chinese, took a leadership role in representing TRW to the customer. They helped develop the proposal and reviewed it before submission to NSPO. They videotaped an executive summary of the proposal, explaining that the group also would be working on the satellite development team.

Well into 1995, after TRW had won the bid and was developing the satellite, members of the Chinese Employee Network Group reported that the customer’s comfort with the proposal and development teams contributed strongly to the success of the ongoing project. Rosales reports that their achievement spurred other Employee Network Groups based on a workforce diversity variable such as country of origin.

The story continues to be told as managers recount TRW’s Space and Electronics Group’s success in entering the Asia/Pacific market.

TRW also has other ways of explaining its workforce diversity program. Through the organization’s newsletter, Infolink, employees read the following: “Because of growing global opportunities and declining domestic defense markets, S&EG is now competing in the international marketplace. One major reason for the company’s success so far is the involvement and contribution of a diverse group of employees who often reflect the diversity of our new customers.” How much more power does that statement acquire in the context of the Chinese satellite contract story?

Since that experience, TRW also tells the story of the successful bid for the Korean Multipurpose Satellite, relying on a proposal and development team that was comprised of -- well, now you know.

Storytelling can create a shared vision of the company’s future.
Another story comes from the history of Celanese Corporation, before its merger with American Hoechst to become Trevira, based in Houston and now known as KoSa.

In the early 1980s, Celanese began a cultural transformation using the Japanese quality awareness program that was influencing American businesses at the time. Celanese was working on adapting quality awareness to suit its own culture. That process allowed what HR department manager Tom Holmes calls “the genesis of a vision.”

Holmes’ story of Macomber is a story of visionary leadership energizing and empowering the corporation’s employees. Corporate values now include the profound commitment to excellence that the story reflects.

At a high-level meeting, the corporate director for quality was meeting with the operating officers. John Macomber, the CEO of Celanese, was in the room. The presentation by the corporate director for quality focused on approximately 20 areas where progress was being measured.

Macomber leaned back in his chair and posed what became this famous question: “We’re at a stage where we’d rate about a three on a scale of 10. But I’m not as interested in where we are as in where we’re going. What I’d like to know is what 10 out of 10 would look like.”

Everyone acknowledged that it was a great question, and the corporate director for quality promised that he and the directors for quality management would develop an answer.

That answer came back as a “quality document,” now known as the “Ten Out of Ten” document. “‘Ten Out of Ten’ became the statement of the corporation’s cultural goals, a vision of excellence for what our organization would look like,” Holmes explains. “It was enormously powerful; it galvanized people to close the gap between where we were and where we were headed.”

Celanese surveyed all employees, rating progress on each point, in a process of 360-degree feedback for the entire corporation. Holmes is convinced that “things moved much more quickly than if Macomber had lectured.

“The statement empowered employees,” Holmes continues. “The document -- and the story of Macomber’s question -- held sway for a couple of years. Then in the merger with American Hoechst, it became embedded in the Hoechst Celanese values statement.” The story of the CEO “earning his pay that day” by asking such a powerful question remains alive at the new company.

Holmes’ story of Macomber is a story of visionary leadership energizing and empowering the corporation’s employees. As long-term employees have told others the story, it has conveyed the company’s cultural shift to quality improvement. Corporate values now include the profound commitment to excellence that the story reflects.Kaye explains that the Macomber story describes a “visionary leader who creates completely new stories to inspire transformation in organizations.” According to Kaye, the story is a good example of a leader using “words to convince others of a point of view, and the story is the best way to convey the point.” She also notes that leaders can use stories “to revive neglected or existing themes that need to be communicated.”

Orchestrate the story to convey a meaningful message.
A good story is hardly complicated. Significant experiences can easily be translated into a memorable lesson.

First, the teller describes a situation. (“The corporate director for quality was meeting with the operating officers.”) Second, he or she describes the action. (“Macomber leaned back in his chair and posed what became this famous question.”) Third, the teller describes a memorable resolution. (“‘Ten Out of Ten’ became the statement of the corporation’s cultural goals, a vision of excellence for what our organization would look like.”)

People are going to talk. By understanding and using the power of storytelling, HR can influence managers to frame the discussion into stories that will accomplish the company’s goals. Try it when the cook quits and the customer throws pot roast. Frame it so it’s useful. It will make a great story.

Workforce, December 1998, Vol. 77, No. 12, pp.36-41.

Recent Articles by Nancy L. Breuer

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