By Frank Basile
Employees learn more about a company and what it stands for from incidents that happen with the CEO and other executives than from company manuals. Manuals simply state how things should be or how the writer wants people to think they are. What people actually do is the way things are.
Management consultant, author and speaker Tom Peters says, “The best leaders, almost without exception and at every level, are master users of stories and symbols.”
A great believer in the value of stories within a business organization is Patrick Kelly, who founded the company Physician Sales and Service (PSS).
“Fast Company” Magazine carried an article about Kelly titled “Every leader tells a story.” “Forget bullet points and slide shows. The best leaders use stories to answer three simple questions: Who am I? Who are we? Where are we going?”
In this article, Elizabeth Weil writes, “In the new world of business, where it’s every executive’s job to make sense of a fast changing environment, storytelling is the ultimate leadership tool.”
“Leadership is about change,” says Noel M. Tichy, a professor at the University of Michigan Business School and the coauthor of The Leadership Engine (Harper Business, 1997). “It’s about taking people from where they are now to where they need to be. The best way to get people to venture into unknown terrain is to make it desirable by taking them there in their imaginations.” In other words, by telling them stories.
“Faster Company” (John Wiley & Sons, 1998) is an entertaining, instructive account of Physician Sales and Service’s 15-year rise to prominence and prosperity. CEO Pat Kelly hopes it sells lots of copies.
But that’s not why he wrote it. “Now I have something to put in the hands of all my employees and say, ‘This is the way we treat each other. This is the way we treat our customers. If you understand this, you’ll make it here, and we’ll all be extraordinarily successful. This is our story.’”
In May 1996 I wrote an article “How to write a book about your company.” That book has now materialized into Born to Build.
The feedback we have received from those who have read the book confirm our decision to use Gene Glick’s own anecdotes and stories to relate the history of our company rather than the conventional approach of a third party providing facts and dates. It has made the book much more interesting and insightful, which is what we wanted to accomplish.
Each new employee with our company receives a copy of the book because we agree with Pat Kelly’s comments about the value of relating the company’s values and culture through stories.
For those interested in writing a company history, I would be happy to provide them with a reprint of my earlier article or respond to questions on the telephone. Though it was frequently frustrating, took three and a half years and cost $115,000, it was well worth it.
To provide some specific background as to why our book was written and whether the time, money and effort was worth it, I will quote from Gene Glick’s preface to Born to Build.
“The irascible Samuel Johnson observed that “no man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.” Since it’s immediately obvious that this book will never make The New York Times’ nonfiction best-seller list, Johnson’s view is not the underlying inspiration for it.
So why did I write it? One of my reasons is that it would inform, perhaps inspire, establish some history, and, I hope, entertain with some humor. I didn’t want to write the kind of book that once you put it down, you couldn’t bear to pick it up again!
We hope that laying out what amounts to a case history of what can be accomplished, starting from scratch, will not only be of interest to someone with an entrepreneurial bent, but might be an inspiration to anyone wishing to make the attempt to follow a dream. And from a purely academic point of view, I hope this book will be an explanation to the student of how an idea grew to become a major force in an entire industry.
It will inform our colleagues, present and future, on the basic tenet on which the organization was built and how it prospered: that dedicated service by people of excellence would be recognized in the marketplace. It should become obvious that teamwork of those sharing a mission is the basis of success of an organization formed of people with vision and integrity.
It has taken far more time than anticipated, more work than we thought possible, and has admittedly been a source of exasperation at times. So the question arises: would you start the effort again? And the answer is a resounding “Yes”! Memories were stirred, factors of success were revealed, and the underlying value of the project was very much reinforced.”
If you want to learn more about storytelling and perhaps use it more within your organization, attend the Story of Your Business and the Business of Your Story series, http://www.storytellingarts.org/134.html